CAN YOU recall where and when you first heard The Times They Are A-Changin’?
Me neither. The song’s so deeply wedged in my ears that I was probably humming it in my cot.
It turned 50 this week, prompting a slew of analysis on whether the times had changed, what today’s youth have in common with their 60s forebears, what Bob Dylan had for breakfast the day he wrote it. The usual stuff.
Not many articles made mention of a fact which explains why the song has always sounded so familiar to me – its roots in Irish folk music.
Specifically in the rain-lashed, tear and beer-stained ‘come all ye’ ballads that ran, like a sodden thread of Aran wool, through the traditional Irish music of my youth.
An interest in folk songs, which I’d picked up from my parents’ cassettes at home, later saw me spend far too many evenings of my college days and after at sessions in dreary pubs.
These events often concluded with a late night lament – for the lost soldier boy, the emigrant bound for Amerikay, or the closing of the bar.
As a budding folkie Bob Dylan sat through his own share of sessions. Luckily for him the ballads in the Greenwich Village taverns of the early 1960s were sung by the likes of Liam Clancy and his brothers.
Of The Times They Are A-Changin’ he later explained: “It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’…”
The former may a reference to the Clancy Brother’s knee-slapping Brennan On The Moor, which immortalised the 19th century Cork highwayman Willie Brennan. (Dylan had earlier used the song as inspiration for his own Rambling, Gambling Willie.)
While there are echoes of Ireland in the title track the album The Times They Are A-Changin’ boasts plenty of other material that wears its Irish folk influences on its sleeve.
Restless Farewell is a barely-disguised take on The Clancy Brothers’ The Parting Glass. The melody of With God On Our Side is identical to Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game, another song popularised by the Clancys.
Maybe all this is why, when I first heard the album as a young student, much of the music resonated with the half-learned Irish melodies I’d picked up since I was in my cot.
Such influences come full circle in the end. Three decades after Dylan released The Times They Are A-Changin’ The Clancy Brothers took to the stage at Madison Square Garden during a tribute to the ‘voice of a generation’, Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert.
That night they performed When The Ship Comes In, transforming Dylan’s song into an Irish sea shanty, turning Dylan’s Irish influences back on him.
What went around had come around. And no doubt will come around again.
Or as Dylan sang 50 years ago this week: “The wheel’s still in spin.”