Produced by Tom Wilson, it is the singer-songwriter's first collection to feature only original compositions. The album consists mostly of stark, sparsely-arranged story songs concerning issues such as racism, poverty, and social change. The title track is one of Dylan's most famous; many felt that it captured the spirit of social and political upheaveal that characterized the 1960s.
Some critics and fans were not quite as taken with the album as a whole, relative to his previous work, for its lack of humor or musical diversity. Still, The Times They Are a-Changin' entered the United States chart at twenty, eventually going gold, and belatedly reaching four in the United Kingdom in 1965.
Eight songs were recorded during that first session, but only one recording of "North Country Blues" was ultimately deemed usable and set aside as the master take. A master take of "Seven Curses" was also recorded, but it was left out of the final album sequence.
Another session at Studio A was held the following day, this time yielding master takes for four songs: "Ballad of Hollis Brown", "With God on Our Side", "Only a Pawn in Their Game", and "Boots of Spanish Leather", all of which were later included on the final album sequence.
A third session was held in Studio A on August 12, but nothing from this session was deemed usable. However, three recordings taken from the third session eventually saw official release: "master" takes of "Paths of Victory", "Moonshine Blues", and "Only a Hobo" were all included on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 released in 1991.
Sessions did not resume for more than two months. During the interim, Dylan toured briefly with Joan Baez, performing a number of key concerts that raised his profile in the media. When Dylan returned to Studio A on October 23, he had six more original compositions ready for recording. Master takes for "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "When the Ship Comes In" were both culled from the October 23 session. A master take for "Percy's Song" was also recorded, but it was ultimately set aside and was not officially released until Biograph in 1985.
Another session was held the following day on the 24 October. Master takes of "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "One Too Many Mornings" were recorded and later included in the final album sequence. A master take for "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" was also recorded, but ultimately left out of the final album; it was eventually released on Biograph. Two more outtakes, "Eternal Circle" and "Suze (The Cough Song)", were later issued on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.
The sixth and final session for The Times They Are a-Changin' was held on October 31 1963. The entire session focused on one song, "Restless Farewell", whose melody is again, taken from an Irish-Scots folk song, "The Parting Glass", and it produced a master take that ultimately closed the album.
The Times They Are a-Changin' opens with its title track, one of Dylan's most famous songs. Dylan's friend, Tony Glover, recalls visiting Dylan's apartment in September 1963, where he saw a number of song manuscripts and poems lying on a table. "The Times They Are a-Changin'" had yet to be recorded, but Glover saw its early manuscript. After reading the words "come senators, congressmen, please heed the call", 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".
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."
Thirty years after it was first released, "The Times They Are a-Changin'" created some controversy for Dylan when he allowed a Canadian merchant bank to feature it in its advertising campaign.
"Ballad of Hollis Brown" was originally recorded for Dylan's previous album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. That version was rejected and the song was eventually re-recorded for The Times They Are a-Changin'. Described by Clinton Heylin as a "'tragic tale of independence and free will' culled from the folk idiom", it is a grim, rural Gothic story of a father killing his starving family ("There's seven people dead in a South Dakota farm").
"With God on Our Side" was first performed at New York's Town Hall on April 12 1963 (which also happened to be Dylan's debut appearance at that venue). Although Dylan claims it is an original composition, the melody to "With God on Our Side" bears a striking resemblance to "The Patriot Game", the lyrics of which were written by Dominic Behan and the melody borrowed from the traditional Irish folk song, "The Merry Month Of May". Behan called Dylan a plagiarist and a thief, in an attempt to goad Dylan into a lawsuit; Dylan made no response. "The Patriot Game" was originally introduced to Dylan by Scottish folksinger Nigel Denver. Scottish song writer Jim McLean recalls Dylan asking him in late 1962: "'What does it mean, 'Patriot Game'?'... I explained – probably lectured him – about Dr Johnson, who's one of Dominic's favourite writers, and that's where Dominic picked up [the] saying: 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.'" NPR's Tim Riley writes: "'With God on Our Side' manages to voice political savvy mixed with generational naivete" as it "draws the line for those born long enough after World War I to find its issues blurry ('the reasons for fightin'/I never did get') and who view the forgiveness of the World War II Germans as a farce."
