Dylan poses illustrate the album The Times They Are a-Changin’.

In 1964 I was sixteen. I bought a black rollneck sweater and a pair of Cuban heeled boots from Anello & Davide in Coven Garden. I read The Outsider (L’Étranger) by Albert Camus. I learned how to talk with a cigarette balanced in the corner of my mouth and heard The Times They Are A-Changin’ for the first time. 

Dylan illustrates his song The Times They Are a-Changin’The American military in ‘64 was dropping napalm on Vietnam. More than 800 students at the University of California were arrested after storming the administration building and staging a sit in. Martin Luther King Jr got the Nobel Peace Prize. People were smoking pot and growing their hair. The Times They Are a-Changin’ was a seed lying dormant waiting to spring into life.

Dylan wrote the song in September/October 1963. President John F Kennedy was shot dead a month later on 22 November. It made The Times They Are A-Changin’ seem prescient and the shooting of Martin Luther King in ’68 almost inevitable.

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
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Dylan wanted to capture zeitgeist, record it, set down a marker. ‘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 wrote in the liner notes to the Biography album in 1985.

The moment The Times They Are A-Changin’ hit the radio waves it became a call to arms to the young who wanted to see an end to war and a more peaceful equitable world. Flower Power. Peace & Love. The civil rights movement had found its anthem. ‘This is definitely a song with a purpose,’ Dylan wrote. ‘I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.’ 

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’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

When Dylan performed Blowin’ in the Wind for the first time at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1962, he told the audience, ‘This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs.’ He then proceeded to sing what is one of the greatest protest songs of all time. And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

Dylan didn’t like being called the voice of a generation. But maybe he did. Why else would he have nudged the millions in their bedsits awake and written The Times They Are A-Changin’.

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’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

The song was influenced by the Irish/Scottish ballads Come All Ye Bold Highway Men and Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens. A touch of plagiarism? Not at all. Folk music is what it says it is, music of the people. You reach out and grab bits from the air, from the past, and renew it for the now – an aesthetic echo, as Marcel Duchamp put it. The a- in the song title is an old English prefix, as in the songs A-Hunting We Will Go and Here We Come a-Wassailing.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ was the title track of the 1964 album of the same name. My mum had a good ear and was more intuitive than I probably thought at the time. She bought it for me at Christmas.

Bob Dylan on acoustic guitar sings The Times They Are A-Changin’ –

Do you remember when you heard The Times They Are A-Changin’ for the first time? Share your memory in the comment box below. 

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