Meaning Behind Bob Dylan’s Timeless Protest Song “The Times They Are a-Changin’”

They say the only thing constant is change. Well, if that’s true, then the most timeless song that can be written is one about that very fact. Bob Dylan knew it. Hence his classic, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

But how did the song come to fruition? What is the meaning and origin?

Cameron Crowe
Somehow with so many music conversations, the famed movie director is connected. Whether it’s his classic band film, Almost Famous, or his movie about grunge life, Singles, or simply the fact that he was married for a long time to Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Crowe is a music man.

To wit, Dylan told Crowe about the inspiration for the protest anthem, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” “This was definitely a song with a purpose,” he said in the liner notes of the 1985 Dylan box set, Biograph. “It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’. I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.”

Released as the title song for his 1964 album, Dylan released the track in the U.K. in 1965. It hit No. 9 on the Singles Chart in the country, but it was never released as a single in America. Today, the protest song, which has been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Simon & Garfunkel, is known as both of his best songs and one of the most important tracks from 20th-century American music. Why for lyrics like this,

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

President Kennedy
Throughout his career, Dylan has rarely performed “The Times They Are a-Changin’” during his live shows. The night after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy he decided to perform the tune.

“The Times They Are a-Changin’” was written in the fall of 1963. Dylan recorded a demo of the song that later appeared on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. It was recorded in earnest at Columbia studios a few days before Halloween that year and that Columbia recording became the titled track to Dylan’s 1964 LP of the same name.

That same year, JFK died in Dallas. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963, about a month after Dylan tracked “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” So, with it fresh in his mind, Dylan played the song to open his concert on November 23.

Of that experience, Dylan told biographer Anthony Scaduto, “I thought, ‘Wow, how can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me.’ But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there. I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.”

While a then-modern day protest song, it was also a traditional song, in many ways, quoting the Bible and Mark 10:31—”But many that are first shall be last, and the last first”—for the climatic line of the song. It was also, of course, a song about change and the country had, with the killing of JFK, undergone a monumental shift.

The song has become a timeless protest anthem. While the song resonated in the ’60s as the world was changing—Civil Rights, JFK’s death, the looming Vietnam War—it continues to resonate. The song’s lyrics are general enough to apply to just about any moment in time. Sings Dylan,

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’


Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

With a song this well known, there has been a great deal written both about its history and its meaning. Fans of the Bard should take it all with a grain of salt. Some believe the song to be the Platonic Ideal of a protest folk tune, others think it’s vague and nothing to write home about.

For example, writer Michael Gray in the 2006 book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia called it the “archetypal protest song” and that Dylan channeled “the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public.” Gray has also said the lyrics are now politically outdated, ironically, given all the changes in the country since it was written. Writer Christopher Ricks, however, says in the 2003 book Dylan’s Visions of Sin that the song “transcends the political preoccupations of the time in which it was written.”

Even musician Tony Glover tells the story to biographer Clinton Heylin, author of Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, that Glover stopped by Dylan’s place in the fall of 1963 and saw the lyrics for the song. Glober says he said to Dylan, “What is this shit, man?” To which Dylan allegedly shrugged and said, “Well, you know, it seems to be what the people want to hear.”

Regardless of the intent of the song, it remains one of Dylan’s most beloved and well-recognized.

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