Bob Dylan – The Times They Are a-Changin’ | Lyrics Meaning Explained
The Bob Dylan music catalog is revered as one of the most iconic in the music industry ever. The young visionary spawned many timeless classics that have withstood the test of time both in lyrical substance and mass appeal over decades. One such song is “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” a song that touches a sweet spot between protesting for the changes mankind needs and also accepting that some things are just meant to be.
Bob Dylan wrote and recorded “The Times They Are a-Changin'” in September-October of 1963. Dylan first performed the song at a Carnegie Hall concert on October 26 that year. The song was later released as a single off his third studio album of the same name in 1964. This single followed up on Bob Dylan’s iconic track “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
The song has been covered numerous times by artists such as Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, Cher, Nina Simone, The Wanderers, Billy Joel, Tracy Chapman, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and many more. The song was also ranked at #59 on the 2018 edition of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time‘ list. It also reached #9 on The UK Singles Chart in 1965 and was never released as a single in the USA.
Bob Dylan himself called “The Times They Are a-Changin'” a song with purpose; “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. This is definitely a song with a purpose…I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” He did not elaborate on what the purpose was, to leave it for interpretation.
Instruments Played in “The Times They Are a-Changin'”
Bob Dylan himself plays the acoustic guitar and the harmonica in this song.
“The Times They Are a-Changin'” Song Type
This iconic Bob Dylan track is a folk song, often regarded as a ballad as well. The use of phrases such as “Come gather ’round people” references the Irish and Scottish ballads its language was inspired by, specifically by the two ballads “Come All Ye Bold Highway Men,” “Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens.” The “a” in the title and the lyrics of the song, emphasizes the word that follows, in this case, “change.”
“The Times They Are a-Changin'” Inspiration & Influence
Bob Dylan left this song open for interpretation. However, in 1985 Cameron Crowe, who wrote the liner notes for the ‘Biograph’ compilation album by Bob Dylan, says Dylan linked the song with “The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.”
During the same times of this song being recorded, The Vietnam War (1954-1975) was escalating. This war was a conflict between the communist North Vietnam versus South Vietnam and the USA. The Vietnam War is still dubbed as one of the costliest and futile wars in history; over 2 million civilians on both sides of Vietnam, around 250,000 Vietnam soldiers, and over 58,000 US military personnel paid their lives in this war. The pressures for changes in the US’s political stance in global affairs were rising.
On November 22, 1963, United States president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The next night Bob Dylan opened a concert with “The Times They Are a-Chanigin'” although he had doubts about the reception of the crowd would be. However, Dylan recalls how the night went “Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.”
Despite where the song drew its initial inspiration, it has a universal and timeless impact. If we look at the ‘protest’ element of the song, the world still needs societal participation in bringing much-needed changes into the world. On the other hand, ‘change’ is inevitable. Things that change for the better too shall pass at some point. On a grand scheme of things, ‘the inevitability of change is the only thing that does not change.’
One critic, by the name of Christopher Ricks, had the best summation of the universal appeal of the song; “the song transcends the political preoccupations of the time in which it was written.”
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Bob Dylan “The Times They Are a-Changin'” Lyrics Meaning and Song Review
To start off this anthem of change, Bob Dylan calls to all the people in the world, wherever they may be. Why are they being summoned by Dylan?
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
Although dubbed a ‘protest song,’ there is anything resembling a protest in these lyrics. Dylan simply invites people to look around them and realizes the changes that pass them through daily. People are asked to “admit” and “accept” the things that continue to change around them.
However, these nonchalant wordings, births a call-to-action. Does anybody really want to be drenched to the bone? Probably not. Then what should they do about it? Wait around and accept it as something inevitable? Or do something about it and make the change you want to see?!
If your time to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
When the waters rise around you, as suggested in the earlier lyrics, one needs to start swimming, or at least start to learn swimming. These lines indicate the need to adapt to changes around us. The world moves on, and there is not much we can do about it other than getting on with the times. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the world was becoming a better place — one that welcomed diversity. There was no more fighting this change that was sweeping across the world. If you still wanted to be a racist, you would drown in this new world that was being created around us. This was a change requested by the people to abolish systematic racial discrimination.
