Bob Dylan‘s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, turns 60 in 2024 as its creator, age eighty-three this May, plans the next leg of his never-ending tour. For all his artistic longevity, Dylan has seldom rested in how he writes songs or pursues subjects for his lyrics. The Times They Are A-Changin’ stands out among his early albums – an earnest, often grim and hopeless set of songs. It lacks the occasional uplift of its precursor, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), the comic relief of its immediate follow-up, Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), and the surreal poeticism of the next year’s Bringin’ It All Back Home (1965).
Yet The Times They Are A-Changin’ remains significant for how it expresses Dylan’s transitional urge between the traditional folk of his earliest recordings and the emerging counterculture of the 1960s. This urge can be sharp and immediate, as in the opening title track, a song Dylan wrote as an anthem for its time. The set, at times, verges on sanctimoniousness, as in the ironic history lesson “With God on Our Side”. At its best, in the stark narratives “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, “North Country Blues”, and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, The Times They Are A-Changin’ is a musical treatise on social justice in modern America.
Dylan’s creative process for his albums focused on individual songs more than overarching concepts. Clinton Heylin documents how two songs on The Times They Are A-Changin’, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” came from the writing process for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan a year earlier. Any Dylan album is a snapshot of what the songwriter thought and felt in a particular moment, and some first-rate material always got lost.
An entire ghost album of songs from the Times sessions can be found among later compilations. Several outtakes, including “Seven Curses” and “Percy’s Song” (later performed by the likes of Joan Baez and Fairport Convention), could have suited the album. These and a half-dozen other outtakes would eventually see light on Biograph in 1985 or The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 in 1991. But their omission from The Times They Are A-Changin’ – replaced in some cases by arguably lesser material – highlights the mercurial nature of Dylan’s muse.
The opening track, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” is by far the most famous song on the album – the only one to have achieved the campfire ubiquity of, say, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Its opening lines, “Come gather ’round people / Wherever you roam,” invite the listener into a conversation – a folk music convention he repeats on “North Country Blues” a few tracks later. In the notes to Biograph, Dylan acknowledges his debt to Irish and Scottish ballads such as “Come All Ye Bold Highway Men” and “Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens”. It exemplifies one of the ways Dylan, in this period, updated traditional song forms in a modern context.
“The Times They Are A-Changin'” urges change without specifying what those changes are or should be. The five verses invoke losers learning how to win, young people defying parents, and elected officials embracing upheaval. Listeners are free to project their causes and concerns onto the lyrics – a change in style, a social movement, or an attempt to overcome a losing streak.
The song’s vagueness is both its strength and weakness. On one hand, it suited the occasion when Dylan performed the song the night after the death of John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963. On the other, as Greil Marcus argues in his 2022 book Folk Music, the song’s strident third verse – “For he that gets hurt / Will be he who has stalled / A battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows / And rattle your walls” – could be interpreted as a militant call to violence. This malleability of meaning makes “The Times They Are A-Changin'” an enduring anthem across the ideological spectrum.
The second track is the first of the tragic narratives. “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, first demoed during the sessions for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, follows the form of that album’s “Masters of War” by hanging new lyrics on a traditional folk melody. “Hollis Brown” takes its melody from “Pretty Polly”, most likely a version by Jean Ritchie with Doc Watson from a 1963 Folk City performance and subsequent live album.
A classic murder ballad, “Hollis Brown”, relates the story of a South Dakota farmer decimated by drought conditions that leave him and his family penniless. Losing all hope in both humanity and God, he spends his “last lone dollar / On seven shotgun shells”, killing his wife, his five children, and himself in a murder-suicide.
An odd factor is how Bob Dylan switches perspective from the third to second person point-of-view after the first verse. “You” are the one who “walked a ragged mile” and whose “eyes fixed on the shotgun” before the deadly murder. The shift in view invites empathy for the murderer without downplaying the horror of his act. In the final two verses, the perspective switches again to that of somebody hearing the fatal gunshots in the near distance.
The fatalism of “Ballad of Hollis Brown” feels complete in the final two lines, as “Somewheres in the distance / There’s seven new people born.” The horrific imagery of the song precludes any hopefulness in any new births. Droughts rarely affect one farm in an area and not the others. Implicitly, whatever new babies are born risk the same fate as the “children [who] don’t know how to smile” so recently murdered by their father.
“Ballad of Hollis Brown” invokes the same level of despair as Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads of 1940, pointing the way forward to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska in 1982. It is one of the best examples of Dylan’s participation in the continuum of the folk tradition.
Against the incisive “Hollis Brown”, the next track, “With God on Our Side”, feels labored and overlong. Through nine verses, the song relates a series of historical events – America’s genocidal displacement of Indigenous Americans, the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Each verse ends with the ironic stipulation that the perpetrators of mass violence have “God on their side.”
