The times they are a changin’ endin’: Bob Dylan’s apocalypse (End 1.4)

Long before Dylan had any sort of conversion to Christianity (he was, for a time, “born again” in the late 1970s and early 80s), his songs were saturated with biblical imagery (and they still are now). Often in popular culture elements of apocalypticism are there simply as assumptions on how one is to express things in times of trouble or in situations perceived as crises. The cultural revolution of the 1960s in the United States was a time of crisis in the eyes of the youth at the centre of this revolution, and Dylan was often considered a spokesperson for this revolution (even though he himself did not accept this role).

Characteristic of the ancient apocalyptic worldview are notions that there is a sharp divide between evil and good people or beings (dualism), that current regimes or world-powers are under the control of evil powers, that some good power (God) is imminently or in the midst of intervening in a fundamental way to oust evil and restore good, and that that good power will establish a society in which good reigns forever and evil is forever caged or obliterated. These basic assumptions that undergird the apocalyptic worldview sometimes come to expression in popular music and film.

In his pure folk days (shortly before the introduction of the electric guitar which, initially, resulted in some tomato throwing and booing at Dylan concerts), Dylan wrote a song you may have heard of: The times they are a-changin’ (1964 on his third album of the same name — some low quality mp3s are available on bobdylan.com). (If you haven’t heard of it, then where have you been? It’s in bank commercials here in Canada now, after all–not what the 1960s youth had in mind.)

In this song Dylan casts the cultural revolution of 1960s America in terms of an apocalyptic prophecy. Here there is the righteous (youth) and the wicked (the older generation of senators and others); there is talk of a raging battle; there are warnings of an imminent cataclysmic change which is described in terms of a coming flood that will bring the old order to an end (very common imagery for final judgment in ancient apocalyptic literature like 1 Enoch); there is a prophecy of a new arrangement in which the corrupt ways of the old regime will be left behind (“get out of the new one”); there is talk of a reversal that will accompany the new arrangement (the first will be last). This Dylan tune illustrates well the often unconscious presence of apocalypticism in the western imagination (even if God is left out of the equation and substituted by some other group or power).

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.
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’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

(Bob Dylan; Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music)

(Do not emulate Dylan in using the term “prophesize”, which should be “prophesy”. You don’t know how many times I have corrected this in students’ papers!)

3 thoughts on “The times they are a changin’ endin’: Bob Dylan’s apocalypse (End 1.4)

  1. David Buckna

    “Long before Dylan had any sort of conversion to Christianity (he was, for a time, “born again” in the late 1970s and early 80s), his songs were saturated with biblical imagery (and they still are now).”

    How do you know Dylan is NOT “born again” now?

    Bob Dylan quiz
    by David Buckna
    http://www.tollbooth.org/2005/features/dylan.html

  2. Phil Harland

    Hello David,

    Sorry if you misunderstood my intent. I wasn’t claiming to have special access to the ongoing internal life of Dylan. I was simply observing that the manner in which Dylan expressed (in music) his religiosity in the late 70s and early 80s (e.g. the Saved Album) fit very well within the “born again” form of Christianity at that time. However, this form of expression did not continue in subsequent albums. He may well still identify himself as Christian, though you would need to ask him. I haven’t read or heard anything he himself has said recently to suggest he primarily identifies himself as “born again”, however.  Either way, his music is still saturated with biblical imagery and with religious questions, as I think you would agree.

    Phil

  3. kevin

    Hi Phil,

    I have some bootlegs where Bob quite literally preaches to the crowd. He was very passionate about his faith during that period. I’m no Dylanologist, but I think it’s safe to say that we’ll see Bob in heaven one day.

    b.s.p.

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