Thursday, May 04, 2006

"For Now's The Time For Your Tears"

With the recent revival (of sorts) of protest music, I decided to go back to what I consider the grand-daddy of all protest records, Bob Dylan's THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN' (1964). This was Dylan's 3rd album, and it was recorded from August through October of 1963, released in January of 1964.

This is classic, solo-acoustic (with harmonica) Dylan, telling stories to illustrate social and political ills, while simultaneously issuing rallying cries that would define an entire generation.

The tracks are as follows (all written by Bob Dylan):

The Times They Are a-Changin –3:15
Ballad of Hollis Brown –5:06
With God on Our Side –7:08
One Too Many Mornings –2:41
North Country Blues –4:35
Only a Pawn in Their Game –3:33
Boots of Spanish Leather –4:40
When the Ship Comes In –3:18
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll –5:48
Restless Farewell –5:32

The title track is one of the "rallying calls" to which I referred above. It is certainly among Dylan's most famous song titles, as it captured the spirit of upheaval that was well underway with the civil rights movement of the early '60s, and which would later grow with protests of the war in Viet Nam. It is probably the most positive song on the album ("For the loser now/Will be later to win/For the times they are a-changin'"). Little did Dylan know when he wrote and subsequently recorded it that one of the biggest "changes" of all-time was about to occur, the assassination of JFK. The song's message of inevitable change served it well in the face of such tragedy, specifically its appearance of speaking for youth ("Come mothers and fathers/Throughout the land/And don't criticize/What you can't understand/Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command/Your old road is/Rapidly agin'/Please get out of the new one/If you can't lend your hand/For the times they are a-changin'"). Dylan later denied that the song was written specifically to address any "generation gap", but the die was already cast.

"Ballad of Hollis Brown" has a rather funky, bluesy guitar part, and tells a horrific tale. Hollis lives on a failing farm in South Dakota, and cannot find work to generate needed income. His family is starving. The images are overwhelmingly powerful (e.g., "Your babies are crying louder/It's pounding on your brain/Your wife's screams are stabbin' you/Like the dirty drivin' rain"). Let's just say that Hollis owns a shotgun, and uses his very last dollar to buy shells for said shotgun. The story does not have a happy ending.

"With God on Our Side" is a powerful anti-war song. Unlike "Masters of War", in which Dylan expressed utter contempt for the makers of war through a bitter diatribe, this song is slower in pace, and uses irony to illustrate the senselessness of war ("For you don't count the dead/When God's on your side"). Dylan walks through a list of wars from U.S. history, highlighting hypocrisy at every turn (e.g., "When the Second World War/Came to an end/We forgave the Germans/And we were friends/Though they murdered six million/In the ovens they fried/The Germans now too/Have God on their side").

"One Too Many Mornings" is a quiet little tune. It basically serves as a goodbye note to a lover ("You're right from your side/I'm right from mine/We're both just one too many mornings/An' a thousand miles behind").

"North Country Blues" is a harrowing song describing the collapse of a mining town. If this song doesn't depress the shit out of you, then you're just not listening. There's a reason that the recent movie describing horrid events at a mining company was called "North Country". Actually, there might've been several reasons, but one certainly must've been to leverage the feelings of anguish and anger already associated with this song. The movie specifically addresses sexual harrassment, whereas this song deals with devastation in the wake of closing a mine, which is relocated to South America, where labor is cheaper. The song, however, is told from the point of view of a woman, the wife of a former mine worker ("I lived by the window/As he talked to himself/This silence of tongues it was building/Then one morning's wake/The bed it was bare/And I's left alone with three children"). Bleak.

"Only a Pawn in Their Game" starts with the assassination of Medgar Evers, and proceeds to address the crooked system in place in the South, which served to oppress all of its poor people, pitting white against black ("He's taught in his school/From the start by the rule/That the laws are with him/To protect his white skin/To keep up his hate/So he never thinks straight/'Bout the shape that he's in/But it ain't him to blame/He's only a pawn in their game"). Dylan played the song at voter registration rallies and other civil rights events, where it was very well received.

"Boots of Spanish Leather" is the story of a woman who sails away on an overseas trip, asking her lover if there's anything she can bring him back from the trip. Later, he receives a letter in which she states "...I don't know when I'll be comin' back again/It depends on how I'm a-feelin'." At this point, he asks her to bring him "Spanish boots of Spanish leather", a desperate attempt to win her return, I suppose.

"When the Ship Comes In" is fairly quick-paced, and provides a needed respite from the gloominess. The imagery is vibrant (e.g., "Oh the foes will rise..." but, "Then they'll raise their hands/Sayin' we'll meet all your demands/But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered/And like Pharaoh's tribe/They'll be drowned in the tide/And like Goliath, they'll be conquered").

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" should come with a spoken word intro along the lines of Now, let me bring the house down a bit. Talk about a depressing song! According to some, it's an exaggeration of a true story. In any event, it serves as an incredibly effective allegory, highlighting racial injustice. You really should hear it. It's astonishingly moving, in my humble opinion. The last line of this song serves as the title of this post (see above).

"Restless Farewell" is an apology of sorts. As the finale of this 10-song set, it could easily be read as a suicide note. However, more likely, it's just a final "fuck off" to anyone and everyone ("So I'll make my stand/And remain as I am/And bid farewell and not give a damn").

Bottom line: Out of sheer, morbid curiosity, I checked the RS "Top 500 Albums" list. This album is #___. Oh, wait, it's not on there at all...fucking disgrace. Anyway, I wouldn't recommend listening to it if you are feeling the least bit like offing yourself. It's a depressing mother of an album. However, it's also one of the most socially and politically aware albums to ever be released. So, while I really like the new Neil and PJ albums, and appreciate their sentiments (I mean, at least someone is saying something), let us not forget that they don't make 'em like they used to.


Blogger Keith Kennedy said...

With God On Our Side is one of my favorites. Irony is thick as bugs at twilight.

Excellent review of an excellent period piece.

12:16 PM, May 04, 2006  
Blogger Rob said...

Here's something about Dylan's first program as an XM satellite radio host...pretty interesting and includes a playlist!

2:37 PM, May 04, 2006  

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