Bob Dylan #3: The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964)

With his third album, Dylan fulfilled the promise of his Woody Guthrie comparisons with his most politically-oriented set of songs yet.  He really runs the gamut of social ills here, from poverty (“The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “North Country Blues,”) to racial violence (“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) to religion as justification for warfare (“With God On Our Side”), and it makes for one of his most blunt but affecting sets of songs.  Some of the more romantic leanings of the last album carry over here, particularly in the song “Boots of Spanish Leather,” an imagined duet between estranged lovers.  It’s a really lovely track, with fingerpicked guitar that recalls “Girl From the North Country” off of his last album, but manages to avoid feeling like retread.

Dylan struck again with the title song which, like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is yet another era-defining anthem that captured the unrest of the times, from civil rights to the emerging counterculture.  The amount of era-defining anthems this guy composed in a short span of years is kinda ridiculous.  With its message of “get with the program or risk falling behind,” it’s something that’s easily applicable to what’s going on right now.

It almost feels cliche to say it, but there’s plenty here that feels just as relevant today, particularly “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” which takes aim at institutions that pit whites against minorities, oppressing one group while bolstering another, but really just using them both.  It feels particularly apt in the Trump era, where poor whites are manipulated by the powers that be to further their own interests, held up by a false sense of racial superiority, while at the same time being kept in poverty by those same institutions.  Dylan argues that it’s not the individual, but rather the institutions that are to blame.  He even applies this to Klansmen and other perpetrators of racial violence, which is a little hard to swallow, but speaks to just how badly White America treats even their own in order to stay in power.  Much like “Masters of War” from the previous album, Dylan rails against those in power that sacrifice human lives in order to sustain themselves.

“With God On Our Side” follows a similar track, going through each of America’s major wars and how God’s blessing was used as justification for the violence on all sides.  It’s one of the major hypocrisies of civilization, that a loving God would for some reason justify the murder of millions in his name, but it’s been used by nearly every group of humans on Earth.  Nowadays, God’s name is invoked for all manner of reprehensible shit, and Dylan basically presents it without much comment here, sort of letting the very notion damn itself by its absurdity.

While I have to say I personally prefer the last one, it’s hard to deny the power of this album, and why it cemented Dylan as one of the best socially conscious singers of his era.  While he would mostly move past this kind of music pretty quickly, dipping back into it occasionally, it stands as one of the best protest albums of its time.  The fact that many of these songs feel as relevant today as they did over fifty years ago just shows how vital this album–and the gamut of emotions it contains–really is.

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