The Times They are A-Changin'
by Bob Dylan
We know Bob Dylan agreed not to play certain songs during his recent gigs in China, but not which ones. The Times They are A-Changin' was widely assumed to head the list, but as it happens Dylan hasn't played it for about two years anyway.
It isn't surprising, though, that people who lost track of Dylan in the 1960s assume it must be a staple of every concert. In 1964 it was his regular set opener, and it caught the optimistic spirit of the times perfectly. However, several of the songs on this, his third album, explored the darker side of America in the 60s with bitter pessimism.
The Times They are A-Changin' was Dylan's first LP to feature all original material, although he wrote almost everything on 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. That album featured three of his greatest 'protest songs' in Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, and the title track of the follow-up was another anthem like Blowin' In The Wind. The rest of the social commentary songs are not rallying cries but bitter reflections on injustice, which offer little hope of the change trumpeted in the title track.
With God on Our Side sees no sense and no end to war, and Only a Pawn in Their Game - about the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers - presents racial bigotry as perpetually self sustaining. The Ballad of Hollis Brown recounts the despair of a South Dakota farmer who kills his family and himself because he sees no escape from the miserable poverty in which they live.
Two of Dylan's finest love songs are also here in One Too Many Mornings and Boots of Spanish Leather, but both deal with the irrevocable breakdown of a relationship.
But the album's masterpiece without a doubt is The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol, like Hollis Brown a true and then current story powerfully told with a modicum of poetic licence. With dispassionate economy of words, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol presents the bare facts of the murder of a black servant - her colour is never mentioned but never in doubt - by a wealthy white man for which he receives a jail sentence of only six months. The sense of outrage behind the lyric is all the more powerful for Dylan's deadpan lyric.
The Times They are A-Changin' marks Dylan's peak as a 'protest singer'. He never entirely abandoned songs of social commentary, but they would never again dominate a Dylan album the way they do here.
To many of the people who admired these stark lyrics, the exploration of more personal concerns on Another Side of Bob Dylan later the same year was a betrayal - one soon compounded by his adoption of electric instruments and move into rock.
On The Times They are A-Changin', however, he is frozen forever as what they feel he should have remained: the voice of a generation offering, in Harlan Howard's definition of the country music which Dylan would also be playing within four years, 'three chords and the truth'. Nobody could have told it better.