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Times A-Changin'
 

 

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'

 

— From Bob Dylan’s “The Times
They Are A-Changin’"

In case you needed any convincing that times have indeed changed, the Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. Some members of the Academy reportedly laughed when they heard the news. This was more or less my reaction. Certainly I never would have suspected Dylan would one day be recognized for his contributions to serious literature when I first heard him in concert at the old New Haven Coliseum 50 years earlier. This was only a year or so after he had outraged folk-music purists by plugging in his Fender Stratocaster at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. What would the folkies have thought if they could have known Dylan would eventually put out an album of Frank Sinatra tunes?

Dylan has always been hard to pin down, and he claimed never to have been comfortable in his role as the prophet of a generation. However, you can argue he brought it on himself with his oracular tone and frequent biblical allusions in early songs like “The Times They Are A-Changing.” Written shortly after the March on Washington in 1963, the song was originally intended as a civil rights anthem. However, its generational themes were sufficiently universal that it was taken up by the antiwar movement that soon followed. More than half a century later, the singer Jennifer Hudson closed out the student-led March for Our Lives on the National Mall in 2018 with a stirring rendition of Dylan’s song, backed by a local youth choir.

The song’s enduring appeal has provided something of a yardstick with which to measure not only the changing times but my own progress through life. Having grown up in the 1960s, it was easy to identify with the “sons and daughters” who viewed themselves as being on the vanguard of momentous social change. Never mind that we were too young and too inexperienced to be the vanguard of anything. Granted there has been social change beyond anyone’s reckoning. And yet the injustices that inspired Dylan’s song — racism and poverty — have proven far more intractable than we could have contemplated. In the interim, we sons and daughters became parents and then grandparents. Increasingly, we are regarded as the laggards when the cry goes up to lead, follow or get out of the way.

The song itself has endured, but its place in the culture has undergone its own transformation. Increasingly, it has provided the sound track not for social change but for product promotion, most notably the introduction of the Macintosh computer in 1984. Banks, accounting firms and insurance companies — none of which are in the vanguard of anything — have all had reason to believe the song burnishes their brand. The original hand-written lyrics to Dylan’s masterpiece were auctioned off to a hedge-fund manager for almost half a million dollars. Looking back, you could make the case that the introduction of the Macintosh and its ilk have had as much social impact as any of the protest movements inspired by the song.

The Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes is often cited as an inspiration for Dylan’s anthem, especially the the famous passage that begins, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…” Authorship has traditionally been ascribed to King Solomon; however, textual analysis indicates the book was written in the second century BCE, long after Solomon’s reign. Its world-weary tone would suggest the author, whoever he was, had been around long enough to have wearied of the world. He complains there is nothing new under the sun, and life is a tiresome business. He has pursued pleasure to no good end. Wealth has provided no satisfaction, and even wisdom has brought only vexation. He has toiled ceaselessly with wisdom and knowledge and skill for riches that will eventually go to someone who did not toil for them and may be a fool besides. In the end, the wise man dies just like the fool, and both are soon forgotten. We are left with little more than the utter futility of all striving. “All is vanity and a striving after wind,” the author laments over and over.

As I have grown old, I find that the Book of Ecclesiastes is perhaps a better measure of one’s progress through life than Dylan’s song. The times are indeed changing; they are always changing. But there is little sense in Ecclesiastes of progress as such. Linear time is less in evidence than eternal recurrence. The passage cited in connection with the Dylan song presents a succession of archetypal experiences in a cyclical sense: planting and harvesting, love and hate, war and peace and the like. What goes around comes around. And if you have lived long enough, you see it all play out in your own experience in events large and small.

As I write this, young people have taken to the streets as part of the Black Lives Matter movement to protest the police killing of unarmed black men. They have brought a fresh sense of outrage to issues that have been festering since I was their age — indeed, long before. Today’s vanguard can perhaps be forgiven for reacting as if these injustices have never happened before, because for them such incidents are indeed new. It is the role of our sons and daughters to take the lead in such circumstances, and in due course they may find their sons and daughters doing the same as the wheel turns yet again. Nothing, it seems, happens only once — nothing except the final turn of the wheel when those of us who have born find the time has come to die.

Tony Attwood, “The times they are a changin’. The meanings behind Bob Dylan’s song,” bob-dylan.org.uk, September 13, 2015
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

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