The Reverend John B. Matthias was born on the first day of 1767. He eventually joined the clergy of the Methodist Episcopal Church and, like other ministers of the church, he became a circuit rider traveling around his assigned territory serving those who lived there and starting new congregations. In 1836, he was serving the areas of South Huntington and Islip on Long Island, and it is then that he supposedly wrote a gospel song titled Palms of Victory (alternate titles are The Wayworn Traveler and Deliverance Will Come).
That, at least, is what is presumed. The song, unlike other hymns, doesn’t have the easily memorable lines associated with a composition that arose bit by bit from a community. So it seems to have sprung from the mind of one author, an author deeply influenced by John Bunyan’s religious classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. Nevertheless, in truth the authorship is unclear in part because the Reverend Matthias was not known as a songwriter and no other song is attributed to him. He died in 1848. His singular achievement in songwriting was not widely known or used in church circles.
But it was recorded by various singers, most famously by the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, and Ralph Stanley.
It is not clear how or when Bob Dylan heard the song, but its melody certainly impressed him. The most plausible explanation is that Dylan heard the Carter Family’s version which used the title Wayworn Traveler. He probably wrote his song Paths of Victory around July 1963. What Dylan did to the song was interesting. He took a traditional gospel song and made it secular. Even more particularly, he made it political. In Dylan’s hands, the song became an anthem of hope for those engaged in social action, not a song to nourish believers.
On August 12, 1963, Dylan was in the studio for a recording session for his third album. None of the songs recorded that day, including Paths of Victory, was considered good enough to be included on the album. Dylan then took a break, briefly traveling with Joan Baez and performing in a number of concerts. Evidently in the time gap between sessions for the album, Dylan re-considered Paths of Victory. He had a new vision and transformed it, reworking the verses in a whole new, much more sophisticated, way, changed the time signature to ¾, and had a new song, the one that became the remarkable song that gave its name to the album’s title: The Times They Are a-Changin’. He recorded the song on October 24, 1963. Paths of Victory is included on Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 released in 1991.
Once Dylan, seeking artistic freedom, separated himself from those who wished to have him keep writing protest songs, he soon found himself caught in an emotional and spiritual maelstrom. Seeking a new form of shelter from this emotional storm, he experimented with religion, family, and rural values before settling on a more or less consistent religious view. For the past decades, this religious lodestar has, with moments of deep doubt and confusion along the way, guided Bob Dylan on his Earthly journey.
What he did then was exactly the opposite of what he did with Paths of Victory. Instead of transforming religious songs into secular sounds, he took secular experiences and found religious meaning in them. Last year he sang songs Frank Sinatra performed. These songs were meant to be entirely secular, but in Dylan’s rendition, they have deep religious undertones. He may do the same on his forthcoming album of other songs Sinatra performed.
Such is the unique artistry of Bob Dylan.
A Personal Note: The Times They Are a-Changin’ was the first Bob Dylan song I ever heard. Without knowing of its connection to Paths of Victory, I used to play Paths every day during the writing of one of my books.