Ballad for a friend: Bob Dylan’s lost masterpiece

By Tony Attwood

Ballad for a Friend was apparently originally called Reminiscence Blues; quite why Ballad for a friend is a better title I can’t say, and as to why this work of unadulterated brilliance was left and did not become a central part of the Dylan canon I can only guess.

Recorded in 1962 when Dylan was 21, it is an extraordinary achievement in both composition and performance.  It would be an extraordinary composition for a songwriter twice that age – for a man of 21 it is quite simply inspired.  Indeed on the only recording we seem to have Dylan speaks rapidly at the end, explaining why the penultimate verse is repeated (he got the words wrong first time round) and his voice is that of a nervous uncertain 15 year old.  Musically he is three times that age.

The singer in the song is a man who has pulled back from the real world, unable to deal with what it has thrown at him, and expressing it through the blues in the only way he knows how.  He just sings it, it happened, it is there, he’s flat.  He’s not raging against the world, he’s just accepting it.  Numb, desolate, far too distraught to cry, he just tells the story. There is no dressing up of the reality, no repeats, no chorus.  It just was.  It just is.  It ever will be in his mind.

This is such an overwhelming masterpiece you’ll have appreciated already that I am finding it difficult to know how to describe it or even where to begin.  If for some reason you have never heard it, all I can suggest you can do is go and buy the Whitmark Demos, and play it over, and over, and over.

OK, if your partner is not a Dylan fan this might lead to the end of what was otherwise a perfectly workable relationship, but it will have been worth it.  You will have gained Ballad for a Friend.

Indeed in the last couple of hours as I have got my thoughts together and considered how to review this song, that is what I have been doing – playing it over and over.  It’s just a couple of minutes long, so you can get through quite a few performances in a couple of hours.  Fortunately tonight there’s no one else in the house.

The lyrics, the accompaniment and the melody all require analysis, and as I sit here trying to pull it together, I am not sure I am capable of doing anything like justice to such a work of brilliance.

But I’m here try.  So…

What makes the melody work against the accompaniment is that the melody is based fairly and squarely around the notes of the chord of A major (A C-sharp E).  Not exclusively, but mostly.  This in itself is extremely rare for Dylan.  There must be other examples but none come to mind at the moment.

But against this melody the guitar is playing the alternating chords of A major and D major, and then when there is no melody, Dylan throws in the blues notes of C and G.  This whole arrangement ought to clash, but it doesn’t.  It blends.  It blends because the movement of the two chords is in perfect liaison with the melody and because the blues guitar only clocks in after the singing has stopped.  The signing reports the events, it is the blues guitar that gives us the musical commentary on the horror of what has happened.

In short, Dylan tells the tale based around the notes of the major chord.  The guitar then comes in a gives us the feeling and emotion in its blues orientated response.  Simple, but rarely achievable.

Thus the emotion is removed from the singing – because the singer is so flat and beaten down by what has happened.   The guitar, unencumbered by any need for words can express the horror of the experience in pure musical form.

Also, the melody has a shape – the first two lines end on a low tonic, the last verse rises up and ends an octave higher.   If that doesn’t make any sense to you, my apologies – but just listen to the song again and in particular note the shape of the melody.   By ending each verse at the top we are pushed forward onto the next verse, and on and on.  It is like the truck rolling down the hill, it comes on and on, and nothing is going to stop it.

And what makes this all the more remarkable is that Dylan of course is not known for his melodies, any more than he is known for three line verses; but here he delivers the song utterly perfectly.

So onto the verses which are eight bars – two bars for each sung line with a two bar break at the end – which constantly catches us by surprise – and which sometimes is followed by a musical pause.

Meanwhile his foot is tapping throughout, tapping out the unchanging rhythm of the truck rolling down the road.

And still there is no need for extra emotion in the singing of the lyrics – the arrangement achieves the expression of all the emotions that are circling around.  The subject matter is utterly sad – so sad there doesn’t need to be extra emotion expressed in the voice – it is already overwhelming.

