Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" turns 50: How much has actually changed?

Categories: Bob Dylan
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Fifty years ago this week, Bob Dylan released what many view as the most overtly political album of his legendary career, The Times They Are A-Changin'. Although The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan -- released a scant seven months prior -- contained quite a few turbulent anthems of protest and dissent ("Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" chief among them), a 22-year-old Dylan approached his third album inspired to speak out acerbically after performing the previous August at the March on Washington shortly before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

There was historic social and political upheaval taking place in the United States at the time, and the defiant songs Dylan released on The Times They Are A-Changin' gave a poetic, assured voice to those important issues and concerns -- none more so than the legendary title track itself. And now, 50 years later, the bold, determined lyrics of Dylan's iconic anthem ring as true today as they did back then. Here's a look back at one of the greatest protest songs in music history and why it still resonates.

"Come gather 'round, people, wherever you roam"

Dylan sings invitingly in the song's first verse, but this isn't a docile request to settle in to the smoke-filled coffee shops of the Greenwich Village folk scene that he sprang out of. This serves instead as a call to arms to all of those unaware to wake up and see that the world is quickly changing around you, and it will pass you by if you let it.

There is no way that Dylan could have foreseen the global warming crisis, for example. But his following words can now be seen in a whole new light as the polar ice caps melt and water levels rise around the world:

"Admit that the waters around you have grown/ And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone/ If your time to you is worth savin'/ Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone..."

These catastrophic themes have been routinely touched on in pop music since then, especially following disasters of one kind or another, prompting a band like Tool -- as stylistically different from Dylan as can be -- to update Bob's words of warning in their song "├ćnema," as Maynard Keenan instructs modern-day Californians to "learn to swim" in Arizona Bay as California tragically sinks into the Pacific Ocean.

You would hope that with 50 years passing after the release of the song, things would have changed more than they actually have. But given the recent political stalemate and shutdown in Congress and throughout much of Washington, some of Dylan's lyrics take on a prescient quality, while also bringing to light the continued ineffectuality of our government:

"Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call/ Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall/ For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled/ There's a battle outside and it is ragin'."

While our political system in this country continues to provide us with enough reprehensible acts to rightfully spur us on to outrage while demanding change, this plugged-in but disconnected American society remains focused on saccharine, benign topics that are easier to stomach than corruption, bailouts, and the Great Recession. That battle that Dylan spoke of isn't raging as fiercely anymore, certainly not enough to shake any substantial windows or rattle any significant walls. For the first time in our nation's history, a majority of the members of Congress are millionaires, and they won't be fighting for changes anytime soon -- they like things just how they are, thank you very much.

This type of predicament would typically be great fodder for artists of all stripes, who could turn these sobering statistics into great works of art that would rally the disenfranchised and effect real change. But alas, most pop stars these days shy away from writing protest songs entirely (if they even write their own material at all), so we need to turn back to a time when musicians gave voice to the struggles of society through their songs, and motivated those who were dissatisfied to rise up and demand change.

This is why Dylan's early protest songs remain so important and vital, simply because very few artists dare to attempt to write revolutionary material anymore, and sadly the provocative, subversive words that Dylan wrote in the '60s resonate just as loudly today as they did back then.

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2 comments
Paul Gerold
Paul Gerold

Bob Dylan went corporate long before half of the readers here were even born.

Tom Stein
Tom Stein

The more some things change, the more others remain the same.

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