Friday, November 22, 2013

The Times They Are a-Changin: Now Ain't the Time For Your Tears

Bob Dylan's third album, The Times They Are a-Changin, consists of ten songs of rapturous rage and resigned melancholy.  When reviewing the early Dylan LP's it's impossible not to address their historical contexts because they are so closely intertwined with the times in which they were written and recorded. On The Times They Are a-Changin' Dylan eschews compromise and facade in favor of weary determination and sincere, and at times, ominous moralizing guaranteed to rattle your walls.

The title track persists as a Declaration of Independence for the 60s generation. By employing lyrics with a simple force like on "Blowin' in the Wind", it promises change is coming. Today, the words border on cliche whenever they're referenced in pop culture with the inevitable images they conjure: make love, not war, hippies, protest, Vietnam.  The nature of history is an ongoing theme on the album as the song itself resembles Yeats' turning gyres of history with the line "don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin" marks the moment in time as filled with possibility.

On "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Dylan wrote a protest song with crescendos within crescendos.  Based on an actual incident, when one William Zanzinger, a wealthy heir to a wealthy Maryland family, drunkenly threw verbal and physical abuse on the mostly African-American staff at a banquet that resulted in the death of Hattie Carroll, a black maid he struck in the head with a toy cane.  Murder charges against Zanzinger were reduced to manslaughter and he served a six month sentence.  With each verse, Dylan compared the lives and differing fortunes of Carroll and Zanzinger in an incredibly powerful use of pathos.  No complicated message here: those with power and money behind them rarely, if ever, are held accountable.  I wonder how many lives were changed when they first heard "Hattie Carroll."

"Only A Pawn in Their Game" addressed the assassination of the civil rights leader, Medgar Evers.  Instead of condemning the assassin, Dylan exposed the Jim Crow system as a cynical method of social control designed to reinforce itself through generations. When Dylan performed the song at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival it left the crowd speechless. "When the Ship Comes In" envisions a new birth of freedom as a historical inevitability , but only after tragic struggle and sacrifice (protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention used the song's chorus "the whole world is watching" as a battle cry). 

"With God on Our Side" deconstructed the triumphant narrative of American history prevalent in school textbooks.  Each verse follows a nameless narrator who fought in every American war.  Hidden beneath the causes of all those wars are an ugliness history glosses over.  The sentiments may be a bit dated, because they were written at the height of the Cold War, but they are a reminder of how the victors tend to write the history.  Today I'd like to think most history classes the avoid the narratives of American Exceptionalism.  As a teaching tool "With God On Our Side" is an excellent way to begin a discussion on the meaning of American history.

Hidden among the serious "protest" songs are two melancholy ballads "One Too Many Mornings" and "Boots of Spanish Leather." Both were written about Suze Rotolo who left Dylan to study in Italy.  The line, "An the silent night will shatter from the sounds inside my mind,"  sums up the vibe running through the entire record.

The closing song, "Restless Farewell," ends things on a deeply personal note  Final tracks on Dylan albums sometimes foreshadow what's coming next.  By ending the album with a confessional, Dylan made a jarring shift in tone from the topical jeremiads to a song written in the throes of exhaustion and uncertainty.  Dylan pledges to "remain as I am/And bid farewell and not give a damn." For it would be a decade before Dylan returned to writing topical songs.

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