This is Bob Dylan’s Dream but the loss is a loss of one friend through death – not the whole group drifting apart on the winds of fate.  In the Dream the friendship can’t be recovered because life isn’t like that.  Here his friendship is torn by something far more ultimate and real: he died in a road accident.

And back in the real world I understand from the few commentaries around that something along these lines happened to one of Dylan’s friend although I believe the young man was severely injured but didn’t die. Which is why there’s no pick up at the end, no jolly conclusion; this is the misery of the blues.

But neither is it expressed in the old 12 bar style of the repeated first line and so on – here the song drives us along.  The melody doesn’t get deflected by the gently alternating A and D chords.  The music tells us the pain is eternal, life just does this to you.

The guitar is tuned to open A; the territory is the North Country, of course, the language is the desperation of the blues, but with life continuing.  This is just what happens.  Just watch it unfold.

Sad I’m sittin’ on the railroad track,
Watchin’ that old smokestack.
Train is a-leavin’ but it won’t be back.

Years ago we hung around,
Watchin’ trains roll through the town.
Now that train is a-graveyard bound.

Where we go up in that North Country,
Lakes and streams and mines, so free,
I had no better friend than he.

Something happened to him that day,
I thought I heard a stranger say,
I hung my head and stole away.

A diesel truck was rollin’ slow,
Pullin’ down a heavy load.
It left him on a Utah road.

They carried him back to his home town,
His mother cried, his sister moaned,
Listin’ to them church bells toll.

Why did Dylan never work it into his performances?  Why is it not recorded for any of the albums?   Perhaps because it was too close to home.  Maybe as he grew he really didn’t want to sing about an old friend to an adoring audience.

So what we have is six simple verses of three lines.  One singer one guitar two chords and a song unlike anything else I have ever heard.  And if it is a copy of some blues singer’s earlier work, just don’t tell me I don’t want to know.

This is just brilliant.  There is no other song like this that I know.  Nothing.  Indeed I need nothing else.  Not tonight, not tomorrow.  Not for a long while.

Not for a long while.

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5 Responses to Ballad for a friend: Bob Dylan’s lost masterpiece

  1. Thank you for a great piece of writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at:
    Play every version of every song performed or written by Bob Dylan plus notable interpretations…

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    David – thank you. I love the Dylan Project, have the album, and go to see the band when I can.

  3. Susan says:

    Another great review of a great song!
    As I commented on “Girl From the North Country”, Dylan’s references to the North Country always point me to Minnesota.
    Part of my other comment (for clarity): “I am from Minnesota. Bob Dylan was born in my hometown, Duluth, Minnesota, which is at the point of Lake Superior. Dylan grew up in Hibbing Minnesota, about an hour northwest of Duluth. Here, at Dylan’s origins, when we say “North Country”, we are referring to a vast area of wilderness, lakes, cabins, rivers, and small towns that encompasses pretty much the entire state, north of us, up to Canada. Thousands of acres of nature getaway.”
    In Ballad for a Friend, Dylan describes the North Country as “Lakes and streams and mines so free”. Hibbing, Minnesota is a small city that’s part of what we call the “Iron Range”, an area of the state where enormous taconite mines have provided the economic stability, or instability, of everyone who lives there. Taconite pellets were transported from the mines — via trains — to far-away places where they were made into steel.
    Dylan was a “Ranger” (lived on the Iron Range), and he grew up as all Ranger kids did… with taconite mines and railroad tracks a part of the landscape, and where long, dirty, and loud trains were part of daily life as they rolled through town.
    Although those things are reflected in this song, there is another piece to living on the Iron Range that I think might be referred to in at least one Dylan song, although I’m not familiar with all of his work. That piece is that everyone growing up on the Range internalizes the reality that they are all economically connected to the international marketplace for taconite pellets.
    Might this be reflected as a metaphor somewhere?

  4. Sam says:

    I am almost certain that this song is not in the key of A major, but Ab major/G#major, still though everything else was well written

  5. TonyAttwood says:

    Sam you could well be right. It was of course recorded on analogue tape, and such recordings are notorious for not playing back at exactly the speed recorded. The Dylanchords web site however has it with opening tuning in D. I really will have to go back to basics on this one.

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