Bob Dylan’s third album The Times They Are A-Changin’ is a work defined by its compassion, its all-but-buried hope and the cultural tumult that brought it about. Its ten songs amount to a bleak, spare, angst-ridden storm that follows the fall of a hard rain. On its Dorothea Lange-esque cover, a broken, squinting Dylan glares in black and white, his lips pursed, his _expression grave. There are a scant few uplifting moments to be had, most of them dashed away by an oppressive, often chill-inducing pessimism. The album protests and ponders, painting evocative at times apocalyptic stories of dying grass and exhausted wells, of social injustices that go unpunished, of empty bellies, emptier towns and of an uncertain future where the state of things is indeed a-changing. It’s no doubt a masterpiece, but one without the freewheelin’ accessibility of its predecessor.
The protest-staple “The Times They Are A-Changin’” invites a diverse group of listeners to admit the flux of history and possibility of revolution. There’s a call to action in the opening verse with its Biblical flood allusions, some warnings to establishment that there’s a vocal revolt against them and a sense that change is inevitable and on its way. Playful rhyming patterns, strums and picks characterize the other protest ballad “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” With scathing refrains, Dylan takes aim both at the man who murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the larger interests that benefit from a segregated south.
The second-person narrated “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” offers tragic lyrics about a multiple-murder suicide of a destitute, God-forsaken family. Children so hungry they don’t know how to smile, a crazy-eyed crying baby tugging at his sleeve, Hollis coldly ends his family’s suffering. The last lines of the song are perhaps the album’s most sinister: “There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm / Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born.” “North Country Blues” covers similar territory as a failing mining town gets passed by for cheaper foreign ore. The tone of both these songs recalls the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans or Arthur Rothstein, lonely images of dirt-smeared faces and a decrepit middle America.
While it can be and often has been viewed as another one of the album’s protest songs, “With God on Our Side” also presents an interesting philosophical question concerning the nature of the all-powerful. As God aligns himself in the song with violent American interests throughout a violent history, the penultimate verse ponders if Judas had God on his side when he betrayed Jesus. It’s a question not easily answered, something theologians and the free-willin’ wrestle with when trying to make sense of their faith and creator. The final lines of the song make a plea for peace and an end to conflict as the narrator concludes, “If God’s on our side He’ll stop the next war.”
“Boots of Spanish Leather” revisits the love-lost melody of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country.” While the latter is about a landlubber’s old true love, the former concerns a couple about to be distanced by the vast expanse of the ocean. Some time before the bittersweet trio of concluding verses, there’s a beautiful devotional moment as one lover says to the other, “If I had the stars from the darkest night / And the diamonds from the deepest ocean / I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss / For that’s all I’m wishing to be owning.”
Following the barbaric yet deceptively cheerful maritime invasion ditty “When the Ship Comes In” is “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The song concerns an infuriating miscarriage of justice as the rich William Zanzinger murders the title maid with a cane and gets off relatively unscathed. The biting, sardonic tone is punctuated by the ironic refrain, “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears / Take away the rag from your face / Now ain’t the time for tears.” Then again, these lines may be read as a call to action – to speak out rather than silently lament – rather than a form of mocking.
After Dylan’s melancholic nostalgia on “One Too Many Mornings” or his parting words on “Restless Farewell,” I’m left in a state of aporia. The album is devastating when taken in all at once and inevitably leaves the listener somber. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m weary as hell, but I don’t quite know what to do about it. It’s hard to explain, but I’m left chilled as others likely feel, drenched to the bone in a cold falling rain.
Similar albums/ Albums Influenced:
Woody Guthrie – Dust Bowl Ballads
Phil Ochs – All the News That’s Fit to Sing
Jesse Fuller – San Francisco Bay Blues