Then came the protest album. If The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan gave listeners just a taste of the politically charged Dylan, Times was its stark, full-blown activist aftermath.
Opening with the timeless title track, Times is one of the most somber and personal albums Dylan has ever recorded. Just look at what was happening in the world during its recording. The assassination of President Kennedy left the country in shock, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his memorable “I Have A Dream” speech helping to bring the civil right’s movement to the forefront, the military beginning its long road in Vietnam, and the space race was underway. It’s safe to say the country was in a state of flux. For Dylan, however, the order was “rapidly fadin.’”
Unlike Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A-Changin’ was a true solo project, one of the more intimate recordings of his career. Dylan wrote all the music and lyrics, played all the instruments (which was nothing more than an acoustic guitar and the occasional harmonica).
Lyrically Dylan meanders between dismal tales of an unlucky South Dakota farmer slaying his family with a shotgun (“Ballad of Hollis Brown”), the assassination of a civil right’s pioneer Medgar Evers (“Only A Pawn In Their Game”), and a straight from the newspaper, racially charged murder of a 51-year-old black woman (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”).
With “Hattie Carroll” Dylan even manages to build a level of suspense (more effective during the song’s heyday when few people knew about the slaying) as Dylan’s vocals and the rhythm of song ascends and descends. When the murderer, William Zanzinger’s light six-month sentence is finally unveiled in the song’s finale, Dylan’s slight hesitation and guitar pause alludes to the kind of courtroom gasp one would expect with such an immoral outcome.
“With God On Our Side,” arguably the record’s most disturbing view of the world, is a harsh warning for the theological rationalization of war throughout the United State’s history. The haunting stanza, “One Push of the button / And a shot the world wide / And you never ask questions / When God’s on your side,” alludes to an escalation of the horrors of war rooted in religious fundamentalism that makes the song as poignant as ever, especially after the events during the Bush administration.
While most of the tracks on Times are as bleak as they get, Dylan managed to let a couple of his more tender songs sneak on the record. “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings,” two of Dylan’s most underrated gems to date, are both soothing ballads of a forlorn couple in love and give a fairly compassionate, albeit candid look at the pitfalls of long distance separation. Most likely written after his previous girlfriend Suze Rotolo (featured on Dylan’s arm on Freewheelin’s now infamous LP cover photograph) left for Spain, both songs offer a well-needed break from the dismal societal woes that are referenced during the rest of the record. Though the sting of separation is never more present than when Dylan sings, “I got a letter on a lonesome day / It was from her ship a-sailin’, / Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again / It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.”
“When the Ship Comes In” feels like a traditional anthem for the common sailor, the kind best suited for a drinking hole congested with seafaring folk, glasses of beer and shots of whiskey. That the song is supposedly a metaphor for an embarrassing moment when Dylan was turned away from a hotel for his disheveled appearance only adds to the song’s allure and quirkiness.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ is Dylan’s first official masterpiece. Whereas Freewheelin’ struggled with a somewhat disproportionate second half, Times is a near flawless record, and arguably one of Dylan’s most personal. It is said that a number of the songs were written in all-night coffee shops during the country’s seismic sea change. Tracks like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” paved the way for future political pleads like Desire’s “Hurricane,” while the album’s closer “Restless Farewell,” was the perfect bookend to an exercise in anger but also a call for change. The album would ultimately paint Dylan as a voice of his generation (a label he later tried desperately to shed) but as a piece of 60s era social criticism, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Essential Songs: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “When the Ship Comes In,” “With God On Our Side.”