Dylan follows "With God on Our Side" with a soft, understated ballad: "One Too Many Mornings". "It's the sound of someone too smitten by love to harbor regrets, grown too independent to consider a reunion," writes Riley. One of the more celebrated songs on The Times They Are a-Changin', Dylan would dramatically rearrange it on his legendary 1966 concert tour for a full electric band.
"North Country Blues" tells a story involving the devastating effect of a mining company's decision to outsource its labor to other countries. (Dylan would return to this theme in "Union Sundown" on his 1983 album, Infidels.) It also marks the first time Dylan wrote a song exclusively from the point-of-view of a woman, in this case, the wife of an unemployed blue-collar worker.
Dylan first performed "Only a Pawn in Their Game" at a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. The song refers to the murder of Medgar Evers, who was the Mississippi leader of the NAACP. Civil rights activist Bernice Johnson would later tell critic Robert Shelton that "'Pawn' was the very first song that showed the poor white was as victimized by discrimination as the poor black. The Greenwood people didn't know that Pete [Seeger], Theo[dore Bikel] and Bobby [Dylan] were well known. (Seeger and Bikel were also present at the registration rally.) They were just happy to be getting support. But they really like Dylan down there in the cotton country."
The melody for "Boots of Spanish Leather" was inspired by Martin Carthy's arrangement of the English folk song "Scarborough Fair" (which was also the melodic source of an earlier Dylan composition, "Girl from the North Country"). Dylan learned Carthy's arrangement during his first trip to England in late 1962. After finishing his obligations in England (including a brief appearance in a BBC drama, Madhouse on Castle Street), Dylan traveled to Italy looking for his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, apparently unaware that she had already returned to America (reportedly the same time Dylan left for England). While in Italy, Dylan created an early draft of "Boots of Spanish Leather".
The song tells the story of a woman who is going abroad, and she asks her lover if there's anything she can send back to him. Distraught over her imminent departure, he cannot answer, even when she insists on sending back something. After she leaves, she writes him a letter implying that she may never return. Knowing now that her love for him is fading or gone, in the last line of the song he asks her to send him "Spanish boots of Spanish leather." Salon.com critic Bill Wyman called the song "an abstract classic and one of the purest, most confounding folk songs of the time.
According to Heylin, "When The Ship Comes In" was written in August 1963 "in a fit of pique, in a hotel room, after his unkempt appearance had led an impertinent hotel clerk to refuse him admission until his companion, Joan Baez, had vouched for his good character." Heylin speculates that "Jenny's Song" from Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera was also an inspiration: "As Pirate Jenny dreams of the destruction of all her enemies by a mysterious ship, so Dylan envisages the neophobes being swept aside in 'the hour when the ship comes in'." Dylan's former girlfriend Suze Rotolo recalls that her "interest in Brecht was certainly an influence on him. I was working for the Circle in the Square Theater and he came to listen all the time. He was very affected by the song that Lotte Lenya's known for, 'Pirate Jenny'."
This ballad recounts the true story of a black hotel barmaid who died after being struck by a wealthy white man. He had called her and her co-workers racial epithets before the assault, and was sentenced to six months for manslaughter for the crime.
"'Lay Down Your Weary Tune'... along with 'Eternal Circle'... marked a new phase in Dylan's songwriting", writes Heylin. "It is the all-important link between the clipped symbolism of 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall' and the more self-conscious efforts to come the following year. A celebration of song itself, 'Lay Down Your Weary Tune' was also an admission that there were certain songs 'no voice can hope to hum'."
Riley describes "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" as "a hymn to music's instrumental spectrum... it's about the heightened awareness of nature and reality available to performer and listener in the course of a highly charged musical experience". The song is also rich in natural imagery, often in surreal, musical terms ("The cryin' rain like a trumpet sang/And asked for no applause"). Steven Goldberg writes that the song depicts nature "not as a manifestation of God but as containing God within its every aspect". The Byrds released their own celebrated version of "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" in 1965 on their critically acclaimed second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!.
