Where Teardrops Fall: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Go on the internet and it is hard to find any sort of commentary about Where Teardrops Fall.  Maybe because some of the other songs on Ph Mercy gained particular attention, or maybe because the song was seen as the standard Dylan blues or slow piece after the first upbeat track (something that is not just a Dylan approach but commonplace on rock albums – it seems to be the rule, although no one quite knows why).

Or maybe this song so clearly forms part of a trilogy along with “Shooting Star” and “Man in a Long Black Coat” and those other songs have gained the attention.

Or because it is as Heylin claims, “the least worthy” song of the group and the one that Dylan worried about.  For Heylin it is “a piece of fluff”, a comment which is not only insulting, but also says so very much more about Heylin than about the song itself.

Chronicles tells us the song was cut in a single take – although other commentators differ on this – and the musical oddities in the recording mean this is quite probably true: a single take with overdubbing added in subsequent days.

But if you really want to know about the recording listen to the end – no one is quite sure how it is supposed to end, so you get the little arpeggio and the sax note held til the last.  It is the sort of ending you hear on thousands of early runs through of songs while the band is getting the whole piece together.  Sorting out the end is often, well, the end of the recording.  Dylan just let it happen.

And in a sense that is rather good given the subject matter of the song and the way that it ends.

But let’s go back to the start and ask, what do we have here?

In terms of the chords, we have some unusual musical creations from Dylan to be sure.  The song is in G, and it uses the conventional chords of G, C and D most of the time.  But at the end of the first line (“Far away where the soft winds blow” and E flat is fitted in.  Most unusual, and most unexpected.  While in the middle 8  “You can show me a new place to start” suddenly has a C minor.

Both chords work, and they are not unique in Dylan’s writing, but they are unusual.  He was thinking and experimenting, not just knocking out a fill-in number – not handing over a “piece of fluff”.

What he is doing is creating a picture, somewhat akin to the classic Chinese drawings of the mountains and clouds, with the river below.  You get not so much the detail, but the whole impression.   Just consider the first verse…

Far away where the soft winds blow
Far away from it all
There is a place you go
Where teardrops fall

The sadness of the last line is amplified when you realise that this is lady is no longer in the place to escape from, but the place she has chosen to go to.  That is certainly odd in popular music – to advocate a place to which one might go to have a cry about the sadness of old times and life passing.

Far away in the stormy night
Far away and over the wall
You are there in the flickering light
Where teardrops fall

The “you” of the song has gone and left him and she’s in the land where teardrops fall.   But why?

They have been together, taken things at a gentle pace, got to know each other, stood at the edge of the world (in the shadows of moonlight) but it is her, the woman who is in the place where teardrops fall, who can show the singer “a new place to start.”

And he needs that re-start of his world, because he has lost himself…

I’ve torn my clothes and I’ve drained the cup
Strippin’ away at it all
Thinking of you when the sun comes up
Where teardrops fall

He is certainly lost, but she is not in paradise, nor in hell, but in a place where one cries gently over the passing of good times.  If they could only just get together again they could pull down all the barriers between them, all the deliberate not seeing of each others point of view, they could awaken to a new life and rise up phoenix like…

By rivers of blindness
In love and with kindness
We could hold up a toast if we meet
To the cuttin’ of fences
To sharpen the senses
That linger in the fireball heat

So he is ready to come back to her, in her lonely sad place, so that they can cry together about the wrongs done, the wounds created, the hurt and the pain.  And through crying together put it right.

Roses are red, violets are blue
And time is beginning to crawl
I just might have to come see you
Where teardrops fall

Heylin’s piece of fluff turns out to be not just a thoroughly listenable-to piece of popular music with a beautiful melody and interesting twists in the chords, but also a remarkable story.   There are 10 billion pop songs about him coming back to her, 10 billion “sorry baby” songs, but none other than this that take us on a journey from the “rivers of blindness” – the place where prejudice and stupidity get in the way of a relationship – to that isolated, quiet, clam, contemplative place “where teardrops fall” at the memory of it all.

I just imagine her sitting by the river, at the foot of that Chinese drawing, looking up at the mountain and the clouds, just watching, thinking of the past, as the occasional tear falls onto her cheek.

Of course it need not be a physical place, as I have imagined it, but rather the lady retreating into herself, crying over the wrong turn the relationship has taken… and that is part of  the brilliance of the piece.  It could be a physical or a mental place.  Either way it works.

Thank you Bob.  This was a rare visit to another world.  Ignore Heylin.  Do it again sometime.

All the songs reviewed on this site.

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1 Response to Where Teardrops Fall: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. rw says:

    just worth mentioning that the tearing of clothes is done in mourning in some faiths. no change in what you think its means but wow does it add to what it means

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