The Times They Were A-Changin’
By Jonah Begone
The other day I was seated a local sandwich shop, where, for a time, I was forced to endure a playing of “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” at what seemed to be an oddly loud volume. I do not like Bob Dylan. I find his singing style to be cloying, his musicianship elementary at best and his celebrated song lyrics banal and, ultimately, meaningless. And a viewing of the 1967 D.A. Pennebaker documentary about him on tour, “Don’t Look Back,” convinced me that he was also insufferably arrogant and immature. In short, I think he’s the most overrated pop-rock musician of the 1960’s – a decade in which I also think many bad ideas were celebrated as being revolutionary and commendable.
But… what do I know? The guy has had academics, aging hippies and rock journalists fawning over him for decades and he’s made a ton of money. Perhaps I am entirely wrong at identifying yet another naked emperor.
However, one song in particular being played, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” was especially annoying. Listening to it and reflecting on American history I wondered, when, precisely, have the times not been a-changin’? The song was written in 1963, when the assassination of JFK caused journalists to rush to their typewriters to hammer out overwrought text about America’s innocence having passed, etc. (We’re the most virginal nation on earth, and we seem to get deflowered by the media every generation or so.) And I’m sure there were bearded intellectuals nodding their heads sagely when they heard Dylan’s song lyrics… “Yeah, man, the times they ARE a-changin’… thinking their times were somehow unique.
But let’s examine this. Couldn’t a Bostonian in 1775 have expressed the same opinion? Or a Southerner in 1865? Or Americans viewing motorcars replacing the horse? Or those viewing the bodies piled up in the streets during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918? Or somebody tuned to radio broadcasts on December 7th, 1941 – or when the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945? Or when Churchill’s Iron Curtain descended upon Eastern Europe in 1946? Or… us on September 11th, 2001?
That’s why Dylan’s song lyrics – and notoriety – annoys me so much. There really isn’t anything unique, original or intensely thoughtful about them. And this passage from wikipedia suggests that the notions he expressed - that were taken by adoring fans as being so insightful, relevant and heavy - were actually just a case of pandering to a crowd: “After reading the words ‘come senators, congressmen, please heed the call,’ (Dylan’s friend Tony) Glover reportedly asked Dylan: ‘What is this shit, man?,’ to which Dylan responded, ‘Well, you know, it seems to be what the people like to hear.’”
Dylan’s commentary about the meaning of his song lyrics seem equally braindead. Once again, a passage from wikipedia: “A self-conscious protest song, it is often viewed as a reflection of the generation gap and of the political divide marking American culture in the 1960s. Dylan, however, disputed this interpretation in 1964, saying ‘Those were the only words I could find to separate aliveness from deadness. It had nothing to do with age.’ A year later, Dylan would say: ‘I can't really say that adults don't understand young people any more than you can say big fishes don't understand little fishes. I didn't mean ['The Times They Are a-Changin'] as a statement... It's a feeling.’”
Aliveness. Deadness. Fishes. A “feeling.” Riiiiight.
But, thinking about it, I think I have an answer to my own question: When have the times not been a–changin’?
Most Americans seem unaware that there is 166 years of American history between Jamestown in 1607 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. And, aside from an occasional blip on a historian’s radar – Bacon’s Rebellion, the Salem Witch hunts – not much really happened. Towns were settled, some towns developed into cities and farms were cultivated. There was a pace of change, of course, but it was glacial compared to that after 1783, 1865 and, especially, 1945.
But, I suppose some farmer who spent his entire life within the confines of some county in Connecticut may have looked with wonder at some minor improvement at a plow or harnass and marveled, “the times they are a-changin’,” which says more about our provincial ability to be bamboozled by the likes of a Bob Dylan than appreciating real, meaningful social change.