"Those songs were all written in the New York atmosphere. I'd never have written any of them - or sung them the way I did - if I hadn't been sitting around listening to performers in New York cafes and the talk in all the dingy parlours. When I got to New York it was obvious that something was going on - folk music - and I did my best to learn and play it. I was just there at the right time with pen in hand. I suppose there was some ambition in what I did. But I tried to make the songs genuine." "Bob Dylan - In His Own Words"
1963 was the year that saw Bob Dylan come to prominence as a writer, performer and recording artist, but it was also the year in which he recorded the album that would, more than any other in his entire catalogue, tie the label of protest singer around his neck. The majority of the tracks on "Times" are certainly social commentaries or protest songs, but the outstanding thing about the album is the strength of the writing in these and the couple of beautiful love ballads that Dylan included. Sadly, partly because of the sombre nature of the material, "Times" does not have the relevance today that it had when it was released in February 1964, but that said, many of the songs have become Dylan classics and are still performed in concert more than forty years later. Dylan had performed two live concerts in New York in 1963, the first at the Town Hall in April and the second at Carnegie Hall six months later, and CBS had intended to combine these two and put out a live album, but that idea was mothballed. In between these two events Dylan performed at a civil rights rally in Greenwood (the New York Times of July 7th referred to him as Bobby Dillon), the Newport Folk Festival, the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium with Joan Baez and guested with Baez at the Lincoln Memorial (the Washington Rights March). He also recorded his third album (all except the final track but more of that later), an album that was built around songs that were in the main based on actual events, a mood that was so well captured in Barry Feinstein's stark, monochrome cover photograph. "Times" is not an easy album to listen to today, there is little or no respite from Dylan's gloomy, morose view of the world, but it is an important part of his musical development, and Paul Williams is probably right when he says "...the whole album is about emptiness, the emptiness that haunted Dylan's inner world and his experience of the outer world at this time."
By the time Dylan went into the studio to record what would be the title track and the opening song on his third album, he obviously had a focus on the album that he had in mind. Half of it was already complete, and he needed a powerful song to set the tone - "The Times They Are A-Changin" proved to be such a song. "I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way." he said in 1985. He succeeded, it was to become an anthem of the sixties. The opening lines of the song "Come gather round people/Wherever you roam" are a rallying cry to senators, teachers, writers and parents among others to take heed of changing attitudes and to accept new ideas, or as Dylan himself was to say later "...to separate aliveness from deadness." The images that he used were powerful and unrelenting, from the apocalyptic flood or storm to the spinning wheel of fate, but the most pertinent for the youth of the day was the warning to parents "Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command/Your old road/Is rapidly agin'." The economy of language that Dylan employs in the final verse is masterful, and the menace of the opening couplet "The line it is drawn/The curse it is cast" is enhanced by his description of the changing of the established order "As the present now/Will later be past/The order is/Rapidly fadin'."Times" is an important song in Dylan's body of work and was seen by many as an indication of the non-communication between generations, while Dylan himself commented on it's broader meaning by saying "It had nothing to do with age" and "I can't really say that adults don't understand young people any more than you can say that big fishes don't understand little fishes." The relevance of the song became more evident a month after Dylan recorded it - Kennedy's assassination hit him hard and he began to open his concerts with it (virtually all of Dylan's 1964 solo concerts begin with "The Times They Are A-Changin") "I had to sing it," he told Anthony Scaduto "my whole concert takes off from there." Times were indeed changing, and this song would become an important part of Dylan's stage repertoire and one of his most recognisable anthems.
Dylan's ability to tell a story in the folk tradition is perfectly illustrated in "Ballad Of Hollis Brown," the bleak tale of a rural farmer beaten down by adversity. The feelings of hopelessness and despair that pervade the song almost turn it into a Shakespearian tragedy as Brown with a wife and five children to support "...looked for work and money" and "...walked a rugged mile." He is forced to endure every manner of domestic disaster from a sick horse and rats in the flour to blackened grass and a dry well, while "Your wife's screams are stabbin' you/Like the dirty drivin' rain" (Dylan relates much of the story to Brown himself). Eventually there is only one escape as he takes his shotgun from the wall and we witness the grim inevitability of "Seven shots ring out/Like the ocean's pounding roar." Dylan ends the song on an interesting note with the ambiguous "Somewhere in the distance/There's seven new people born." Are they the hope for the future, or are they destined to suffer the same fate? "The Ballad Of Hollis Brown," is a grim song with limited audience appeal - why Dylan chose to perform it in front of an estimated television audience of two billion people at 1985's Live Aid is anybody's guess. The fact that he had spent the afternoon in the company of those two models of sobriety Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards may have influenced his decision, but that performance remains one of the low points of his career.
