New Morning: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

By Tony Attwood

It is often suggested that the underlying meaning of New Morning is “Hello, here I am again”.  Possibly that is what it came to signify, but I suspect it started out as just a phrase, and the song that came out of those two words.

As I have said many times, as I try to illustrate the process of composing, I don’t in any way remotely say I know the way Dylan works as a composer, but I know that I, and a few song composers I know, can start with something simple like a chord change, or a few notes of melody, or a simple phrase.  “New Morning” sounds to me like one such phrase.

You have “New Morning” in your head, and without any conscious thought along comes “On this new morning” and a second later, “On this new morning with you.”  Gradually all emerges from this simply concept.

In such a process there is thus no conscious action of writing a song about a New Morning – the phrase just leads you on.  (Of course I can’t prove it, and Bob will never tell, but I’m just saying how it happens with me, and a few others I know).

Over the years I have written about (and indeed taught university music students about) the creative process, and along with every other writer on the topic I’ve read, I am certain that all of us can become more and more creative simply by practicing and by focussing on a desire to be more creative.

You want to be a good golfer, you practice golf on the golf course, but you also work on your swing, and all the other background stuff that is part of that.  You want to be a good painter, then you paint, but you also sketch, and scribble, and work out ideas on backs of envelopes.  You do it all the time.  It becomes your life.

So you want to be a songwriter, then you practice finding phrases of music and lyric, while you also develop your creativity in general as you search for ideas.  It is not hard to do.   Indeed there’s an intro to the subject (although written regarding a totally different use of creativity) by me in a series of articles starting here, if you really want to know, or give it a try.  (And you should – it is fun, life-affirming and can be a good conversation piece!)   It’s not difficult, nor is it complex.  It’s just in our society it isn’t really encouraged (and we tend to think of creative people as weird, freaky, spooky, downright odd and disruptive in the schoolroom).

So I think Dylan was stretching his creative muscles (as it were) and hit on the phrase, and it went from there and quite possibly meant, “this is the start of a new series of Dylan works”.  Or not as the case may be.  But as Rolling Stone said, “Calling his latest outing New Morning may very well be his way of saying, ‘I’m back’,” and that certainly seems possible.

Moving on to the music…

New Morning is laid back, in a similar way to John Wesley Harding, but with a bit of rock and roll.

Dylan never seems to have lost his sense of the rural, and while he can tell us the horrors of the rural world (Hollis Brown at once springs to mind, as does the first line of Desolation Row) he can tell us of the positive relaxed nature of village life too.

Can’t you hear that rooster crowin’?
Rabbit runnin’ down across the road
Underneath the bridge
Where the water flowed through
So happy just to see you smile
Underneath the sky of blue

And of course, it is a love song too – the rural world is perfect because he sees her smile.  It is a “new morning with you.”

But nothing much happens in paradise (as David Byrne so clearly pointed out) which is what makes the next verse rather trivial.

Can’t you hear that motor turnin’?
Automobile comin’ into style
Comin’ down the road
For a country mile or two
So happy just to see you smile
Underneath the sky of blue

Nothing happens.  Not even when they go to bed…

The night passed away so quickly
It always does when you’re with me

And then we are back in country heaven where, basically, nothing happens.

Now a song about nothing happening could be a disaster although you could argue it is about some sub-text that I know one or two writers have indicated, but which I can’t really come to believe in.

No, what Dylan does is salvage what could be nothingness with a remarkable orchestration and underlying chordal progression that is by and large so un-Dylan.

First off, the chords.  The song is in A and so a rotating A / D chord change as the band starts up is all we might expect.  Very relaxed, very straightforward.

But then, as the organ begins to have a bit more prominence we are off.  In the second line C sharp minor appears, and is followed by A7, F sharp minor, D, B minor, C sharp minor, D, E…

OK I appreciate if you are not schooled in the finer points of chord sequences that is gibberish, but believe me this is unusual.  Not odd.  Not wrong, just unusual, especially for Dylan.

But whether you get the chords or not, just listen to the track and how the organ comes in, during “Rabbit running down…” to give a totally different feeling from from the opening.

And then by the time we get to the chorus, we’re rocking away – quite different from where we started – and where we go back to with verse two.

If nothing else, listen just to the organ in the chorus – that playing is talking about fun and laughter and enjoyment.

But then the middle 8 – again with a very unusual sequence (G, F sharp minor, G,E).

And the organ is holding a chord as if this is in the village chapel on a sunday.

By the time we get to the last verse we really know what is going on.

Can’t you feel that sun a-shinin’?
Ground hog runnin’ by the country stream
This must be the day
That all of my dreams come true
So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue

When we have “this must be the day”, everything is so simple, step by step he’s got there.  Life is reborn.  He is reborn.

The song was recorded in three takes on one day and it is quite an achievement to get and keep the simplicity of the lyrics.  After all this is the man who wrote Rolling Stone and Visions of Johanna.  But he’s a clever guy this Bob Dylan.  He can also do simplicity too.  And sometimes that is a lot harder than complexity.

It’s a lovely piece, it really works, and it deserves to be heard on its own.  Just this time, don’t play the album, just play this track.

All the songs reviewed on Untold Dylan

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