Dylan’s “Tangled up in blue”. The meaning of the lyrics and music of the original version

This review (updated 10 August 2017) is of the original album version of “Tangled”.  For the review of the completely revised “Real Live” version please see here

10 August 2017: link to live version video added at end of the review.

18 August 2017: link to New York Sessions recording of the song add at the end.

by Tony Attwood

“You’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little you can’t imagine not happening”.

So said Dylan of this song, and to add to the mix he has performed and recorded many different versions: this review is from the Blood on the Tracks album, although Dylan has said that others are better.

What seems so attractive to the listener hearing this as a song, rather than a poem set to music, is the integration of Dylan’s singing mixed with occasional declamation, with that trade mark last note of the line in a collapsing glissando.  Never has the effect been more controlled or more effective – because this is what the song is; the story of a collapsing glissando.

The way that Dylan conveys yesterday, today and tomorrow in the music is through the rotating two chords that open each verse and return and return and return.  Time is endlessly rotating.

In musical terms we have the tonic (I) alternating with a chord of the flattened 7th but with the tonic still in place.  We are there (the tonic) but we aren’t (flattened 7th).  Lyrics and music in total unity, while time is out of joint – a superb concept.  When he hit on that rotating alternation he must have known he had what he wanted and needed to make the song flow.

Of course in writing such a song some stability is needed to stop the whole piece unravelling, and here this is done with the last five lines of each verse, in which the percussion suddenly becomes much more dominant, and the chord changes become much more definite: V, VI, I, IV; a sequence which is repeated before the remarkable drawing together of everything with the flattened 7th, IV and I, bringing us back to base – here and now, before we go again into an uncertain future… or is it the past?

The song starts with a setting of the scene in which the singer looks back to the early days of the relationship, but also sets the pattern for the last five lines being more contemporary (sometimes!)

The singer thinks back to the family disapproval, what with the imbalance of the family fortunes, and it is suggested the woman being married, followed by the inevitable split, and the belief they would come back together.

These lines are so simple, and yet the combination of a generality (a “dark sad night”) and the specific promise of meeting again in an unknown, unpredictable future give the song a powerful drive forward.  We keep on keeping on, right from the start.

The break up happens, the singer moves on to casual work, the combination of the detail and the generality of his life carrying him, and the music forwards.  But as always our memories mutate.  We are never sure what actually happened, we just know the bits that our memory pushes forward, and from this we recreate our own story.

But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue

What an astounding, classic Dylan two lines:

But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind

So simple, so powerful.  The past was close behind… it is always there, inside us, directing us, telling us what we have been and what we are.  There is no real escape from the past.

Now he finds her again – or is it her? – has the prediction come true? – or is it once more the night playing tricks as Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost found?  Is this really the same woman, with them each playing a new game?

And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”

And then the musical surprise.  Just listen to the acoustic guitar in the following verse – it is so easy to miss but hits the carefully attuned audience with…

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century

That acoustic guitar is almost buried, but you can hear it with those lines. Yes we really are transformed into another place.

What is so tantalising in this song is that the story is incomplete.  That is what it is meant to be.  Everyone who has been a student reading all the chic books that are not on the syllabus, moving us into new worlds that have nothing to do with what we are studying…  13th century Italian poems that tell you of some mystic other world…  it is in four lines a total change of atmosphere.  In a sense this really is the Visions of Johanna approach, with a special dash of extra clarity.

At the end everything has changed, everyone has changed, but since we don’t know the start, how can we ever know the end?  Of course we can’t, because there is no end – just an accumulation of memories.  We all start from a different point of view, we are all tangled up in time, we all are muddled, but we can still have our own direction, our own lives, our own story.  Everyone has moved on, everyone is always moving on, everyone has a past but… the past is not fixed – it is entirely a matter of how we interpret it.

But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Unusually for Dylan the harmonica solo comes after the final sung verse – normally it is between the penultimate and ultimate verse. Here it is the symbol of being back on the road, trailing the different point of view, the book of poems perhaps in his back pocket, read at night under the stars…

Yet we are not back, because through the song there is an extraordinary build up – just listen to the power of the last sung verse and then the harmonica solo and then jump back to the start.  If it takes you by surprise it is because of the way we have been so drawn into the atmosphere, we have become part of the adventure.  We lived it.

