51 Years Ago: Bob Dylan Comes Into His Own With ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’
If Bob Dylan’s second album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,’ hadn’t done enough to earn him the tag of the voice of his generation, the follow-up solidified it. Released on Jan. 13, 1964, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ was the sound of the legendary singer-songwriter coming into his own.
Already the darling of the folk scene for ‘Freewheelin’ protest songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘Masters of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ Dylan delivered a fresh new batch on his third album. Once again recording with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica, he upped the ante, especially on the anthemic title track, which remains a rallying cry for each new generation looking to define itself. Meanwhile, ‘With God on Our Side’ questioned the moral justifications given for wars throughout the ages.
Dylan’s continuing commitment to the civil-rights movement was manifested in ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ but both took a new approach, focusing the outrage on the disease — the entrenchment of racism in society — rather than the symptoms. In the former, it wasn’t enough that a drunken rich white man killed a hardworking African-American woman for no reason; he was also given only a six-month jail sentence for his crime.
In the latter song, he dares to show empathy toward the killer of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers by acknowledging that his actions were the natural conclusion of a power structure designed to keep him down: “He’s taught in his school / From the start by the rule / That the laws are with him / To protect his white skin / To keep up his hate / So he never thinks straight / ’Bout the shape that he’s in / But it ain’t him to blame / He’s only a pawn in their game.”
But it wasn’t all political material. ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and ‘One Too Many Mornings’ are among Dylan’s most poignant and frequently covered ballads. When sung with the Band on his infamous 1966 tour, ‘Mornings’ took on a new meaning. Rather than a regretful tune about the end of a relationship, Dylan appeared to be singing it to his audience, which couldn’t accept his decision to go electric: “You’re right from your side / And I’m right from mine / We’re both just one too many mornings / And a thousand miles behind.”
Although the songs on the album showed a natural progression of growth from his previous efforts, the cover artwork for ’Times’ was a noticeable departure from the previous two. Gone was the boyishly cherubic face of the debut and the idealistic romantic of ‘Freewheelin’,’ replaced by a Woody Guthrie-esque black-and-white photo of a serious-looking Dylan with his eyes cast downward.
If there’s anything ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ lacked from its predecessor, it was a lack of lightness. The absurdist talking blues tracks that added levity to Dylan’s earlier social commentary were nowhere to be found. Still, it didn’t stop the album from reaching No. 20 on the chart, Dylan’s highest-charting record at the time.
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