Monday, April 20, 2009

Bob Dylan 3: The Times They Are A-Changin’

On his third album, Bob was deep into the role of protest singer. There’s something rough about the bleak cover shot that is mirrored in the words. And that doesn’t even call into account the ones on the back cover, which give a clue to his next direction. The Times They Are A-Changin’ isn’t easy listening, but is a successful progression to his next stage.
The title track isn’t about to convert anyone who doesn’t like his voice, but it’s still one of his better protest songs. To this day it evokes a mood of change, however futile. “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” is a stark painting, and you can almost feel the wind blowing through the dead weeds. Years later it would give inspiration to the plight of the family farmer. “With God On Our Side” isn’t an easy listen, as he keeps changing speeds, but the point is well made. Just so you know he’s not all about sloganeering, “One Too Many Mornings” takes a detour towards a city bedroom, and paints as bleak a portrait as any other on this album. (And it took no less a sage than George Starostin to point out that the melody is identical to that of the title track.) “North Country Blues” paints another sad portrait of poverty, this time from the view of a young woman in a mining town.
“Only A Pawn In Their Game” tells of the murder of the head of the NAACP. As another of his civil rights anthems, he was starting to get pigeonholed as a civil rights activist. This notion is immediately dispelled by “Boots Of Spanish Leather”, which takes the melody of “Girl From The North Country” and expands it into a compelling tale of separation. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking song that begins as a conversation, and then suddenly and pointedly she stops answering when it’s her turn. The final lines will catch in your heartstrings. While “When The Ship Comes In” seems almost Biblical, according to Joan Baez it’s a tale of imagined retribution against a nasty hotel clerk who didn’t like how Bob was dressed; somehow it works on all levels. “Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” may be just another protest song, but it explores so many more levels. Even if we don’t have all the facts—maybe William Zantzinger didn’t really hit her with a cane, and why should we assume that she was black and he was white?—the scene he lays out is all too real to ignore. And “Restless Farewell” is just that, another edgy litany.
Even if you think of The Times They Are A-Changin’ as just another protest album, it’s still a good one. But there’s enough on here that contrasts that stark face on the cover to suggest that the kids had something else to say. And he would.

Bob Dylan The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)—4

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