As we reach 1964, I have realized this exercise is as much a study in history and sociology as it is music. America and the world entered 1964 under dark the shadows of civil rights unrest, a rapidly expanding war in Vietnam, and the jarring reality of a tragic day late in November in Dallas, Texas. While both pop music and other genres continued to reach new heights, the music continued to more noticeably reflect these unsettled times. Just as today’s album from Bob Dylan proclaimed, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.
Just as Brian Wilson was expanding his creative control and influence over the Beach Boys music and production, this third album from Dylan represented the first to only include original compositions. The title track is one of the most influential and telling songs of the early 1960s, and the entire album directly confronts the challenges of the day. “With God On Our Side” is a powerful anti-war song, ending with the memorable and profound line, “If God’s on our side, He’ll stop the next war.” “Only a Pawn In Their Game” is a brutal recanting of the murder of Medgar Evers, exposing the savagery and overt ignorance of white southerners who continued to cling to their outdated and horrific beliefs and values. I always knew Bob Dylan was an iconic voice for the counter-culture of the 1960s, but experiencing the evolution of his message and music helps me fully appreciate the passion behind his songs.
One of the trademarks of Dylan music is how widely covered and reinvented his songs are by other artists. There are several Dylan songs that are much more commonly recognized by their subsequent cover version. Both the “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “With God On Our Side” appear on one of my all-time favorite albums, “Yellow Moon” by the Neville Brothers, performed by the angelic voice of Aaron Neville. And thus, there we have the true magic of Bob Dylan. His vocals are heartfelt, soulful, and authentic, but it is his stories and words, often carried further by others, that carry the day.
Even in 2021, “The Times Are A Changin’” remains highly relevant and serves as a bold reminder that music and art can be simply entertaining, or highly impactful in meaning and message. A lot of great music lies ahead in 1964, as Dylan and all of the voices of this time stretched their boundaries and challenged the norms of society and music.