Tangled up in blue. The meaning of the lyrics and the music

“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 – 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.

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 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, but…

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.

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

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8 Responses to Tangled up in blue. The meaning of the lyrics and the music

  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!”

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