Robert Shelton (Dylan's biographer) sees parallels between "With God On Our Side" and Dylan's later writing on "Slow Train Coming" but this is a far more simplistic song, listing as it does the various American conflicts from the earliest Indian wars through to the cold war and beyond. The song is both thought-provoking and naive at the same time, but it is too long and has a tendency toward monotony as the point is made early and repeated too often. It is interesting to note that in later performances that Dylan would omit the reference to the holocaust for more politically correct times, but for me the best verse is the penultimate one with the lines "Now I can't think for you/You have to decide/Whether Judas Iscariot/Had God on his side" which tends to render the final verse unnecessary. The song was certainly a popular one in Dylan's repertoire at the time, before recording the official album version on August 7th 1963, he performed it three times at that year's Newport Folk Festival - a duet with Joan Baez at the afternoon workshop on July 26th, a solo performance that evening and with Baez again during her evening set two days later! It became something of a regular for Dylan/Baez duets, and one of the many times they performed it was at the Lincoln Memorial late in August during the March On Washington. British group Manfred Mann also recorded a successful version of this song; strange material for the mid-sixties pop charts until one remembers the political climate of the time. At his Isle Of Wight appearance some six years later, Dylan acknowledged this by referring to them as "...a great group."
"One Too Many Mornings" is one of two songs on the album (the other is the wonderful "Boots Of Spanish Leather") probably inspired by the breakdown of Dylan's love affair with Suze Rotolo. This haunting, brooding, intense song is often seen as one of the minor pieces here but is actually one of Dylan's most enduring works. "Down the street the dogs are barkin'/And the day is a-gettin' dark" observes our weary narrator as he realises that he is "...one too many mornings/And a thousand miles behind" in this relationship. The mood is emphasised with the lines "As I turn my head back to the room/Where my love and I have laid" and the "...restless, hungry feeling" that he is experiencing is made worse by the fact that "...everythin' that I'm sayin'/You could say it just as good" and the inevitability of a situation where two people can never share the same point of view "You're right from your side/I'm right from mine" and who will always be "One too many mornings/And a thousand miles behind." Like many of the songs on this album, "One Too Many Mornings" was destined to become a Dylan classic and it would see many different incarnations over the years. It was one of the few Dylan compositions that were taped for the aborted Dylan/Cash Nashville collaboration, but more significantly it was an integral part of the electric half of the controversial 1966 concerts - compare the original version here to that on the "Live 1966" album.
Dylan uses "North Country Blues" to depict the death of a mining community as seen through the eyes of one family of that community (or to be more specific the wife/mother of that family). The tale is told as a straightforward ballad and lacks the passion that is used to relate the fates of Hollis Brown, Hattie Carroll or even Medgar Evers. She tells us of the "...cardboard filled windows/And old men on the benches" of this ghost town that was once a thriving iron town, of losing her mother in "...the wee hours of youth" and of how the mine took both her father and her brother. We learn of how, after many prosperous years and three children "The work was cut down/To half a day's shift with no reason" and the eventual closing of the shaft for purely economic reasons "...it's much cheaper down/In the South American towns/Where the miners work almost for nothing." The description of the husband's reaction to his enforced idleness "I lived by the window/As he talked to himself" is as bleak as it is poignant, until she is "...left alone with three children," and the bitterness in the final verse is almost tangible "My children will go/As soon as they grow/Well, there ain't nothing here now to hold them." Although hardly cheerful listening "North country Blues" is very much in keeping with the theme of this album and typifies the way Dylan was writing at this time, but this is one of the few songs on this album that was not in his live repertoire. In fact, "North Country Blues" would not be performed live until a decade later at the infamous Friends of Chile benefit concert in May 1974.