And we know for sure: it’s not the world that matters, it’s the way we see the world that affects everything.

That’s why the song is a masterpiece.  You can’t help but live it.

Tangled up in blue – the Real Live version

Below, live version closer to the original album version.

And another…

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

This entry was posted in Blood on the Tracks. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Dylan’s “Tangled up in blue”. The meaning of the lyrics and music of the original version

  1. Joni Zornes says:

    When I listen to Bob Dylan’s music, these lines describe perfectly how I feel:

    “And every one of them words rang true
    And glowed like burnin’ coal
    Pourin’ off of every page
    Like it was written in my soul……”

  2. Emily says:

    Oh, please please please give us your opinion of why he switches pronouns just for a single verse? Was he so divorced from the pain of the breakup that he has to do it in the third person?! Was it written for a woman to sing those lyrics? I would love to hear your thoughts, even conjecture!

  3. DR. TJ Higbee says:

    Has anyone considered Rumi? Although he was a 13th century Persian poet, his works have been translated into all the major languages, including Italian. Or how about St. Francis of Assisi?

  4. Lougarry says:

    I always assumed the Italian poet was Boccaccio, even if he was 14th rather than 13th century 😉

  5. Rob Goodell says:

    Dante Aligheri was an Italian poet (actually would have called himself Florentine) who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries. His book of poems to his beloved Beatrice is called la nuova vita.

  6. Love the way he tosses in the chorus”tangled up in blue”like one of those Andy Warhol works that convince us that we must be missing something…that all we need to do is look a little harder.Very clever!

  7. Pat English says:

    Flat out, a Dylan masterpiece. It’s meaning is insignificant. It’s prose is distinct and amazingly clear!

  8. Diego A says:

    It is a common mistake even for educated people to refer to, for example, 1300-1399 as the 13th century when it is in fact the 14th.

    If that is what happened then the poets from the 1300’s are candidates rather than those from the 1400s.

    My money is on Petrarch – his back story fits well with Dylan’s in this song.

    I have not seen my century clarification advanced online elsewhere with respect to this song, but “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”

  9. Youngmi Sohn says:

    Petrarch is a 14th century poet (1304-1374). Dante’s a La Vita Nuova seems to be the book in the lyric, considering the time frame and the situation of the lovers. He was born in 1265 and died in 1321.

  10. Dave says:

    I have read that in a 1978 interview with Craig MacGregor, Dylan replied to a question regarding his reference to the 13th Century Italian poet with this: “Plutarch. Is that his name?”

    Likely that he meant Petrarch…I believe Diego A (above) is correct in his guess and explanation of why the 13th Century mixup. Probably Petrarch’s writing about Laura de Noves…a woman he left the priesthood for, but who refused his advances (she was married).

  11. Benedito Parente says:

    The Italian poet was Dante Alighieri (Firenzi, 1265 – Ravena, 1321).

  12. Larry Fyffe says:

    Suzy Rotolo opened up a book of poems to Dylan including the Symbolists Rimbaud abd Baudelaire; in one rendition of the song, Dylan sings “It was either written by Charles Baudelaire or an Italian…” A Baudelaire image remains: And glowed like burning coal.” The Balcony: ‘Those eaves illumined by the burning coal’: Baudelaire.

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    *and

  14. Raymond Kuczek says:

    This song was burned into my soul in 1975 and lives there yet today.

  15. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan speaks of his development as an artist.

    “I had a job in the great north woods” refers back to the Canadian folk song ‘Peter Emberly’ that mentions my home Province:
    “I landed in New Brunswick in a lumber counterier…”

    Based on that song Dylan writes the sociological
    “Ballad of Donald White” which appears on the ‘Blind Boy Grunt” vinyl bootleg.