After nearly eight minutes of rhythmless strumming, Dylan concludes the song with an earnest wish that “if God’s on our side / He’ll stop the next war.” It is unclear why a song ironic about “God’s” influence on the world for eight verses pleads seriously for God’s intervention in the final one. “With God on Our Side” reflects Dylan’s ambition to historicize fears of nuclear annihilation expressed in “Masters of War”, but it lacks the concise energy and consistency of the earlier song.
The album relents emotionally on “One Too Many Mornings”, a fingerpicked ballad in a style reminiscent of the earlier “Girl from the North Country” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. “One Too Many Mornings” never achieved the iconic status of the other two songs, but on an album otherwise obsessed with death and tragedy, it provides a welcome interlude.
Concluding the first side of The Times They Are A-Changin’ is”North Country Blues”, another tragic ballad in a mode akin to “Hollis Brown.” The scholar Todd Harvey identifies “Red Iron Ore,” a Great Lakes ballad from the 1890s, as a key source for Dylan’s tale of a mining community decimated by economic downturn and the outsourcing of labor to South America.
Although Dylan never names the setting of “North Country Blues,” his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, was home to a large open-pit iron ore mine. The song has an at least circumstantial connection with the history of his birthplace. Dylan references Hibbing directly in his poetic liner notes, “11 Outlines Epitaphs,” on the rear of the original album sleeve: “The town I grew up in is the one that has left me with my legacy visions… it was a dyin’ town.” Whether or not “North Country Blues” is about Hibbing matters less than its enduring statement about the effects of corporate greed on lower working-class Americans.
Side Two contains the two related songs for which The Times They Are A-Changin’ (apart from its title track) is best remembered. “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” both recount recent incidents of Black Americans killed by racist white men, although each song takes a different stance toward the perpetrators of those crimes.
Dylan wrote “Only a Pawn in Their Game” in the summer of 1963, soon after Medgar Evers, a prominent civil rights activist and field secretary, was gunned down in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, on 12 June. The song recounts the basic facts of the murder, although the murderer, Byron De La Beckwith (eventually convicted and imprisoned in 1994), is never named. Film footage excerpted in the documentary Don’t Look Back, from a civil rights rally in Mississippi Dylan attended with Pete Seeger, depicts what is probably Dylan’s first performance of the song. Crouched against a microphone on a makeshift podium, Dylan sings as Black workers listen to lyrics that would soon prove controversial.
According to Heylin, Dylan recorded the album cut of “Only a Pawn in Their Game” on 7 August 1963. The session occurred a few weeks before another live performance, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the US capitol on 28 August.
This second live performance preceded Martin Luther King Jr.’s delivery of his “I Have a Dream Speech” in front of an estimated 300,000 people. Accompanied by improvised harmony vocals by Joan Baez, Dylan’s song failed to garner more than lukewarm applause – an uncharacteristic reaction from an otherwise exuberant crowd (which cheered other appearances by the activists Daisy Bates and John Lewis, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and of course, King himself).
The mild reaction to “Only a Pawn in Their Game” was mostly due to the lyrics. Although Dylan is unequivocal in his admiration for Medgar Evers, eulogizing the fallen hero – “[t]hey lowered him down as a king” – the song refuses to directly blame De La Beckwith, a Mississippi Klansman, for the murder. The first verse states the argument: “Two eyes took the aim / Behind a man’s brain / But he can’t be blamed / He’s only a pawn in their game.” The final verse reiterates the same point.
Dylan’s lyrical stance implies that the socio-historical context surrounding Evers’ murder – what we would now call system racism – created the conditions for the crime. As a “pawn,” De La Beckwith (a middle-class salesman whom Dylan associates falsely with “poor whites”) enacts violence, not by choice but through indoctrination. This caused some listeners to have mixed feelings about the song. It is one thing to call out corrupt systems of government, justice, and policing for condoning racist violence; it is another to suggest a cold-blooded murderer “can’t be blamed.” Dylan’s presence in Washington left no doubt about his support for civil rights, but “Only a Pawn in Their Game” did not sit well with everyone who heard it.
Bob Dylan may have felt chastened as he returned to New York after the March on Washington. In an instance of perfect timing, however, a news item in the New York Times of 29 August 1963 provided Dylan the seed for “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a song that hardens his stance on civil rights while revising the attribution of responsibility for racist crimes.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” interprets the story of the death of a Black hotel employee after an assault by a wealthy white landowner. The facts of the case were scant in the Times story but were enough to inspire the song – which took some liberties with the facts. (Zantzinger’s intent was racist but not murderous, according to the dozen or so accounts I have read).