"Only A Pawn In Their Game" deals with the 1963 murder (assassination) of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Others, including Phil Ochs had written about Evers' death, but Dylan's song was the strongest and became an important part of the civil rights movement of the time. As with the albums other fact based songs, Dylan displays an amount of social awareness that is remarkable in a twenty-two year old. He uses the song to reflect the hypocrisy of the political right, "A South politician preaches to the poor white man/You got more than the blacks, don't complain" he sings as he describes how easily the gullible can be manipulated, "But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool." Early in July, Dylan was invited to perform at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi along with Theodore Bikel and Pete Seeger where he performed "Pawn." The surviving film clip shows an incredibly young and seemingly nervous Dylan, looking very much like he does on the album cover. He also performed the song late in August at The Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech. According to early biographer Anthony Scaduto, Dylan looked towards the capitol and asked himself "Think they're listening?" before answering his own question "No, they ain't listening at all." White supremacist Byron de la Beckwith was eventually convicted of Medgar Evers murder in 1994 (there had been two unsuccessful attempts at a conviction in the sixties) and was given a life sentence. He died in prison in 2001. "You can kill a man but you can't kill an idea." - Medgar Evers (02/07/25-12/06/63)
The mood changes with the beautiful "Boots Of Spanish Leather," a piece that perfectly illustrates Dylan's ability to write a song that exposes his own vulnerability. As with the earlier "Girl From The North Country" this song tells of an ex lover, but there is a cynicism here that is lacking in the earlier piece. "Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled/From across that lonesome ocean" is the message he gives her as she sets sail to Europe and her repeated offers of a gift on her return are met with similar response "...if I had the stars from the darkest night/Or 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." Eventually, it becomes clear that time and distance have cooled her ardour and she may only return if the whim takes her "It depends on how I'm a-feeling" and he is left to wish her well "...take heed of the western wind/Take heed of stormy weather," as he wryly decides to take up her offer "And yes, there's something you can send back to me/Spanish boots of Spanish leather." A tender and emotional song that is oddly out of place in the largely doom laden lyrics of the rest of the album.
Having said that, "When The Ship Comes In" is a more joyful song that offers some hope of redemption, although it opens with the sinister "Oh, the time will come up/When the winds will stop/And the breeze will cease to be breathin'." There is much to admire in the writing here from the nautical imagery of "Oh the fishes will laugh/As they swim out of the path/And the seagulls they'll be smiling" to such wonderful metaphors as "And the sun will respect/Every face on the deck/The hour that the ship comes in." The song is a paradox in that it predicts an apocalypse but does so in a joyous and celebratory manner, and is based in part on Bertold Brecht's "Pirate Jenny." According to Joan Baez, Dylan wrote it in one night as a response to some indifferent treatment he had received by the staff of a hotel where Baez was staying during a concert tour, "He wrote it that night" she said, "...took him exactly one evening to write it...I couldn't believe it, to get back at those idiots so fast." Dylan was possibly still smarting from the incident when he gave his Carnegie Hall performance on October 26th, he closed with "When The Ship Comes In" but not before giving his audience a curious lecture on old and new Goliaths, the exact relevance of which remains a mystery.
"The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" is possibly the strongest and most moving song on the entire album. Inspired by an actual incident (although Dylan spells the name Zanzinger instead of the correct Zantzinger) it relates the story of the killing of an elderly black waitress by a young Baltimore socialite and the subsequent judicial slap on the wrist that he received for the crime. "William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll" is the blunt opening to the song which is followed by a description of Zantzinger's arrest, but this is not the real crime says Dylan, for "...now ain't the time for your tears." The two succeeding verses depict in masterly fashion the differences between these two people, Zantzinger rich, young and privileged who "Reacted to his deed with a shrug of the shoulder" and Hattie Carroll elderly, black (Dylan never says this, we assume it) and weary from work and childbirth who after all had "...never done nothing to William Zanzinger." The fourth verse deals with the trial and Dylan is at great pains to paint a picture of impartiality and "To show that all's fair and that the courts are on the level" and that the "...ladder of law has no top and no bottom" and to show the gravity of the situation as the judge "...handed out strongly for penalty and repentance." The irony of all this of course was that Zantzinger was given a six month sentence, and as Dylan says at the end of the song "Bury the rag deep in your face/For now's the time for your tears." Dylan performed the song live on the Steve Allen show in February 1964 and Allen tried to find out what, if anything Dylan had changed but he (Dylan) would not be drawn. Zantzinger, who became the first white man in the state of Maryland to be charged with the murder of a black woman, still lives in that state, and it is probably safe to assume that he does not own many of Dylan's records. "I should have sued him and put him in jail" was his alleged response to the song.
