herald

Wednesday 13 December 2017

50 years on from classic, times have certainly changed for Bob

LEGEND: Dylan's famous protest song was released 50 years ago this week. Eamonn Carr examines its impact both in terms of music and on the 1960s

HALF a century. So long ago that even the man who wrote The Times They Are A-Changin' often forgets the lyrics.

But no problem, it's not an exam. It's a song. A song that flew some sort of freak flag when it was first released in 1964. A flag that will continue to flap down through the centuries.

The Minstrel Boy and The Rising of the Moon were just a couple of the songs that Liam Clancy and his brothers were performing in New York in the early 1960s, when a young Bob Dylan was getting his act together.

Dylan was sharp. He could smell the huckster hustle that seeped through the music industry. When he heard the Clancys, he made a discovery.

"What I was hearing pretty regularly, though, were rebellion songs and those really moved me," he wrote of the Irishmen's repertoire. "I had grasped the idea of what kind of songs I wanted to write."

Released in January 1964, The Times They Are A-Changin' consolidated Dylan's place at the head of a musical movement the media had labelled Protest.

 

FURNACE

His "finger-pointing" ballad put the fear of God into people. Most were happy to clap along to Trini Lopez singing I Had A Hammer or The Singing Nun's Dominique. But this was a blast of the Old Testament with a wheezy harmonica impersonating Hell's furnace.

Dylan's litany of disturbing home truths heralded the worst fears of the status quo. Change. Not the optimism of the Civil Rights anthem A Change Is Gonna Come. Dylan's was fire and brimstone change. Its righteous tone, more pulpit than pop show.

In an Ireland where Brendan Bowyer had yet to discover The Hucklebuck and where Daithi Lacha and Tolka Row were the latest cultural barometers on a fledgling black and white national television station, Dylan's song sounded like the Apocalypse. A fearsome warning.

Strange thing is, while the song undoubtedly freaked some people out, it also had a similar effect on Dylan himself.

He was on a creative roll back then. The previous year, he'd performed at Civil Rights marches in Mississippi and in Washington, where Martin Luther King had delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech. Afterwards he wrote The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Dylan recorded the song in October. A few weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated. The awful coincidence disturbed Dylan.

He barked advice and caution at parents, politicians and commentators and around the world, young people joined in. After decades of World Wars, economic depression and cultural conservatism, here was a convenient advertising slogan that validated independent thinking.

Dylan has since claimed he got lucky. "I came along at the right time," he told writer Mick Brown in 1984. "And I understood the times I was in. If I was starting out now, I don't know where I'd get the inspiration from."

"The order is rapidly fadin'," snarled Dylan and, although he wasn't to have known it, social change accelerated in Ireland in the 1960s.

 

DOMINANCE

Educational opportunities improved. The Women's Rights Movement became active. The dominance of the Church began to weaken. And, thanks largely to television, Ireland became less insular.

Today change is a given. Change happens in a tweet. Back then things moved with glacial slowness. But there were signs of something stirring that even Dylan might not have spotted.

The 1963 Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar made for lurid headlines with disorder. According to reports, around the time Dylan was writing, "There's a battle outside and it's ragin'," the good folk of Westmeath were being plagued by "beatniks, teddyboys, girls and undesirables...doing The Congo and The Twist, most of them armed with bottles and glasses of drink. Several of them lay down on the street..."

That was 50 years ago. Yet, the more things change the more they stay the same. "None of the songs I've written have really dated," says Dylan.

You might take that as a warning.

hnews@herald.ie

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