Bob Dylan, in addition to many other things, is revered for the timelessness of his songs. For half a century he’s lassoed the zeitgeist, rendered it in swathes of artful imagery, and then watched it stand the test of time. And that’s the goal of folk music, really, to capture the spirit of the folk in such a way that it transcends era. Dylan just happens to do it better than pretty much everyone else—well enough, in fact, to nab this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Nobel, though received contentiously by the literary community, also affirms our trust in the lyricist’s abiding rhetoric. But while we still relate to the times that Dylan paints, it is also unassailably true that times do change. In the title track of his album, The Times They Are A-Changin’ (recorded this week back in 1963), the folk bard spins a tale of progress, urging us not to stall and hinder the changes that occur naturally in our culture. This message has been borrowed and recycled many times since Dylan first wrote it, and today we can reflect on its permeation throughout both era and industry.
“The Times They Are a-Changin’” was inspired by English and Scottish ballads. Its name, even, includes the archaic ‘a’ intensifier as an immediate allusion to the folk songs of old. In 1985, Dylan described the creative process to a young Cameron Crowe, then fresh off of the film adaptation to his book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, and ripe to begin his eminent career as a writer/director. “This was definitely a song with a purpose. 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.”
A year before that, a young corporate emissary had also adopted the song’s cultural clout. Steve Jobs, in his now iconic unveiling of the Macintosh computer at the 1984 Apple shareholders meeting, recited the song’s second verse, invoking its core value of moving forward to bigger and better things.
The song has, somewhat ironically, been adopted by the business world several times, perhaps in an attempt to temper corporate image with hipper countercultural undertones. In 1994, for instance, “The Times They Are a-Changin'” was licensed for use for television advertisements by the auditing and accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand. (These included the Richie Havens cover, not the Dylan original.) Two year later, a children’s choir sang the song in an advert for Canada’s Bank of Montreal. And then in 2005, the insurance company Kaiser Permanente used the song yet again in another TV ad.
“The Times” has been affiliated with film outside the Crowe interview, too. In 2009 it played during the opening sequence of Watchmen to illustrate 20th century history, serving as the embodiment of an entire 100 years of culture.
Most notably, of course, the “The Times They Are a-Changin’” has been a tour de force in the world of music. According to the “Dylan Covers Database” (yes that’s a thing), there are 436 recordings—including bootlegs—of Dylan’s coveted track. Perhaps most famously, The Byrds covered it, including it on their 1965 record, Turn! Turn! Turn!. As the story goes, George Harrison and Paul McCartney were in the control booth during its recording and, according to The Byrds, this prevented them from finishing the session and the track effectively.
Dozens of other seminal artists have covered Dylan’s track: The Beach Boys, Tracy Chapman, Herbie Hancock, Bruce Springsteen, Nina Simone…the list goes on and on. Its presence in our culture is nearly universal, and Rolling Stone‘s 2004 edition of the 5oo Greatest Songs of All Time lists “The Times They Are a-Changin'” as number 59.
The song’s importance to our culture, though, is not limited to the progressives and the marginalized for which it was written. Prolific music critic Michael Gray did name it “the archetypal protest song”—a sentiment undoubtedly shared by most when presented with the song—but, in its transcendence of era and industry, the song has also been ascribed with status and significant monetary worth. In 2010, Dylan’s original hand-written lyrics were sold at the Sotheby’s auction house in New York, purchased for $422,500 by a hedge fund manager. Given the intention behind the song, it’s worth noting the irony, but, more importantly, it’s also worth noting that the song’s message is felt not just by the marginalized and their sympathizers, but also by those that have the means to affect change.
So, with that in mind, come gather round people, wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown. “The Times They Are a-Changin'” is a political statement, at heart, but it’s also an acceptance of life. Everything is impermanent, always changing. And so we must learn to accept this so that we can relate and grow with each other as the times change. From those that dwell in corporate realms to those that spend their energy fighting social inequality, we are all the folk, and we are best when we change with the times together.
Image: Columbia Records