The Times, They are A-Changin’.

This post is the last of three planned LOTRW posts examining Bob Dylan’s body of work and its implications for (and possible inspiration from?) meteorology. The first was built around Blowin’ in the Wind. The second, on It’s a Hard Rain aGonna’ Fall. Today’s focus is on The Times, They are a-Changing. Wikipedia tells us that Dylan likely composed this song in 1963, and quotes him to the effect that “This was definitely a song with a purpose… I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.”

The same Wikipedia piece tells us that one critic, Michael Gray called it “the archetypal protest song.” Gray commented, “Dylan’s aim was to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public—to give that inchoate sentiment an anthem and give its clamour an outlet. He succeeded, but the language of the song is nevertheless imprecisely and very generally directed.” Gray suggested that the song has been made obsolete by the very changes that it predicted and hence was politically out of date almost as soon as it was written.

Hmm. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But the song’s message might not seem so dated to today’s ears. But you be the judge; here are the lyrics:

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’
And 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
The battle outside ragin’
Will 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’

Those who study prophecy for a living make a couple of points that seem relevant here. First, they tell us that prophecy often is not so much some prediction of the future as a deeply perceptive analysis of the present. Second, they note that prophecies may share a similarity with wines – the good ones improve in taste and reputation with age, revealing themselves to be more broadly relevant and enduring with passage of time and the emergence of new issues, while the quality and standing of weaker prophecies continue to fade.

(All well and good, Bill, but I don’t see obvious reference to meteorology in the same way as you find it in the previous two numbers.)

Given my background, it’s most natural to read this through the relatively narrow lens of climate change. (And, no, I’m not attempting to draw any connections between the lyrics and, say, sea level rise. That looks like way too much of a stretch. It’s actually got a bit more to do with the call to writers and journalists to not be too quick to call winners and losers, to political leaders to engage, and to people of a certain generation not to dwell in the past – all of which would seem to apply to today’s climate debate.) In our world and in my lifetime attention to climate change has morphed. It began as quiet study and concern largely confined to scientists. It then grew into today’s rancorous, verging-on-violent uproar entraining populations and nations as a whole. Views of the issue have expanded commensurately. In the United States, the issue first enlarged to include climate impacts. Later (dating back to the 1980’s) scientists and the government began framing the challenge as more than mere climate change. Rather, they saw global change, including changes in the oceans, cryosphere, and biosphere. The U.S. Global Change Research Program was the result.  Meanwhile, the social scientists weighed in, most notably in a massive, multi-year, multi-authored study entitled Human Choice and Climate Change, published in the 1990’s and (excuse my continuing rant, dating back to 2012), receiving far less attention than should have been its due. They saw social change and technological advance as both major drivers and impacts.  

Enter the artist (Bob Dylan), who notes, in effect: It’s not just the climate that’s changing. It’s not just the physical and ecological Earth. It’s not just the monumental social change. It’s more than all these. The times themselves, they are changing.

Think of this as perhaps the third in a graduated succession of aphorisms:

1. History repeats itself. Or, similarly, Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The origins of this first quote are so ancient and widespread as to be lost in the mists of that very history. The latter quote is attributed to George Santayana. Often, for minor perturbations in a society – a routine election cycle, an economic boom, a seasonal flu outbreak, or a dry year out west, history and precedent can provide a guide as to what might come next. Of course, history doesn’t really repeat itself[1]. Which brings us to:

2. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. This quote is frequently attributed to Mark Twain (but with little basis, as it turns out). Captures the idea that in some instances, history’s lessons might not apply in detail to new circumstances, but nevertheless remain useful.

3. The times, they are a-changin’. However, every so often, challenges arise that differ radically from those of the past, or last occurred so distantly that the past circumstances bore little correspondence to the present conditions. In these instances, the past no longer provides a useful guide. Dylan saw the civil rights movement as of this nature. Michael Gray’s critical view that this problem had been ameliorated and Dylan’s protest outdated has proved too sanguine. That old enemy – racism – has never gone away. Today it combines with other inequities, climate change, pandemic, war and economic upheaval. This cocktail of woes has fomented worldwide discontent and unrest that tears at the social fabric – from global to neighborhood levels. Trust across our society is at a low ebb, just when it’s most needed. Everything is changing – all at once, and suddenly.

Where, Bill, is the good news in any or all of this?

In a word – awareness. The discontent, frustration, fear, anger is nearly universal. Hardly anyone is sleepwalking through present-day realities complacent about present circumstances or future prospects. On whatever continent, whether rich or poor , whether nominally powerful and influential or in a clearly humble position, eight billion people are dissatisfied, to say the least. People lack a sense of agency. Because it’s the times themselves that are changing, no single person or small group or government or industry can envision let alone accomplish the work to be done.

Passivity in the face of despair on this scale is unsustainable. It will necessarily give way to action. Countless individuals, institutions and nations will combine – are already combining – in myriad small, exploratory efforts to make things better. Many will fail and be abandoned. But others will achieve a degree of success, and with that success garner attention. The attention will trigger competition and imitation, and at increasing scale.

 All of us have read enough about the past to know this cycle. Some of us have lived long enough to experience the full cycle directly. Times of prosperity and well being never last, but neither do times of despair.

Expect improvement. And don’t be surprised to find that you aren’t just witnessing that positive change. You’re playing a role. These tough times too are a-changin’.


[1]Since science is focused on events and processes that are repeatable, history sometimes struggles to get outsiders consider it a social science, but this limit for both science and history is a subject for another day).

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