Bob Dylan is one of the most notable singer-songwriters of the 20th century. While he has a plethora of memorable songs, his songs “Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” and “Things Have Changed” tend to stand out above the rest, and not just because of their universal praise. Each one of these songs speaks in its own way to the respective and often collective experiences of the average American citizen. “Like a Rolling Stone” showcases what happens when young ideals and ignorance meet an unforgiving world. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” expresses sentiments that were held by an entire faction of people over the course of the 1960s, a time when the United States was battling with itself and with foreign powers. Finally, “Things Have Changed” is a song that indirectly alludes to the aforementioned songs and to the fallen ideals that Dylan once held. This paper will explore “Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” and “Things Have Changed,” and then it will describe their respective role in Bob Dylan’s creative vantage point as a singer-songwriter.
In 2010, Rolling Stone named Bob Dylan’s 1965 song “Like a Rolling Stone” as the number one song on the magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Before one listens to or reads the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone,” one might speculate if the magazine just liked the title mention. However, the depth of Dylan’s 1965 tune is such that it resonates with the human experience, especially in contemporary Western culture. “Like a Rolling Stone” is a song that describes a fall from grace. “Like a Rolling Stone” describes a person, most closely acknowledged as “Miss Lonely,” who comes from an affluent background, has lost most if not all social stature, and now must fend for herself “out on the street” (Dylan). While “Like a Rolling Stone” serves as an indirect warning to the listener, a warning to recognize their social position regardless of what it may be, it also contains a silver lining, which will be discussed below.
Bob Dylan begins “Like a Rolling Stone” drawing attention to the material aspect of the song’s primary character (to be henceforth referred to as “Miss Lonely”): “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” (Dylan). Here, Dylan sets the tone of affluence surrounding the character. Miss Lonely is a seemingly oblivious individual. Dylan subversively comments that she thinks of herself as charitable, yet she only offers a dime of her supposed wealth to those she perceives as lower than her on the social hierarchy. At the same time Dylan offers that her friends and those around her would warn her that it is a mistake to take her social position for granted; Miss Lonely laughs at this. However, the audience comes to find that Miss Lonely is no longer proud, that she has fallen from her chrome horse and has to scrounge for food now when it used to be given to her. This is the central character makeup that surrounds Miss Lonely throughout “Like a Rolling Stone.” Ultimately, Dylan wants his audience to understand Miss Lonely as a person who did not realize the gifts she either possessed or was given in the past and now longs for her missed opportunities.
“Like a Rolling Stone” is the best example of Dylan’s creativity in songwriting. Dylan wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” at a time when he was considered quitting music altogether. He wrote it at a time when he was disgruntled with his own life and with how he was being perceived by the outside world. In some ways, “Like a Rolling Stone” comes across as self-criticism, a song that alludes to Dylan’s loneliness at the time and his uncertainty about which direction his life is heading. Certainly, this is not the primary focus of “Like a Rolling Stone,” but the song is derived from one of Dylan’s multi-page personal accounts of his frustrations, musings, and desires: “[It was] this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single” (Jackson). This account represents a creative breakthrough for Dylan, who is quoted saying he had “never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that was what I should do” (Jackson). Thus, “Like a Rolling Stone” was not only a breakthrough song for the music industry at the time, as it echoed the collective sentiments of America’s post-World War II youth at the time (who were unsure of their direction in America’s new consumerist society), but it was also a breakthrough song for Bob Dylan’s creativity. “Like a Rolling Stone” describes the life of Miss Lonely and her sudden uncertainty of her own life, but it also contains influences of who Bob Dylan was at the time of its writing and subsequent release.
There is also a slight silver lining in the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Towards the end of the song, Dylan writes, “When ya’ ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose, You’re invisible now, ya’ got no secretes to conceal” (Dylan). On one hadn, Dylan could easily be taking a cheap shot at Miss Lonely, pointing out her lack of social status and influence; she is nothing and invisible. However, the silver hand shows that in removing Miss Lonely’s golden veil, she is free to be herself. Before, Miss Lonely was beholden to the opinions of others (perhaps like Dylan was to his critics), but she is now free to learn, understand, and look for her own definition of affluence and grace, now that she has lost both. Miss Lonely’s secrets are out. The world knows that she did not study hard enough at her prestigious school, instead opting to drink and party, or Dylan calls it: “juiced” (Dylan). The world knows that she is no longer a proud pillar who lives secondhand off of the performances of others. Now, Miss Lonely is free to live with nothing and find something.