"Percy's Song" is sung from the point of view of a man who visits a judge in a futile, last-ditch attempt to save his friend from a severe prison sentence. It is based on a tune taken from "The Wind and the Rain", a song introduced to Dylan by Paul Clayton. "'Percy's Song', along with ... 'Seven Curses' and 'Moonshine Blues', showed that Dylan's command of traditional themes, housed in traditional melodies, remained undiminished by the topicality of other efforts", writes Heylin. Fairport Convention recorded their own celebrated rendition of "Percy's Song" on their critically acclaimed third album, Unhalfbricking.
Written some time in late 1962 or early 1963, "Only a Hobo" was also recorded during these sessions but ultimately set aside. Described by Heylin as "a superior reworking of [Dylan's earlier composition] 'Man on the Street' that took as its source the 'Poor Miner's Lament'", the song is sung from the point of view of sympathetic narrator who stumbles upon a homeless man lying dead in a gutter. Rod Stewart later released his own celebrated version of "Only a Hobo" on the critically acclaimed Gasoline Alley in 1970. Dylan himself re-recorded "Only a Hobo" for Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II, only to reject that version as well. He eventually released his own version in 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.
Dylan also recorded demo versions for publishing purposes of several songs on this album. These are known as the Witmark Demos. All of the Witmark demos are in circulation, and are not the same takes as the outtake listing below.
Here is a partial listing of the known outtakes from the Times sessions. Unless otherwise noted, all tracks are in circulation.
On October 26 1963, three days after recording the final song for The Times They Are a-Changin' , Dylan held a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. That night, he performed eight songs from his forthcoming third album, as well as several outtakes from the same album sessions (including "Percy's Song", "Seven Curses", and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune"). Columbia recorded the entire concert, but it was decades before a substantial portion of it was officially released (in fact to date the concert in its entirety has not been released). Nevertheless, the performance was well received by the press and audience alike, but its success was to be overshadowed by the events of November 22 1963.
On that day, at 12:30, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Dylan's friend, Bob Fass, was sitting with Dylan in Carla Rotolo's apartment the day of the shooting. According to Fass, Dylan was deeply affected by it and said: "What it means is that they are trying to tell you 'Don't even hope to change things'." Dylan later claimed that Kennedy's death did not directly inspire any of his songs, but in a manuscript written shortly after the assassination, he wrote: "it is useless t' recall the day once more". In another, he repeatedly wrote: "there is no right or left there is only up an down".
Three weeks to the day after Kennedy's assassination, the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee gave Dylan their annual Tom Paine award for his contribution to the civil rights movement. Dylan gave a disastrous acceptance speech at the awards ceremony held at Hotel Americana in New York, at one point claiming he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's assassin. After the ceremony, a number of eyewitnesses reported that Dylan seemed very nervous and was drinking quite heavily before giving his speech.
As Clinton Heylin wrote: "in less than six months [Dylan] had turned full circle from the protest singer who baited Paul Nelson into someone determined to write only songs that 'speak for me'... Dylan's ambitions as a writer for the page...may have been further fed at the end of December when he met renowned beat poet Allen Ginsberg, author of Howl and Kaddish." Dylan was already familiar with Ginsberg's work since growing up in Minneapolis. By now, beat poetry and French symbolists had become an enormous influence on Dylan's work, as Dylan "passed from immediate folk sources to a polychrome of literary styles". In an interview taken in 1985, Dylan said that he didn't start writing poetry until he was out of high school: "I was eighteen or so when I discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Frank O'Hara and those guys. Then I went back and started reading the French guys, Rimbaud and François Villon."
Many critics took note of the stark pessimism on The Times They Are a-Changin', which NPR's Tim Riley later described as "'Masters of War' stretched out into a concept album" due to its "social preening and black-and-white moralism". Critical respect for The Times They Are a-Changin' weakened as the years passed, but the overall consensus continued to be positive.