For the times, they are a-changin’
This lyric carries the entire premise of the song, which is about change. People, together, are powerful enough to usher in new change into this world. And when such changes come through everyone has to adapt and adjust. Ones who don’t, are likely to be a thing of the past.
This sentiment was valid centuries before this song was written, at the time it was written, today, and for centuries to come. This is why songs like “The Times They Are a-Changin'” have a timeless impact on people.
In the next part of the ballad, Bob Dylan calls to his peers.
Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again
Writings have paved the way for some of the biggest changes this world has seen. And these can be in the form of news, articles, books, speeches, songs, poems, and so on. Bob Dylan calls his peers to keep their eyes wide open and jot them down for the masses to see, too. If they or the people keep a blind eye to what is happening around them, the chances for changes may slip right through their fingers, and they might never 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’
However, Bob Dylan warns anyone who gets riled up by his words. There is a time and place for everything. The wheels of fate are continuously in motion, and we never know what it has in store for each of us. One article could be the stepping stone to changing the world. It could also be the one that gets you a jail sentence.
For the loser now will be later to win
Everything changes and everyone has their time. African Americans were oppressed and treated like dirt for years and years. By the time of this song, a wind of change was sweeping through. Their time had come (although we can still argue about it today). However, the gesture of this line remains relevant. The times keep on changing.
In the third part of this poem, Bob Dylan calls for the attention of the decision-makers of society.
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
Bob Dylan asks the politicians to not turn a blind eye towards the change that people are ushering in. The “standing in the doorway” line refers to the incident of the Alabama governor George Wallace stood at the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in a symbolic attempt to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling at the school in June 1963. Eventually, then-President John F. Kennedy had to intervene to resolve the situation. This was just months before Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
Dylan says that people who resist change will be the often first to wither away. People who also try to wait out the changes around them will one day wake up to find that they are not in with the times anymore. They will have a hard time surviving in the new climates.
From two Black children being prevented to enter school in 1963 to Barack Obama becoming the first African American president in the United States in 2009, the climates have changed massively. If this does not capture the essence of this song… Bob Dylan performed “The Times They Are a-Changin'” at the White House on February 10, 2010, during the first term of president Barack Obama.
In the fourth part of the song, Bob Dylan talks to all the mothers and fathers in the world. He tells them that their kids are going to bring about much-needed changes in the world, and he asks them not to stand in these youngsters’ way.
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Oftentimes, a generation or two is a big enough gap to create a disparity in ideas, thoughts, and actions among them. The older generations may be wiser and experienced. But the younger generations steer the fate of the world. And so far, the general direction of the world’s progress has been towards the better.
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
The roads (ways of life) that the older generations trodded may not have been the best even though they failed to see it at the time. The new roads are mostly better. Bob Dylan asks the parents to step away from these new roads that are being created if they cannot help.
In the last part of the song, Bob Dylan lets us know that the ‘curse’ has been cast and the line has been drawn. There is no going back.
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
Capturing the literal essence of the song title, Bob Dylan says that time just keeps on moving no matter what. Every millisecond we live and breathe will be a thing of the past a millisecond later. You are not the same person who was a second ago — a million cells in your body would have died and reproduced. Life is constant change.
Bob Dylan is referring to the ‘order’ of things in society that we perceived to be right at some point. Segregation was considered the norm at some point in time but people soon realized how wrong they were. What once was ‘order’ soon had to be deconstructed to create a new order. When enough people care, new and better orders will come to be. People can force the decision-makers to bring in new orders.
Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'” takes the listener through a journey. It gives perspective to the lives we live. Change is inevitable in life and this same change can be ushered in by the same people. This is the duality of life in a grand scheme of things. People will learn through mistakes — some less unpleasant than others. But people will change for the better given enough time. Just make sure you, too, change along with them for good.
Is this a protest song? Or is this a song about not protesting change? Whichever you think this song might be, it is one thing — versatile enough to be applied in many different landscapes.
Let us hear what you think about this masterpiece by Bob Dylan in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.