William Zantzinger, then 24, arrived at a charity ball in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife on 3 February 1963. Zantzinger was drunk, acting hostile toward everyone around him. Wielding a toy cane, a prop for the tuxedo he wore that night, Zantzinger began striking members of the hotel staff and shouting racial slurs. He struck a bellboy on the way into the ballroom, then hit an African American server named Ethel Hill as he ordered a drink. From all accounts, the toy cane was not a weapon likely to inflict serious harm – not that it excused Zantzinger’s violent racism.
He then turned to Hattie Carroll, 51 years old and a mother of at least ten children (reports differ on the size of her family). Zantzinger demanded that Carroll bring him a drink immediately. When she asked him to wait because she was busy, he verbally attacked her and shouted a sentence containing the N-word before hitting her with the toy cane.
Humiliating as the incident was for Carroll, it might have ended without serious physical harm if not for her “history of heart trouble”, as reported in The Times. Carroll was already stressed and overworked from the evening’s event. Zantzinger’s assault triggered a heart attack (and possibly some type of aneurysm) that caused her death eight hours later.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” never identifies the victim as Black and the perpetrator as a white man, but the context is clear enough to link it with racist violence already recounted in “Only a Pawn in Their Game”. Much of its power lies in its refrain, repeated at the end of the first three verses: “But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears / Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for your tears.” These lines implicate listeners in the drama as the tension builds from verse to verse.
A lyrical turnaround arrives in the final verse, as Dylan reveals the meager six-month jail sentence handed down after Zantzinger’s conviction for manslaughter. “Now’s the time for your tears,” sings Dylan, expressing outrage towards a legal system so lenient toward the racist act. (Dylan omits one mindboggling fact: The court deferred Zantzinger’s sentence for two weeks so the farmer could bring in his harvest).
Systemic racism looms in “Hattie Carroll”, much as it does in “Only a Pawn in Their Game”. It is unequivocal, however, in blaming Zantzinger for Hattie Carroll’s death. Positioned three tracks apart from one another on the album, the two songs create a dialogic discussion about racism in America. Each expresses appropriate sympathy for the victims of racist crimes while presenting different views of how and to whom (or what) society should assign blame.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is widely regarded as Dylan’s greatest protest ballad. Greil Marcus devotes an entire chapter to it in his 2022 book. Ray Monk and Ian Frazier have both written retrospective articles on the song and its legacy. David Simon, creator of television’s Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s The Wire, paraphrases the song in lines spoken by James Earl Jones in the Season 6 opener of Homicide.
Simon, a former crime reporter in Baltimore, interviewed William Zantzinger some 25 years after the Hattie Carroll incident. He found Zantzinger bitter towards Dylan for “slandering” him in the lyrics to “Hattie Carroll”, although he admitted to having “caused that woman’s death.” Zantzinger was jailed once again in 1991 for real estate fraud targeting Baltimore’s Black community, a case detailed by Ian Frazier in Mother Jones. Even “pawns” can revise their status in the game if they keep moving forward. Zantzinger, morally speaking, stood still.
Apart from its “finger-pointing songs,” as Dylan called them, The Times They Are A-Changin’ has quieter songs in the form of “Boots of Spanish Leather” and the concluding “Restless Farewell”, both forlorn ballads more personal than political. Another song, “When the Ship Comes In”, uses the metaphor of a seafaring voyage to echo the message of impending change in the title track. Dylan’s poetic lyricism is muted but still emotionally effective in all three songs.
Bob Dylan has always downplayed the claims others have made about the significance of his “protest” songs. In Don’t Look Back, a fly-on-the-wall documentary of his 1965 tour of England, Dylan is skeptical that popular songs can effect social change. This stance was partly self-protective – a buffer against the impossible task of acting as a spokesman for every vital cause. It was also a testament to his belief in people. Dylan left it to his audience to find their own voices. His work provoked discourse on their subjects rather than mere acceptance of his ideas.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ continues to resonate today, both in its stark musical approach to modern song and its dramatic and complex lyricism. Albums as diverse as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On (1971), Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982), Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990), and Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut (1992) have mirrored its outrage, pleas for humanity, and a quest for change. No doubt, Dylan’s work will continue to inspire these types of reflections for as long as music plays a role in expressing the concerns of people in their own time.
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles, Volume One. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
“Farmer Sentenced in Barmaid’s Death.” New York Times, 29 Aug. 1963, p. 15.
Frazier, Ian. “Legacy of a Lonesome Death”. Mother Jones, 1 Nov. 2004. Accessed 23 Jan. 2024.
Harvey, Todd. The Formative Dylan: Transmission and Stylistic Influences, 1961-1963. Scarecrow Press, 2001.
Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, 1960 – 1994. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.
Marcus, Greil. Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs. Yale UP, 2022.
Monk, Ray. “Bob Dylan at 80: Why ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ Is His Greatest Protest Song”. Prospect, 21 May 2021. Accessed 23 Jan. 2024.
Simon, David. “A Lonesome Death”. The New Yorker, 18 Jan. 2009.