CK Retro Review: The Times They Are A-Changin’Posted: May 17, 2013
Those looking for reasons why Bob Dylan pretty much left behind the protest song genre early in his career may be overlooking the obvious: He pretty much perfected the style on his 1964 album The Times They Are-A Changin’. The album often gets downgraded in Bob’s catalog as being too much of an unremitting downer, yet many of the songs contained are considered Dylan evergreens. Here is a track-by-track review.
10. “North Country Blues”- Dylan knew well about the iron mines from growing up in an area known for them. To tell the overarching story, he concocts a personal tale of a woman who essentially loses her whole family because of the mines’ danger and decline. It’s bleak but effective.
9. “Only A Pawn In Their Game”- You can fault the song if you wish for its listless music. But it’s hard to find fault with Dylan’s fearlessness in essentially pardoning the murderer of Civil Rights pioneer Medgar Evers. Instead, Dylan fingers a system that would brainwash an ignorant, poverty-stricken white man into thinking that the reason for all his problems is racial integration.
8. “Restless Farewell”- Dylan famously sang this song at a tribute for Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday in 1996, and the song has a little “My Way” in it in the way it unapologetically recalls a life spent. Bob was already eschewing nostalgia and perhaps signalling by this closing track the turn his career was about to take away from all that he had built with the protest material. It’s a lovely song that gets overlooked in his vast catalog.
7. “With God On Our Side”- Bob probably could have made his point without mentioning practically every war in history, but that’s nitpicking. The song keeps building and building, piling up example after example of how the inhumanity of war is rationalized away in the name of God. By the time he gets around to the what-if about Judas having God on his side, it’s hard to conjure up any argument against his position.
6. “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”- Dylan fleshes out this story of the insidious effects of poverty so well that one could easily believe that Hollis Brown was just as real as Medgar Evers or Hattie Carroll. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, only more tunnel, so that when Brown finally does the unthinkable and wipes out his family and himself, it seems almost like mercy. This is pretty harrowing stuff, but it’s extremely well-done nonetheless.
5. “One Too Many Mornings”- The acoustic guitar is plucked so softly and the harmonica played with such delicacy here that it’s as if the narrator is afraid that anything louder will cause him to plummet into the figurative gaping pit above which he’s teetering. His “restless, hungry feeling” is caused by the departure of his former lover, and the loneliness is exacerbated by the sights and sounds in the twilight around him. Without giving away any details of the estrangement, this poor sap tells us everything we need to know about a romance that missed by inches and miles.
4. “When The Ship Comes In”- Pissed off at a rude hotel clerk and inspired by Brecht and Weill’s revenge fantasy “Pirate Jenny,” Dylan created this endlessly clever metaphor for a time when the righteous will thrive and their enemies will suffer the consequences. This song wouldn’t have sounded too out of place during Bob’s so-called Born Again period in the late 70’s. The difference is that “When The Ship Comes In,” with its sunny melody and focus on the ship’s positive effect, sounds more triumphant than accusatory.
3. “The Times They Are A-Changin'”- Too many people see this monumental achievement of a song as a knock on the older generation, probably because of Dylan’s youth at the time of his composition. Yet the overall effect of the lyrics is inclusive, as Bob asks all of the different groups of people to heed the change. The brilliant stroke is the way that the song remains forever in the present tense, so that it stays eternally relevant. The transformation it promises is always underway but never complete.
2. “Boots Of Spanish Leather”- As ingenious as it is heartbreaking, this slow song begins as a series of letters sent back and forth between lovers separated by distance until the letters stop coming one way, a development that reveals that the pair will henceforth be separated by much more. Dylan uses the same melody as “Girl From The North Country” and delivers a bereft and wounded vocal. It may take a few listens to intuit just who is writing what to whom, but once you get there, you can understand why this is one of Dylan’s all-time great weepers.
1. “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”- Only those who were there know for sure what went down between Maryland tobacco heir William Zantzinger and kitchen maid Hattie Carroll that resulted in her death, but, thanks to Dylan’s stunning song, Zantzinger was forever after doomed to infamy. Anyway, the actual act isn’t what Dylan is putting on trial; it’s what he felt was a justice system that was far from “on the level.” This is a magnificent example of Dylan’s gifts as a rhetorician and poet; one wonders if Zantzinger would have got off so light had Bob been prosecuting.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Dylan, check out my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs. The link for pre-orders is below.)