Bob Dylan’s third album The Times They Are A-Changin’ was released just eight months after the extraordinary The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. While it’s his first album comprised entirely of original songs, The Times They Are A-Changin’ lacks the variety and humour of its predecessor. A series of earnest ballads focussed on social justice and racism, the album is a bit heavy going at times, but the presence of three extraordinary songs elevates its status.
The album opens with the title track “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, one of Dylan’s most iconic songs. Although a very self-conscious protest song, it captures a mood and a moment brilliantly as evidenced by not only the longevity of the song, but also the many excellent cover versions that it inspired.
The song itself is a very simple ballad with a series of short verses which build in their meaning as the song progresses. An inclusive song ostensibly about the civil rights movement, Dylan’s intentions are made clear from the opening line: “Come gather ‘round people”. The song builds from this folky opening to then touch on the political: “Come senators, congressmen/Please heed the call/Don’t stand in the doorway/Don’t block up the hall”, before ending with almost religious language: “And the first one now/Will later be last/For the times they are a-changin’”.
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” is a landmark of modern music, a rallying call for the young and the disaffected. As the opening track of an album of the same name, the intent of the album is immediately clear. The second track “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” is a remarkably powerful song about poverty. Originally recorded during The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan sessions, that version was rejected and a new version recorded for the follow-up album.
“The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” tells the grim tale of a farmer killing his starving family. Through deceptively simple lyrics and repetition the song packs a huge emotional weight, concisely painting a picture of poverty and despair: “Hollis Brown/He lived on the outside of town/Hollis Brown/He lived on the outside of town/With his wife and five children/And his cabin broken down”. The misery felt by the titular character is described in a series of vivid phrases (“Your children are so hungry/That they don’t know how to smile”; “The rats have got your flour/Bad blood it got your mare”), before the ominous foreshadowing of “You spent your last lone dollar/On seven shotgun shells”. A bleak but brilliantly written song whose very ending seems to imply that the story is one destined to be repeated: “There’s seven people dead/On a south Dakota farm/There’s seven people dead/On a south Dakota farm/Somewhere in the distance/There’s seven new people born”.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ is heavily weighted towards songs of injustice. The third track “With God On Our Side” feels a little heavy handed. Covering similar ground to “Masters Of War” from the previous album, “With God On Our Side” carries a lot of the same anger, but with less skilfully crafted lyrics. “North Country Blues” is about a mining company’s decision to use cheaper foreign workers. “Only A Pawn In Their Game” touches on the murder of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi leader of the NAACP, but interestingly also makes reference to the discrimination also felt by poor whites.
There are two tracks on the album that offer some respite from earnest stories of social injustice and both have interesting connections to the brilliant “Girl From The North Country” from the previous album. “One Too Many Mornings” is thematically similar, a gentle ballad dealing with lost love. Whereas “Boots of Spanish Leather” is musically connected, also being based around an arrangement of the English folk song “Scarborough Fair”.
The standout track of the album is “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”. Based on an actual case from Charles County, Maryland where a wealthy white man was given a six month sentence after killing a 51 year old African-American barmaid. The song is one of the most profound commentaries on racism in 1960s America and his analysis of an actual case is a precursor to his 1976 masterpiece Hurricane.
The details of the case are appalling. A drunk William Zantzinger had already assaulted employees at a restaurant with a cane before arriving at the Emerson Hotel. His assault of Hattie Carroll was reported in the trial as follows: “He asked for a drink and called her ‘a black bitch’, and ‘black s.o.b’. She replied, ‘Just a moment’ and started to prepare his drink. After a delay of perhaps a minute, he complained about her being slow and struck her a hard blow on her shoulder about half-way between the point of her shoulder and her neck”. Hattie Carroll died eight hours after this assault.
William Zantzinger was charged with murder, but following his defence that he was drunk and didn’t remember what happened and the presumption that it was her “stress reaction to his verbal and physical abuse that led to the intracranial bleeding, rather than blunt-force trauma” that caused her death, the charge was reduced to manslaughter. The farce of the sentencing was covered by Time magazine: “Following a three-day trial, Zantzinger was found guilty. For the assault on the hotel employees: a fine of $125. For the death of Hattie Carroll: six months in jail and a fine of $500. The judges considerately deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop”.
Dylan’s lyrics emphasise the injustice of the case by brilliantly juxtaposing the wealth and privilege of Zantzinger with the poor, hard working Hattie Carroll. The structure of the song itself is fascinating. The first verse describes the day of the incident itself: “William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger”. The next two verses compare the differences between Zantzinger and Carroll, with the second verse focussed on Zantzinger’s luxury (William Zantzinger who at twenty-four years/ Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres/With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him/And high office relations in the politics of Maryland), before the third describes Carroll’s struggles (“Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen/She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children/Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage”). The final verse is a damning coverage of the trial (“In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel”… “Stared at the person who killed for no reason/Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’/And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished/And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance/William Zantzinger with a six-month sentence”).
While not as strong an album as its predecessor, there is a lot to admire in The Times They Are-A Changin’. The presence of the masterpieces “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”, “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” alone makes this an album worthy of respect and one that I will return to… Just not as often as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Favourite Track: “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”
Favourite Cover Version: The Byrds – “The Times They Are A-Changin’”