Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is one of his great early-'60s anthems, a worthy successor to "Blowin' in the Wind." The 22-year-old singer/songwriter wrote the song probably in September 1963. He later said he was consciously trying to write a big song, and that comes across clearly. The simple tune, played in waltz time, supports five verses that contain a clarion call to recognize and accept change in a general sense. The opening line, "Come gather 'round people," evokes old folk ballads, but the singer has a cautionary tale in mind, not a soothing story. Using biblical references, starting with the flood and including the Sermon on the Mount, he tells various groups -- writers and critics, senators and congressmen, mothers and fathers -- that change of an uncertain, threatening nature is coming. He offers little advice to cope with this change, suggesting only that mothers and fathers, whose "old road is rapidly agin'," either lend a hand or get out of the way and that, as the flood waters rise, "you better start swimmin'." Like "Blowin' in the Wind," which Dylan had written more than a year earlier, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" spoke philosophically and in general terms, but was easily interpretable in the context of its period of composition as a referring primarily to the civil rights struggle. Yet it also looked beyond that specific movement to more general currents of change already stirring in the country, especially the generational conflict addressed in the fourth verse, an aspect of the song that would make it increasingly meaningful as the 1960s went on.
Dylan first recorded "The Times They Are A-Changin'" as a publishing demo, accompanying himself on piano. This rendition, commercially released in 1991 on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 [Rare & Unreleased] 1961-1991, contains several minor lyric variations from the more familiar versions, including the substitution of "breath" for "time" in the line "If your time to you is worth savin'" in the first verse. The best-known version of the song was recorded by Dylan with an acoustic guitar on October 24, 1963, in sessions for his third album. In recognition of the song's importance, that album was titled The Times They Are A-Changin' when it was released on January 13, 1964. It was perhaps Dylan's most politically oriented LP, also including such overt statements of social conscience as "Ballad of Hollis Brown," "With God on Our Side," "Only a Pawn in Their Game," and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." By being the title and leadoff track, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" served to raise the curtain and set the theme of this serious, disturbing work. Similarly, Dylan began using the song to open his concerts. The Times They Are A-Changin' became Bob Dylan's first album to peak in the Top 20 of the LP bestseller charts, but its austere character prevented it from becoming a big hit; though it eventually went gold, it actually sold less well than its predecessor, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. But the title song earned immediate notice. Like Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary began opening their concerts with it, and they used it as the leadoff track on Peter, Paul and Mary in Concert, which reached the Top Five in September 1964. Their version was released as a single in the U.K., where it charted briefly. (They are also the first to alter the title, replacing the hyphen between "A" and "Changin'" with an apostrophe; many other variations would follow.) Before this, the Dylan LP The Times They Are A-Changin' had charted in the U.K., eventually reaching the Top Five. In anticipation of the singer's spring 1965 tour of England, the Dylan recording was released as a single, and it reached the British Top Ten.
Dylan dropped "The Times They Are A-Changin'" from his set lists after his 1965 U.K. tour as he moved to rock accompaniment, but as the '60s went on, the song began to seem a prescient forecast of the social upheaval being experienced around the world. It turned into a much-recorded standard, with covers appearing on chart records by the Seekers, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, and Cher in 1965-1967. Recognized as one of Dylan's most successful compositions, it was included on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits in 1967. When Dylan returned to touring in the mid-'70s, he again began singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'," often using it as the first song in the solo acoustic mini-set he performed in his shows with the Band in 1974 and doing it with Joan Baez during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975. It was a regular part of the 1978 world tour and is heard as the concluding track on the live album Bob Dylan at Budokan. As Dylan began to mix older material back into his shows in the early '80s after his period of performing only newly written religious songs in 1979, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" returned to his set list in 1981 and stayed in his concerts on a regular basis thereafter. A fourth commercially released Dylan recording of the song appeared in 1995 on his MTV Unplugged CD. "The Times They Are A-Changin'" has also continued to turn up as a song of social concern periodically over the years. James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Graham Nash performed it at the "No Nukes" benefit concerts in 1979, and their version was released on the No Nukes album at the end of the year. Billy Joel played it during his concerts in the Soviet Union and put it on his Kohuept album drawn from the tour in 1987. And Tracy Chapman sang it at the Bob Dylan tribute concert held at Madison Square Garden in 1992 and released in 1993 on Bob Dylan -- The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration.