Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" turns 50: How much has actually changed?
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 "Ænema," 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.
The youth of today should be as irate as anyone, with college tuition costs at record highs, while the jobs that await them following graduation don't pay nearly enough to keep up with their towering student loan debts. We are now two generations removed from the era when Dylan wrote "The Times They Are A-Changin'," but he continues to give a voice to the frustrated youth of any age or epoch with his words that still carry a disaffected sting:
"Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/ And don't criticize what you can't understand/ Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/ Your old road is rapidly agin'."
Adults can sympathize and empathize with the youth of today all they want, but the fight is ultimately up to the kids. While the advantages and advancements of our modern society have perhaps crafted a world that is changing at a rate faster than at any point in our history, that hasn't necessarily improved the quality of life from one generation to the next, and the youth of today need so much more than a 50-year-old protest song to help them find their way in the world. But the song is there for them if they want or need it, like a beacon guiding them through the fog and uncertainty of adolescence.
The present that Dylan knew would quickly become the past has indeed faded from memory, replaced by new concerns and updated issues of the day. But sadly, the order that was "rapidly fading" has continued to hold sway, the loser hasn't gone on to win, and those who were in first back then still seem to be found at the front of the line. Things haven't changed in as substantial a way as Dylan was suggesting, and we seem to be repeating some of the mistakes that he warned against.
Could that be the fault of the media, with their diaphanous focus on soundbites, easily digestible headlines, relentlessly partisan politics, and over-the-top celebrity adulation -- while ignoring the news that truly matters and shirking the responsibility of educating the populace while leading the world in a different direction?
"Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen/And keep your eyes wide the chance won't come again/And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin/And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'."
The wheel is indeed still in spin, Bob, and hopefully these winds of change that you gave voice to 50 years ago will eventually lead us forward instead of back. But in reality, no pop song is ever going to lead directly to a revolution, though Dylan's come close. So celebrate with me the 50th anniversary of an American classic, and listen to one of the best protest songs of all time through new ears, while knowing that the change Dylan sings about is still a work in progress, and perhaps always will be.
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