This is a heavy album, serious. Dylan ain’t playing around. Civil unrest, the Bay of Pigs, social inequality have all made Dylan somber and stormy. “With God on Our Side” takes as its strategy finger-wagging polemics: “The history books … tell it so well… / The cavalries charged, the Indians died / For the country was young, with God on its side.” This critical tone, coupled with slower, deeper strums and longer, more mournful pulls of the harmonica captures Dylan’s disaffection. Given his youth (just 23), this wizened persona unsettles me—the world-weariness must be more performance than measured conclusion. Even the cover photo makes him look gaunt, tired, older than he is.
“Only a Pawn in Their Game” smacks of conspiracy-theory talk. As I ride the Green Line B through Brighton, I can’t help but think of the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Meetings, Bohemian Grove. Sure, corrupt authority and rigid societal superstructures that rely on false divisions and propaganda must be called out for the harm they reap on human beings. But it’s tiresome, to be honest, to have a full album’s worth. These condemnatory protest songs place “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in a sub-genre of folk music, which prevents wider appeal.
But the brilliance of the title track, composed in 3/4 time, can’t be denied. Check out the first verse:
Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.
This tercet contains an AAA rhyme scheme. Typical of the ballad form, each line contains four stresses. The subsequent tercet offers a variation on both rhyme and number of stresses:
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
The status quo of the “A” gives way to “B” rhyme, interlocked with the last of four A’s to put added emphasis on the final B: “The times are changing”. This organization is undergirded by the 3/4 time, and the three stresses in each B line, increasing the sensation of inevitable progress.
The structure relies, I’m convinced, on a foundation in formal poetry. He’s well read, and he’s willing to rely on tradition–to work with the master’s tools–to package and push his message of peace, equality, and the uprooting of corruption.
He’s really good—precocious, even—at songwriting form. He’s a great performer. But if he spent his career in this protest mode, he’d be a niche artist.