50 years ago today, Bob Dylan released his third studio album, The Times They Are A-Changin’. With it's biblical imagery, stark black and white cover shot and songs born of truth and injustice, torment and pain, power and struggle, this first album of all Dylan originals would establish him as the defining, albeit consistently reluctant, voice of protest music.
Below, Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman looks back on an album that, half a century later, still speaks volumes.
“I met Bob in late ‘62 at the back of The Village String Shop which was run by a character called Izzy Young. If the songwriting the side of him had suddenly burst through on Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A–Changin’ was a fleshing out of his initial ideas. This record is the mark of maturity. It’s also a much starker record. Listening to the title track recently, I realised that the words had anger in them but it is not an angry performance. He was just saying, “This is the way it is and this is the way it’s going to be.” It’s not to challenge to The Establishment, but a realisation that things wouldn’t be the same again.
“In America, the Ballad Of Hollis Brown happens every day.”
Tony Glover (of Koerner, Ray And Glover) once told me that when he was visiting Dylan in Minnesota he took a look at The Times They Are A-Changin’ and he asked Bob what it was about. Bob just said, “People seem to like protest songs”, so I think there was an element of just going after an audience. But even if that was he was doing, he sure did it well.
Musically songs like North Country Blues and Boots Of Spanish Leather have really strong Appalachian roots. He must have listened to the Harry Smith recordings – the Ballads disc especially. There’s also a mature resignation in a song like Boots Of Spanish Leather. He accepts the girl isn’t going to come back and see him so he figures she can just send him the boots. Another personal song is One Too Many Mornings. There’s a winsome quality in that song, but a maturity where he realises that you can’t force anyone to love you.
Listening back to it recently, it struck me that The Lonely Death Of Hattie Carroll could not happen in America now, but the Ballad Of Hollis Brown happens every day. It’s about somebody who can’t keep it together for his family and who kills the wife and the children before taking to the gun to himself. That happens everyday in America. That poverty is still there.
Overall, there is another writer that Dylan reminds me of: Abraham Lincoln. There’s a wonderful book by a guy called Garry Wills about the Gettysberg Address [Lincoln At Gettysberg: The Words That Remade America, Simon & Schuster, 1992]. He talks about how Lincoln had absorbed all of these influences over time. He had read Shakespeare, history, the Greek epic poets, and it all comes out in his own words. I think Dylan writes for the ages in a similar way, sometimes quite consciously, and that's certainly the case around The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
As told to Phil Alexander.
Now check out live performances of the tracks from The Times They Are A-Changin’ via the six videos below:
The Doors Official iPad app – co-created by Jac Holzman – is available from the App Store now.