Upon casual listen, the obvious interpretation of the song is that it's about bells or chimes but, as Paul Williams points out in his book Bob Dylan: Performing Artist (The Early Years), a close listen/read reveals that the song is actually about lightning. In the lyrics, Dylan describes ducking into a doorway to escape a storm and, while standing with his unnamed compatriot, having a synesthetic experience in which the flashes of lightning become like flashing bells ringing out for the oppressed everywhere.
"Chimes of Freedom" by Bob Dylan is an arch-typical song from his rebellious period, of which a lot was served up on Another Side of Bob Dylan. It was written in 1964 and is influenced by the symbolist poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. Its subject muses over the unfairness of the treatment of downtrodden people, while citing the rumbling thunder as crying for them.
Music critic Paul Williams called the song Dylan's "Sermon on the Mount." (Referring to the King James' Bible Matthew chap. 5-7).
"Mr. Tambourine Man
" shares a niche with this song, being the other
Dylan song influenced by Rimbaud's poetry and also having been written at about the same time.
This song was a big part of Dylan's tour performances in 1964, but he retired it soon after only to revive it again in 1987 on tours with The Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Dylan scholar Mike Marqusee in his book Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art marks this song as the transition from Dylan the angry protest folk singer to Dylan the born-again pacifist moral poet.
Heavy speculation ensues that Dylan wrote this in reaction to US president John Kennedy's assassination. Dylan denies this, but then he denies everything the media says about him.
Dylan played "Chimes of Freedom" live before the Lincoln Memorial in 1993 for the inauguration of US president Bill Clinton.