The seasons they go round and round,
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time.
Can’t return we can only look behind from where we came
And go round and round and round in the circle game…
Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game is a simple and relatable song about time. Apart from being life-like and wonderfully catchy, it is also the epitome of what songs about time used to look and sound like. We used to rub nostalgia into our skin, humming along to fireside songs about children growing older and the changing seasons. With lumpy throats we easily relate to The Circle Game. We attribute the tune to our own circles as we follow them around and around. Charmed by her melodic vocals and captivated by her soft and easy guitar picking, I reminisce on what music used to be, even though my millennial persona has hardly any right to do so, so please excuse me.
I can’t help but acknowledge how much songs about time have changed. It seems that the value of life and time have been redefined through the music that speaks about them. Where we used to modestly acknowledge the ticking hands of the clock and reconcile the ever- changing times, we now live with the mantra of “life is short, so let’s use it all up while we still can.” This is clearly shown in the music as of late, as opposed to the music of the old days.
Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town
And they tell him,
Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down
Mitchell begs the young teen to make note of how fast his life will go. She warns that while now he’s in a desperate hurry to grow up, he will soon be dragging his feet in order to slow down his life. The Circle Game itself slowly drags the listener around and around, creating a burning visual of the circle of life. I spin around as if recreating the nauseating carousel ride I once took at the country fair in my youth. Mitchell laments the passing time, inviting her audience members to sing this sweet and simple chorus together.
“And the seasons, they go round and round…”
When she plays this song live she says, “This song was not meant to be sung in one lonely voice. It was meant to be sung by many out of tune voices all together.” The song’s simplicity calls for a moment of togetherness, as if it summons one to recognize the importance of friendship and comradery as we embark on this circle together as one.
When Bob Dylan sang about the changing times, he did so quite cynically. His famous tune, The Times They Are-A-Changin, opens by welcoming in all people, wherever they roam. The song is simple and repetitive, just like The Circle Game. This song in many ways is a call to action — a moment of recognition. For the times they are a-changin, and we’d better change with them.
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’
This song acts as a wake up call for those who will listen to its tune earnestly.
The times are changing, wake up people, look around! The slow one will later be fast, the present will later be past; there is something ruthlessly chaotic about this iconic folk tune with its jagged, short lines and howling intonation which is so uniquely Dylan. We establish a sense of broad curiosity as we are warned of impending change and told vaguely what it will look like. We are told to open up to change; become aware! And let it carry us along, no matter how unpredictable the future may be.
In a way, Dylan is asking us to respect the changing times and to welcome them, as if a righteous visitor is on the way. We are asked to open our homes. All people of all kinds are called upon and in fact, commanded, to acknowledge and grasp the holiness of the new era, whether we like it or not. There is something frightening about the way Dylan describes time. If we don’t start swimming, we’ll sink, if we value our lives, we’ll continue to move them along. We must fear time, we must respect it, and above all, we must not waste it.
Now, the concept of life as an urgent state is no longer holy. In fact, in today’s day and age, we regard time itself through an entirely different lens, and in a way, we desecrate it. While we still recognize the urgency of time, we now treat it with far less respect. Today we sing endlessly about risky behavior. We search for adrenaline and excitement, whatever that may look like. Music today is often about taking risks in order to elevate the experience of living. The innocence painted in Mitchell’s imagery of a child catching a dragonfly is shockingly different from the songs about time one may hear on the radio.
Songs about nightlife and partying are very much, although we may not realize it, songs about time. It’s worth noting that music today encourages us to act recklessly, stay out all night, and not worry too much if we can’t remember any of it the next day. For the simple reason that life is short and only getting shorter, we’d better make the most of it while we can. While Dylan encourages us to move with the changing times and Mitchell encourages us to slow down and acknowledge the circle of life, the pop music on the radio tell us to hurry up and destroy ourselves, to be perfectly blunt.
There is a fine line between respecting and desecrating time… But when the radio spits mantras such as, “It’s my body I can do what I want to,” “You only live once,” and “Tonight is the night,” I can’t help but wonder about how seriously I’m supposed to take my life.
We fear the simple transience of which we used to embrace. We use our feet to push the carousel of time even faster, around and around. We drink to life, but go on to waste it. Then we wake up one day wondering where it all went. We live in a generation where our lives are spent on computers, where we hide our real selves behind screen names and text messages. We develop relationships with others without ever hearing the sound of their voices. And then we wonder where all the time went. Is the innocence gone? Or have we simply chosen a different direction?
“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
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.”
I believe greatly in the mystery of time, yet, as Dylan put it, I don’t believe that we shouldn’t question what we can’t understand. Time is treated differently as the clock ticks around. We can’t grasp it, and we cannot dictate how our brothers and sisters use it. Therefore, we must keep asking. Yet, in a way, Dylan was warning us that we would only become more reckless with our time. While Mitchell promised a powerful circular motion which prohibits us from undoing what has been done, artists like FUN and Miley encourage us to “Set this world on fire” because “It’s our party we can do what we want.” Life is our party, our short-lived unpredictable party, and we mustn’t waste it.
The pressure of an ever-ticking clock has led our generation to a place of desperation. Every night is “our night,” and we must make the “most” of it. It is clear that Dylan was warning us of such a mindset. “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’.”
Could it be that Dylan was in favor of this kind of recklessness? Could it be that it was all inevitable anyway?
The older we get, the more we come to value our existences. Our elders are the ones reminding us to value our lives, our bodies, our souls. We’re often told how quickly it all goes, we’re often told of the days we’ll start dragging our feet to slow the circles down. I will one day, if life dares to grant me the honor, sit in my own rocking chair and tell my grandchildren about time and how we used to treat it. But who knows how different things will be by then?
Originally from small town Ontario, Emily Zimmer is a passionate creator with a love for writing music, poetry, and stories. She enjoys philosophy, coffee, and finding beauty in urban settings. Emily currently resides in New York City.