The Times They Are A-Changin’

on October 29, 2009

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’.

— Bob Dylan, September 1963

Between the summer of 1964 and the spring of 1965, an incredible number of things happened all at once as the visions began shifting and mutating.

The first upheaval to become widely visible was the student protest movement, which began as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. The March on Washington in August 1963 — where Bob Dylan performed and which inspired “The Times They Are A-Changin'” — was followed a year later by the Freedom Summer of 1964, when young activists flooded into Mississippi to register black voters and some lost their lives.

That September, the University of California at Berkeley attempted to prevent civil rights advocates from soliciting donations on campus. When one former student was arrested while manning an information table, all hell broke loose. Thousands of students surrounded the police car and kept it from leaving until all charges against the activist had been dropped.

This marked the start of the the Free Speech Movement, which just a few months later flowed seamlessly into the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. A massive escalation of the war had begun immediately following Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration in January 1965, and by that spring anti-war marches and draft card burnings were attracting tens of thousands of participants.

The turmoil at Berkeley also prompted a quick reaction from the right. In December 1964, a sit-in at Berkeley’s Sproul Hall was broken up by mass arrests, carried out on the orders of an ambitious young deputy district attorney named Edwin Meese III. Meese would later serve as Attorney General in the administration of Ronald Reagan, whose own political career would be launched in 1966 when he was elected governor of California on promises “to clean up the mess in Berkeley.”

The Free Speech Movement’s attempt at direct democracy was not, however, the only radical reevaluation taking place in California. Just a few miles south of Berkeley, a small colony of beatniks had recently discovered the wonders of LSD — which was then still legal — and had celebrated their discovery by plunging head first into which might be described as a whole new level of devotion to the chaos vision.

In June of 1964, just as the Mississippi Freedom Riders were heading south, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters set out in their luridly painted Magic Bus on an epic journey to the East Coast and back, handing out acid and spreading the psychedelic gospel as they went. From that modest beginning, the hippie phenomenon would snowball until it gained national visibility at the start of 1966.

At first, the proto-hippies and the clean-cut activist types didn’t seem to have much in common, but the force of events would eventually drive them together. For one thing, the two groups were working more or less in concert to rip apart the faltering science-and-democracy partnership — and the police crackdowns of the late 60’s would accurately target both druggies and protesters as enemies of the established order.

Beyond that, the hippies and activists were also connected on a deeper level — which was well known to artists and musicians long before it became apparent to the ordinary participant in either movement.

Fans of Bob Dylan’s protest songs, for example, were outraged when he went electric in March 1965 — but Dylan himself was fully aware that there were already two very different strands woven together in early 60’s folk music. One of these was the Woody Guthrie “This Land Is Your Land” strain that had come out of late 30’s populism, but the other was older and stranger and far more closely allied to the chaos vision.

That second strand was the common element in the early blues and country music recordings from 1927-32 which were collected compulsively by proto-beatnik, occultist, and ethnomusicologist Harry Smith and released as the Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. Smith’s Anthology would be cherished by the early 60’s folkies for its mystery every bit as much as the populism they found in The Weavers’ Song Book.

This same mysterious strain was also built into the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll, which was rooted in both blues and country. For example, the song that became Elvis Presley’s first national hit in December 1955, “Mystery Train,” was written around a haunting lyric borrowed from the Carter Family’s 1930 version of “Worried Man Blues.” That particular number wasn’t in Harry Smith’s Anthology, but no less than four other Carter Family songs from the same period were.

It was this sense of irreducible mystery that had been squeezed out of American rock ‘n’ roll in the late 50’s when it got turned into a genre of romantic ballads and novelty pop songs — and it was the same raw, chaotic element that the Beatles had recognized and returned to America as a gift in the winter of 1964.

Dylan recognized it too and knew exactly what he was after when he went electric in March 1965 with songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” According to one discussion of the influences that went into that particular song:

“The world should not have been so surprised when Dylan went electric in 1965, for long before he fell under Woody Guthrie’s spell and became a folk singer, he had been in various high school rock’n’roll bands with names such as Elston Gunn & His Rock Boppers, playing Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry covers. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was, in fact, an extraordinary three-way amalgam of Jack Kerouac, the Guthrie/Pete Seeger song ‘Taking It Easy’ (‘mom was in the kitchen preparing to eat/sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast’) and the riffed-up rock’n’roll poetry of Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’.”

This description pretty exactly sums up the alchemical fusion that was taking place in early 1965. The one point I might add is that the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” also appear to reflect the paranoia created by the mass arrest at the Berkeley protest the previous December. Dylan himself had not been present there, but his friend Joan Baez had showed up to perform, and the protesters had sung “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Even the villain of the piece, deputy district attorney Ed Meese, gets an offhand acknowledgment in the line, “They must bust in early May, orders from the D.A.”

At the time, it seemed as though the science-and-democracy partnership would easily ride out these relatively feeble objections coming from a few small groups of malcontents. Lyndon Johnson had been reelected by a landslide in November 1964, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964 and Medicare in the spring of 1965 marked the high point of New Deal liberalism.

But that seeming stability wouldn’t last. Events would soon begin to spin out of control, propelled by the continued escalation of the Vietnam War and the series of urban riots which began with the Watts Riot in Los Angeles in 1965. In 1966-67 all three modes of rejection of science-and-democracy — riots, protests, and hippie dropouts — would spread well beyond their California origins as the social fabric began to unravel.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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