  16. Larry fyffe says:

    *counterie…Dylan protests include anti-war
    songs but go beyond much more than that:

    “There’s danger in the lumber woods, for death lurks sudden there/
    And I fell victim into that monstrous snare”
    (Peter Emberly)

    “And there’s danger in this open world/
    Where men strive to be free/
    And for me the greatest danger/
    Was in society”
    (The Ballad Of Donald White)

    The themes in Dylan’s works as a whole are
    amazingly consistent though of course changing times and changing age result in some wiggling and wriggling therein as the drifter endeavours to escape from society’s vice-grips.

  17. Larry fyffe says:

    Not to put too fine a point on it, of the garments for Jewish priests, God commands Moses:

    “And thou shalt make the robe….all of blue.”
    (Exodus 28:31)

  18. Larry fyffe says:

    William Blake expresses concern over getting tangled up in black:

    “And priests in black growns were walking their rounds/
    And binding with briars my joy and desires”
    (The Garden Of Love)

    I have not seen any source but moi regarding
    the symbolism of ‘blue’ in these lyrics of Dylan.

  19. Larry Fyffe says:

    Though there are now no Jewish high priests, the colour blue(of the sky), observed in such things as the Israeli flag, and the threads entangled in certain garments, also represents the blue stone associated with the Ten Commandments.

  20. Larry Fyffe says:

    Above that should read: “Or some poet from the 13th century”, likely referring to Dante, who penned:

    “But first declare what fellows of the tomb/
    In burning cells await the final doom”
    (The Divine Comedy)

    The band Back Sabbath makes the reference:

    “Evil souls fall to Hell/
    Ever trapped in burning cells”
    (Electric Funeral)

  21. Hello Tony, another piece of musical history analysed. When you have had enough writing come inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/620/Tangled-Up-in-Blue and listen to every version of every song.

  22. Victor says:

    Did anybody ever look up the meaning of the word Delacroix and Montague. Delacroix means crossroads and Montague means steep hill. Interesting

  23. zee says:

    Thank you.

  24. zee says:

    Thank u. Nice. Delacroix is in south Louisiana, he had spent some time around New Orleans area. More layers as usual.

  25. deaded says:

    Montague St. is in Brooklyn, NY

  26. Matt hayes says:

    Thank you.

  27. Matt hayes says:

    …I retract that. Instead ake a question of you. Why cant blue just mean blue?

  28. Matt hayes says:

    Tangled up in blue…? Loss of love. The blues….

  29. Ed Barella says:

    I am absolutely certain the words are “we split up on the docks that night, both agreeing it was best” not “dark sad night”. Absolutely certain.

  30. Scott Salzman says:

    I hate this column! The words, mood and whatever the listener brings to it are what it’s about. It starts with the feeling and the words fall into place depending on where you’re coming from. It’s art. . It shouldn’t be approached intellectually. IMHO I’ve been absorbing Bob For 55 years.

  31. TonyAttwood says:

    Scott, surely with the position that you hold, by far the best approach is not to read a site that reviews Dylan songs. But as for saying that the song “should not be approached intellectually” that is a horribly dogmatic view. You can approach the song your way, and those of us who enjoy this site can approach it in our way. But your notion of telling us what we should and should not do, really smacks of an form of authoritarianism I find distasteful.

  32. well put, Mr Attwood.

  33. Alan Anderson says:

    This song is about Dylan’s career – the woman is the public.
    Dylan has a sabbatical for several years and this was written about the time of his return.

    Consider the following with my interpretation in mind :-

    Killer Lines :-

    *Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all – If her hair was still red (Political Left)*

    Early Career :-

    *Her folks (Traditionalists) they said our lives together sure was gonna be rough*
    *Heading out for the East Coast (going to New York)*
    *She was married when we first met (Nineteen Fifties Lifestyle) – Soon to be divorced – I helped her out of a jam, I guess – But I used a little too much force – We drove that car as far as we could – Abandoned it out West (Hippy California in 1969) – Split up on a dark sad night – Both agreeing it was best*

    Dylan Starts To Tour Again :-

    *And later on as the crowd thinned out -I’s just about to do the same – She was standing there in back of my chair – Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”*
    *So now I’m goin’ back again – I got to get to her somehow – All the people we used to know – They’re an illusion to me now*
    *But me, I’m still on the road – Headin’ for another joint*

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *