Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll: "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
As detailed in Clinton Heylin's biography Behind the Shades, musician Tony Glover visited Bob Dylan's New York apartment in early October 1963 and stumbled across the lyrics to a new song, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
When Glover expressed reservations about the line "Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call," Dylan countered, "Well, you know, it seems to be what the people want to hear."
Dylan had recorded a publishing demo the previous month and recorded the song officially on October 24. Though the Times They Are A-Changin' album wasn't released until mid-January 1964, Dylan performed the song in concert throughout the fall of 1963.
His ambivalence about the song colors his divergent recollections. Discussing "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in the notes for the mid-Eighties Biograph retrospective, Dylan stated, "This was definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and for whom I wanted to say it to.... I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, ya know, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way....I had to play this song the same night that President Kennedy died. It sort of took over as the opening song and stayed that way for a long time."
In a 1971 interview with biographer Anthony Scaduto, Dylan told a slightly different story. He'd spent the evening of November 22, 1963 glued to the television in his manager's office. "The next night, Saturday, I had a concert upstate, in Ithaca or Buffalo. There was a really down feeling in the air. I had to go on stage, I couldn't cancel, I went to the hall and to my amazement the hall was filled. Everybody turned out for the concert. The song I was opening with was 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' and I thought, 'Wow, how can I open with that song? I'll get rocks thrown at me.' That song was just too much for the day after the assassination. But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there. I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding that song. And I couldn't understand why they were clapping or why I wrote the song, even. I couldn't understand anything. For me, it was just insane."
Written at the top of the lyrics to 'The Times They Are A-Changin'" is "Come all you young fellows, so young and so fine. Seek not your...," a reference to Merle Travis' 1946 song "Down in the Dungeon." Travis and the song are described in the book Songs of Work and Protest by Edith Fowke, Joe Glazer and Kenneth Ira Bray, saying "While he himself never worked in the mines, the hardships and struggles of the miner's life were burned into his consciousness and he never forgot them... In "Dark as a Dungeon" he manages to express the peculiar isolation of the miner's lot. No other song portrays so well the loneliness, the constant presence of danger and potential death, and the strange attraction which keeps a man working in the mines."
Dylan (as well as other country/folk performers - Johnny Cash recorded the song at Folsom Prison) was a fan of Travis. As stated inside the liner notes of 1962's self-titled album, "A good deal of Dylan's steel-string guitar work runs strongly in the blues vein, although he will vary it with country configurations, Merle Travis picking and other methods." Dylan (accompanied by Joan Baez) would perform this song thirteen times during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, and several times thereafter.