Inspired by the 1960s movements for peace and equality, Dylan wrote The Times They Are a-Changin’, But were they? asks Jeff Goulding.
Bob Dylan was recently awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Of course the award owes more to the truth in his lyrics, than the tune in his head. Nevertheless it is a richly deserved award. Though it may be fashionable to say I was, I’d be lying if I claimed I was a big fan of Dylan’s music. I did however always believe his words to be profoundly poetic, sometimes hauntingly so. But were they prophetic?
Much like the world we live in today, Dylan bore witness to an age of great technological and creative advances, juxtaposed with rising intolerance, inequality and war. Just as many do now, young people all across the world came onto the streets and fought hard for a better world, free from suffering and injustice. Inspired by these movements for peace and equality he wrote The Times They Are a-Changin’, a classic that perfectly trapped the zeitgeist in lyrical form.
Perhaps Bruce Springsteen put it better and far more succinctly than I. “This song was written in period in my country’s history when a people’s yearning for a more just and open society exploded. Bob had the courage to stand in that fire and he caught the sound of that explosion.”
What a time to be alive that must have been, in which you could actually feel the old order’s grasp slipping.
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 the battle outside raging
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing
I feel both exhilarated and frustrated by these words. When I hear them I am lifted by their sense of righteous anger and unbridled optimism. On the other hand, blessed with the benefit of hindsight, I am struck by the self-evidence of their inaccuracy and depressed by the apparent permanence of injustice and ignorance.
As a result the Bob Dylan of the 60’s, were he transported from that era to the present day, would surely be consumed with a sense of deja vu. This does not invalidate the heroic struggles of that generation, rather it condemns the senators and congressmen who failed to heed the call. And it exposes the strength of the established order and it’s death-grip on power.
We must all draw our own conclusions of course, but for me I am struck by the futility of tinkering around the edges of a system that produces such a never ending cycle. Yesterday’s demagogues may fade away briefly when the winds of progress blows hard enough, but unless the system that produced them is swept away with them, it will simply continue to regenerate them through the ages.
To my mind there is no evidence to support Martin Luther King’s assertion that the arc of history bends naturally towards justice. To believe that flies in the face of reality. At best it is a case of one step forward, followed by two steps back. Therefore I must conclude that unless people are prepared to fight for the kind of future they want, they risk having it shaped for them. Social evolution is slow and is as filled with blind alleys as it is new horizons. Instead, only a permanent social and political revolution can deliver the kind of society Dylan and his fellow travellers dreamed was possible.
That may seem extreme. If it does, I simply ask that you turn on your TV or check your news feed. Do we not still live in a country that punishes rough sleepers, but can’t make up its mind about whether a corrupt millionaire, who robbed the pensions of thousands of workers, deserves his knighthood or not. Is this not a world where politicians would bomb children out of their homes in the name of democracy, but are found wanting when asked to provide shelter from the resulting carnage, much worse allow those same children to drown in the seas, agonisingly close to dry land.
Today Conservative politicians still seek to demonise these same refugees in order to do the bare minimum, in terms of their humanitarian obligations. We should “look after our own first,” we are told. As if Syrian, Afghani and Libyan people belong to some other species. It’s like we are locked in some grim replay of the 1930’s, when fascism and war displaced millions and politicians sought to scapegoat and dehumanise, in order to hide their own failings.
Are we really prepared to accept that the fifth richest country in the world really incapable of feeding and housing its own citizens, while at the same time holding out the hand of compassion and friendship to others? In truth the present system has shown its self incapable of doing either. My point is that this is an indictment of our economic model and not the people suffering at its hands.
It is true that too many British citizens depend on food-banks, sleep on the streets or live in squalid temporary accommodation. Too frequently those in jobs don’t know how many hours they will work and can’t plan from one week to the next. Others are paid so little they take two or even three jobs in order to make ends meet, robbing themselves of the free time necessary to explore their potential.
Wages are being driven down and quality jobs are in decline, while those with real aspiration to better themselves, through education, are forced into terrible levels of debt. However, none of this is happening because of the greed of workers, the poor, refugees and the dispossessed. It’s happening because of the perverse priorities of a political and economic system, that can write blank cheques for warfare, while claiming there’s nothing left for welfare.
In truth most of us have more in common with the refugee or the person we walk by, sleeping in the shop doorway, than we do with people responsible for putting them there. Yet somehow many have allowed themselves to find common purpose with the perpetrator, rather than the victim. As a result the injustice continues.
Sadly, despite the best efforts of Bob Dylan’s generation, the times have not changed in any meaningful way. Instead the old battles are being fought once more. And for far too many people social justice remains as illusive as it ever did. Consider the 27 year battle of the Hillsborough families and survivors and the ‘Bloody Sunday’ campaigners, for whom justice had to be wrestled from the state, as opposed to being handed to them as their right. What of those demanding a fair hearing on Orgreave? They are yet to hear the truth, let alone catch a distant glimpse of justice. Does this not betray the paucity of progress since the 1960’s?
So long as we cling to the same structures and accept the wisdom of those whose interests are not our own, we risk perpetuating our predicament, and condemning future generations to the same dreadful cycle. In short if you keep doing what you’ve always done, don’t be surprised when you keep getting the same results.
Our ‘democracy’ is no longer fit for purpose and no programme, no matter how radical will survive the relentless march of time, unless there is a democratic revolution that redistributes power away from corporations and capital and into the hands of communities. This won’t happen unless we demand it, surely this is the real lesson of history. This is why Bob Dylan’s words seem as depressingly relevant today as they did more than sixty years ago.
Come gather around 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
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing
Jeff Goulding blogs regularly at www.jeffgoulding.com