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Bob Dylan

The Times Are Changing: Bob Dylan at Bedtime


Songs created throughout Dylan’s career remain fresh and timeless. Is that not the mark of a great work?

Bob Dylan isn’t a stadium rock star. He doesn’t compose anthems to be chanted by the crowds and to listen to him live can even be a little frustrating. He often varies arrangements and sometimes alters the tempos of the original songs until they’re almost unrecognizable. This could be understood as a constant revival of his artistic practice, for how else could he keep singing the songs he composed some 50 years ago and still present them as fresh and alive, as though they’d been written that very morning?

One can’t go to a Dylan concert singing or chanting these songs because the phrasing and the arrangements are always different from those you’ll hear on the albums. Of 1960s folk music, nothing remains. Dylan’s latest incarnation, as a cowboy of country music, makes his classic songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man,” difficult to recognize even for the most fanatical fan.

Dylan’s most recent and very personal revival, for this author, took place about a year ago when I realized the need to lull to sleep my newborn son, Lucas, at bedtime. Before he was even born, I began to think of lullabies that I would sing. Tradition bears thousands of them, and I tried to memorize several, but for some reason, they never felt like “my own,” and they couldn’t be sung every night with intent and affection. That’s when I began collecting a Dylan-esque repertoire for Lucas.

Leslie Aiello and Robin Dunbar at the University College London have studied the co-evolution of human language and music. From archaeological evidence, we know that the first musical instruments appeared about 40,000 years ago in the form of drums and flutes. It’s more difficult to know whether Neanderthals sang lullabies. From Aiello and Dunbar’s research, we can assume that the human voice began to be encoded from the “emotional grunts” of our ancestors. In these, beyond a sense of meaning, importance is indicated by the tone used in emissions of voice. There’s urgency in the cry when a predator approaches, laughing acts as an agent of group cohesion, and of course, there are cadence and safety in a mother’s voice to reassure her offspring in the wake of a nightmare.

Even today, the lullabies I researched for Lucas had clear Christian or religious backgrounds. There’s a worldview that I don’t share, but that functions as an imposition of fears and vague curses, intended to scare children at night and to force them to sleep. But I didn’t want to “stupefy” the baby, even if he’s unable to understand the meanings of all these words. That’s why I began using old jazz and blues standards, as well as the songs of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Bob Marley. At last, I arrived at a repertoire I could consider “my own.” It’s one that’s loaded with memories, experiences, and an emotionalism that’s accompanied me since my own childhood and in moments of both joy and sadness.

The Dylan song that’s enjoyed the most success in putting Lucas to sleep is “The Times They Are A-Changin,” included on an album of the same name in 1964. Nicholas, my 6-year-old stepson, often accompanies us in this daily musical entrancement. Just recently, (curiously a few days after the Swedish Academy conferred the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature upon Dylan), Nicholas asked me what the song was. I realized that the songs I sing my children to sleep with are no less frightening in some sense than the moralizing songs. They’re no less dramatic than a fairy tale. The blues tradition sings of the deeds and adventures of thieves and traitors, of crimes unpunished, and of heartbreaks, slavery, and the pain that accompanies and forms the reverse even of life itself. Nicholas is a bright child, but how am I to explain a song like this?

The first thing I tried was to slowly explain to him the first verse of the song, which was more or less like this:

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’.

Upon listening, he asked if it was a poem. I said yes, that poems could also be sung, and actually, poems began as songs rather than as dull, out-of-tune litanies. We continued with the same exercise through the rest of the verses, and he soon enough grew bored. “But what’s it about?” he wondered. “Well,” I said, “it’s that people grow, ideas change, and the things that they’d agreed upon do, too.” The song is about authority figures and the new values ​​taking precedence among the youth of the sixties; the parents, congressmen, critics and political analysts. Everyone faces an unstoppable, historical, social transformation. To stay put is to be devoured in the maelstrom of history.

But the question prevailed; what the hell is this song? It occurred to me to explain it thus: “Right now, you’re a kid, and you like certain songs, but when you grow up maybe you’ll like others that I’m not going to like. When you grow up, if you have children, maybe they’ll like songs that you don’t like, or they’ll have ideas you don’t agree with. But that’s normal and part of life.” He looked at me with huge eyes. I think he did so without giving much credence to my words. “So I won’t like the Beatles when I grow up?” he asked. “Not exactly. But, for example, as a boy, I liked Yellow Submarine, but as a grown-up I really like Sgt. Pepper’s, even more.”

The truth is, we’ve not reached clarity on the songs that I sing to his brother. There’s also a language barrier. Although we sometimes sing songs in Spanish, the classic blues songs like “Summertime,” “Dead Letter,” “St. James Infirmary,” or the song in the Dylan repertoire can’t really be translated without them dissolving into steam and losing much of their musicality. I’m confident that, as the times are changing, Nicholas and Lucas will adopt their own ways of being and that they’ll freely determine their own likes and dislikes, in music, and in everything else. They don’t seem to worry much over the present discussions of whether or not Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. For now, the mission of the song, providing a melodic cadence and an expressiveness able to communicate an emotional state even across a language barrier, also acts as an emotional link between their father and them, at bedtime.

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