1964 was a watershed year in the history of the United States. The division between the status quo and the anti-establishment became more obvious. The Vietnam War continued to heat up and became an even more contentious event at home and abroad. Add to that was the brand new Civil Rights Act which sought to finally end racial segregation across America. These factors added fuel to the fire that was labeled “The Generation Gap”. The nation was undergoing another transformation.
To me, this seemed to be a natural, normal process. The autumn of 1963 began the last year I attended elementary school. The autumn of 1964 marked my first year of junior high. I grew up with several songs that addressed change and social struggle. The songs of change affirmed my reality.
One of the most famous of those songs, was Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin'”. As Dylan put it, “This was definitely a song with a purpose.” Dylan recorded and started performing the folk song in late 1963 but it gained traction and became a sort of generational anthem in 1964. It has survived within the background “soundtracks” of our lives since then.
Music critics declared that the song became obsolete shortly after it was written. Even Dylan once commented that the words were outdated as he wrote them down. However, the music world strongly disagreed with that assessment. There have been more than 40 legitimate cover versions of the tune from 1964 until the present day. People continue to feel inspiration and validation by listening to the song.
I think of the maxim, “The only thing that does not change, is change itself.” I think Dylan’s song underlines this thought, even if he did not originally intend for it to do so. There are no specific mentions of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, nor any of the various liberation movements that got their start in the 1960s. The only concept that is explicit, is the rift between the generations.
These lines from the first stanza illustrate the universal truth of change:
“…If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.”
Nothing stays the same. If you are to remain even somewhat relevant, no less thrive, you’ve got to keep up with the times. Ultimately there is no place for the status quo and those who long to hang onto it. We find that thought expressed as:
“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….”
Certainly there are the many political leaders with anti-progressive beliefs. Dylan also addressed other critics of change as well. The almost generic nature of the song’s lyrics keeps “The Times They Are A Changin'” current and meaningful today. Throughout modern history, we’ve witnessed the strident struggle between traditionalists and progressive thinkers.
We can take the field of science and technology as one big aspect of this struggle. Science has enabled vast leaps in humanity’s ability to communicate and get things accomplished. Ironically, the traditionalists have embraced technology, but utilize it in their attempts to arrest and negate science. The progressive minority has also embraced technology furthermore, they work to affirm the value of science.
Our technology has evolved from heavy, energy dependent machinery into lightweight, handheld, energy efficient devices. With this evolution has also come a redefinition of time, itself. Life now seems to be more compressed all across the range of generations.
Most noteworthy, are our societal norms. The ever present nature of racial parity, feminism, and LGBT equality continue their struggles. Of similar importance were the discussions of the environment and worries about war. Traditionalists wish to arrest and reverse the advances made over the past half-century. Progressives wish to expand them. The song highlights this continuing battle.
The issues that were important in the 1960s have become reignited in the present day. Our unfinished business regarding civil and human rights have again taken center stage.
These concerns are accompanied by the presence of “endless war”, and global climate change. The problems we have failed to adequately address in the past have ballooned into a multi-faceted, global crisis. We might hear the song and think to ourselves, “the times, they are greatly changing”. If anything, Dylan’s song is even more relevant than it was back in 1963 and 1964.