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Not Fade Away: Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” 50 Years Later

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look back at Bob Dylan‘s third album, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ as it hits the half-century mark. 

It’s fitting that we’re taking a look at Dylan’s folk classic just as Inside Llewyn Davis is reviving interest in the early ’60s folk scene. The Coen Brothers’ latest film takes place over one week in 1961 when New York’s folk movement was at its most robust; The Times They Are A-Changin’ was released in 1964, towards the end of Dylan’s folkie-era. The LP was released just a few months after The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, an album that had a seismic effect on folk and, later, rock music. But where Freewheelin‘ combined protest anthems (the title track and “Masters Of War”) with more humorous songs (“Talkin’ World War III Blues”) and epic breakup ballads (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”), The Times They Are A-Changin’ stuck mostly with the more serious politically-charged songs. In retrospect, maybe he was exhuming them, knowing he would soon move on from the protest-singer phase of his career. 

The title track picked up where Freewheelin‘s topical folk songs left off, and it make a similarly huge splash. Within a year, “The Times They Are A-Changin'” was covered by and up-and-coming duo Simon and Garfunkel as well as the folk-pop trio Peter, Paul and Mary; both groups used their sweet harmonies to take the song to audiences who weren’t quite ready for Dylan’s raspy and unconventional singing voice. The song would be covered, over the years, by a plethora of artists, including Richie Havens, Odetta, Nina Simone, Eddie Vedder, Billy Joel, Tracy Chapman, punk rocker Tim Armstrong, the Indigo Girls and Celtic rockers Flogging Molly. 

The entire album, which featured Dylan performing solo, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and harmonica, could have been recorded today. Or, if we’re lucky, someone could record something like it fifty years from now. It’s timelessness – and Dylan’s – have turned him on to generation after generation. Singer/mandolin player Kanene Pipkin from folk trio the Lone Bellow tells Radio.com that she grew up listening to his music, and later learned about him in school (the times certainly have a-changed!). “I remember hearing Dylan on the radio in my hometown in Virginia, and being fascinated by his delivery and conviction. My freshman year at William and Mary, I took a seminar called ‘American Pop Music of the 1960’s,’ and we listened to every Dylan record from the decade.  The tone of The Times They Are A-Changin’ stuck with me: the unwavering, straightforward voice of this man who embodied the frustration of an entire generation of Americans.”

It’s interesting how (unfortunately) timeless many of these songs are. The harrowing “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” tells of a hard working, God fearing father of five who sees no way out of his poverty stricken situation, and ultimately takes the darkest possible exit to escape their bleak circumstances. Ms. Pipkin notes how the song resonates in 2014: “I think this song still serves as a sobering challenge to anyone tempted to view poverty as merely a failure of someone’s personal responsibility.”  

“Only A Pawn In Their Game” describes, without metaphor, how the wealthy pit poor white and black people against each other. “A South politician preaches to the poor white man ‘You got more than the blacks, don’t complain. You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,’ they explain.” Whether or not you think that’s changed is a subject for the hosts on the 24-hour news networks to debate over. But it is sure, at the very least, to inspire debate. 

Perhaps most harrowing is “With God On Our Side,” in which Dylan sings, “One push of the button/And a shot the world wide/ And you never ask questions/When God’s on your side.” In the ’60s, the idea of being able to destroy the world with “one push of the button” was probably the scariest part of the song. These days, we’re used to that concept; “You never ask questions when God’s on your side” is more chilling in 2014.

And then there was “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll,” which took the old folk approach of writing about current events: in this case, it was inspired by Dylan’s reading about a violent and racially charged 1963 incident. Hattie Carroll, a 51 year old restaurant employee had been beaten by a 24-year old tobacco farmer named William Zantzinger (in the song, he was called “William Zanzinger”). Zantzinger was drunk and belligerent, and, according to reports, hit her with a cane; she died of a stroke the following day. Zantzinger got 6 months in jail for his crime. Although the accuracy of the facts in the song have long been debated, and the song never mentioned that Carroll was black, most listeners gathered that she was. The song is still relevant today, but during the Civil Rights era, it was taken as an(other) example of racial inequality. 

The album’s follow-up, 1964’s Another Side Of Bob Dylan, also had political songs (“Chimes Of Freedom”) but saw Dylan’s return toward lighter-hearted fare (“I Shall Be Free No. 10,” “Motorpsycho Nightmare”). And after that, of course, he “went electric,” leaving behind his folkie past (although occasionally returning to topical songs, notably on “Hurricane”). But Pipkin says the album deserves as much attention as any Dylan album before or since: “For me, this record is equally as important as its predecessor.  By this point in his career, Dylan knew what he meant to people, he knew what his audience wanted to say and what they wanted to hear. The songs feel intentional, created to bolster and explain a burgeoning cultural movement.”

She adds that it is also a reminder that a huge impact can be made from even the most stripped down arrangement: “A great song sung with great conviction will always be strong enough to inspire other musicians.”

Needless to say, he’s inspired many, and that influence continues through today. The Lone Bellow released their self-titled debut album in January of 2013, and there will surely be more new folk-inspired artists in the decades to come. Dylan’s influence transcends trends. As Pipkin says, “Dylan was fearless in his songwriting and performing.  He makes me want to make brave music.” 

Brian Ives, Radio.com 

 

 

 

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