A few years earlier, in 1963, Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” a powerful song that alludes to the real world more directly than “Like a Rolling Stone.” The 1960s were an extremely changeable decade in the United States. It was a decade that saw the civil rights movement make great forward progress, the assassination of an American president, the impeachment of a different American president, a war in a foreign country, the height of the Cold War, and the landing of a man on the moon. While not all of these items had occurred yet at the of the writing of “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” it was very clear, especially after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the United State/Soviet Union Cold War battles, that the social and political climate was changing rapidly.
Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” serves as a rallying call to everyone in the United States. The song directly addresses the “creatives” of society (writer, critics, etc.), the influencers (senators, congressmen, etc.), and the common American citizen (“Come gather ‘round people, Wherever you roam”)(Dylan). In “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” Dylan is urging every American to take note that they are a part of America’s change in identity and if they are not willing to be a part of this movement, then they are blocking “up the hall” or will “sink like a stone” (Dylan).
“The Times They Are a-Changin’” preaches progress and change; it is a sort of anti-establishment protest song. In “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” Dylan indirectly acknowledges that the 1960s were one of the biggest counterculture movements in the American history and that this momentum could be used to tilt the United States towards more progressive ideals (e.g. the Civil Rights movement). Using a more contemporary colloquial phrase, Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” warns those who are “on the wrong side of history” that if they do not change with the changing times, then they will be remembered as they are in current times.
“Things Have Changed” is a song that Bob Dylan wrote in 1999 in part for the movie Wonder Boys. However, the song contains personal opinions that latch on to Dylan’s life and his former songs, especially “The Times They Are a-Changin.’” “The Times They Are a-Changin’” is a song that showed Dylan’s hope for what the world could be. “Things Have Changed” is a song that shows Dylan’s remorse for what the world is not. In “Things Have Changed,” the audience is introduced to a Bob Dylan who sees the world as an unrecoverable failure. He speaks of how the world might explode and how “the human mind can only stand so much” (Dylan). In some ways, “Things Have Changed” comes across as a worst-case scenario for the Miss Lonely character in “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Like a Rolling Stone” portrays an illusioned Miss Lonely who is met by an unforgiving world, an unforgiving world that everyone else knew about except for Miss Lonely. “Things Have Changed” is what happens when that unforgiving world beats down the individual until they are “standing on the gallows with my head in a noose” (Dylan). “Things Have Changed” also describes an older Bob Dylan. In Dylan’s youth, his music, especially “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” represented the singer-songwriters ideals and aspirations. Dylan was a hopeful young man who sung for progressive political and social reform. However, “Things Have Changed” represents an aged Dylan, one who has lost hope that his ideals will come to fruition. Since the 1960s, a time that showcased so much change, Dylan has seen that those senators and congressmen have not heeded any call. Dylan has seen writers and critics continue to prophesize to no avail. At the same time, Dylan has not seen those groups of people fall. Dylan has seen these institutions and powers maintain and prevail. “Things Have Changed” announces this failure in the form of Armageddon, an impending and perhaps perpetually existing hell.
“Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” and “Things Have Changed,” are three of Bob Dylan’s best and most creative songs. More than that, however, these three songs showcase Dylan’s social position and what he wanted for society through his music. When chronologically ordered, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1963), “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), and “Things Have Changed” (2000), describe the rise, fight, realization, and fall that Bob Dylan’s social position and ideals were ultimately never fully embraced or integrated into American society. While lone individuals may have heeded Bob Dylan’s call here and there, the powers that be and the unforgiving world leave these Dylan songs as temporary ideals in the form of beautiful music.
- Dylan, Bob. “Like A Rolling Stone.” Like A Rolling Stone | The Official Bob Dylan Site, 2017, bobdylan.com/songs/rolling-stone/.
- Dylan, Bob. “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The Times They Are A-Changin’ | The Official Bob Dylan Site, 2017, bobdylan.com/songs/times-they-are-changin/.
- Dylan, Bob. “Things Have Changed.” Things Have Changed | The Official Bob Dylan Site, 2017, bobdylan.com/songs/things-have-changed/.
- Jackson, Andrew Grant. 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music. Macmillan, 2015.