The "Times" sessions were, to all intents and purposes, wrapped up on October 24th, two days before the Carnegie Hall concert. It was at this session that Dylan recorded the title track and "One Too Many Mornings." Several other tracks that did not make the album (notably "Eternal Circle," "Percy's Song" and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune") were taped at this session. Dylan however felt obliged to return to the studio to record a newly written song "Restless Farewell" which became the album's closing track. His decision was largely influenced by a Newsweek article that caused him considerable embarrassment. The journalist who wrote the article was one Andrea Svedberg who had been promised an interview with Dylan but became frustrated by his lack of co-operation and turned her piece into a hatchet job. She poured scorn on Dylan's carefully mythologised background and exposed him as the product of a wealthy middle-class Jewish background. Far from being separated from his parents ("They don't know me. I've lost contact with them for years") he had sent them tickets for the Carnegie Hall concert and paid their fare to New York. Potentially more damaging was the suggestion that he had not written "Blowing In The Wind" but had bought the song from a high school student named Lorre Wyatt - this rumour, although totally discredited, continued to dog Dylan for many years. The timing of course could not have been worse and he was understandably furious - this incident could go some way to explaining Dylan's notoriously prickly attitude to the media in general, "I'm sticking to my friends from here on in," he told Robert Shelton. The song however sees Dylan uncharacteristically attempt to justify his actions in terms of his various relationships and ideologies. He begins with a drinking session that leaves us in no doubt as to his intentions "So I'll bid farewell and be down the road" and then muses on diverse love affairs and causes that he has supported with the realization that everyone is responsible for his own actions "But the dark does die/As the curtain is drawn and somebody's eyes/Must meet the dawn." Time and truth are two themes that are examined in the final verse with the wonderfully reflective "Oh a false clock tries to tick out my life" and he talks about the "...dirt of gossip" and the "...dust of rumours" but ultimately if the arrow of truth is straight and true it can "...pierce through dust no matter how thick." He ends by throwing down the metaphorical gauntlet "And bid farewell and not give a damn" and tells us that he has no regrets. It is a powerful song and the performance is restrained and reflective, and even if it is not an out and out classic, it is a great way to close out the album.
Although not an easy album to listen to by today's standards, the importance of "The Times They Are A'Changin'" in Bob Dylan's catalogue cannot be overstated. There can be no disputing the strength of the writing, be it in the social commentaries, the tender love ballads or the final reflective track, Dylan demonstrated his proficiency at turning his thoughts, ideas and opinions into song. Reaction to the album was less than enthusiastic, Little Sandy Review referred to it as "...45 minutes of gloom" and spoke of its "...spiritual masochism," while High Fidelity said "Dylan will not entertain you...But he will sear your soul." Tim Riley in Hard Rain described it as "...frustration with form," and said that Dylan "...sings to his lovers less as though they have disappointed him than as though he has disappointed himself," but none of these would have bothered him as much as the article in Newsweek. Time has proved however that Svedberg's piece did little to harm Dylan. By the time that the album was released in February 1964, that was old news and he had moved on. The Carnegie Hall concert had been a great success and proved how much Dylan had matured as an artist since the Town Hall concert six months earlier. The only pity was that several of the songs that were performed at the latter concert did not make the album, perhaps because of their planned inclusion in the aborted live album. The studio version of "Seven Curses" was eventually given official release on 1991's "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3" as were the studio versions of "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" and "Percy's Song" on 1985's "Biograph." The live version of the latter from Carnegie Hall is superior, if a little lengthy. Practically every song on "The Times They are A'Changin" has become a Dylan classic, and many are still being performed live today, although in vastly different arrangements. "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" was perhaps a strange inclusion in the second half of 1975's Rolling Thunder tour (on one occasion Dylan dedicated it to Arthur Rimbaud!) but it gives some indication of the flexibility of these songs. All things considered, "Times" probably achieved what Dylan set out to achieve and it remains one of his most emblematic albums. With the slight hiccup of his next album ("Another Side of Bob Dylan") he would soon be the most important contemporary artist of the entire decade.