Watching the river flow: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

“Watching the River Flow” is a classic rhythm and blues song from 1971.  A song of beautiful simplicity for which the lyrics work perfectly.  And yet it is a song that critics and analysts have laboured over, instead of taking the easy route.

Everyone knows that the main theory is that Dylan is singing about his desire to withdraw from the music industry, and just sit back and watch, rather than engage, rather than be up at the pointy end.  Being in the audience instead of up on the stage.

In one sense we can see it as Dylan’s own commentary of the rural idyll of New Morning, where he worships the countryside and the whole concept of doing not very much at all.

But here he has a real old time rock bounce which is utterly unlike anything in the albums of the era.  Different producers, different musicians, different sound, different style.  Back to R&B.  He’s not sitting back doing nothing.  Not with that music.

But let’s take this further.  “Dylan as a passive observer” or “Dylan as the political activist”, is the debate that followed the song, but surely it is patently obvious in any study of any artist that is essentially a false argument.  The artist has to be an observer as well as an artist, just as the activist has to be an observer at times, otherwise his actions are reactive and instinctive, lashing out at whatever gets in the way, unrelated to any theory or vision, and usually of little merit.

Dylan’s multiple viewpoints – the value of life, the need to express the validity of basic human rights no matter who you are, the abhorrence of war, the delight in old folk songs, the love of blues, the invention of a beat generation form of music (with Subterranean Homesick Blues), the creation of songs where time does not run true, these all need reflection to be drawn into the debate.

And for me this is the essence of the failure of most reviews and critiques of Dylan.  They take a song, and analyse that, without taking overall context of Dylan’s progression, and Dylan the artist.

Yet it is not so difficult.  In my own very minor way I’m an artist, earning my living by writing, and I know what it’s like.  There are millions of people like me – we look, we explore, we reflect, we develop it in our artistic forms.

The artist is the observer and the interpreter, for how else does he/she create the art?  The artist watches,  interpets, creates the art.  What was Dylan doing when he created “Desolation Row” but observing the events around him, and then drawing out the key points and commenting upon them?  Where did Visions of Johanna come from, apart from watching people sitting in isolation, failing to make proper contact with each, lacking the glue that holds society together.

The movement from passive observer to active artist comes at the moment of artistic creation.  The moment the band begins to play the rhythm and blues and Dylan scribbles on his notepad

What’s the matter with me
I don’t have much to say

He is once more active, interpreting his role, re-analysing the world, recognising that you don’t write “Like a Rolling Stone” every day of the week, but there again you don’t have to.

Of course sitting here watching the river flow could be a case of doing nothing but sitting back in the gentleness that is painted in New Morning, but in reality few can ever do nothing.  One might meditate of course, but otherwise one is interpreting the world beyond, and eventually you have to engage once more.

And what is that whole first verse but a verse of restlessness.

Daylight sneakin’ through the window
And I’m still in this all-night café
Walkin’ to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin’ slow
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow

What am I, Tony Attwood, doing here, writing this review?  I am listening to the music flowing by, and it creates thoughts in my head which make me consider this, that and the other.  I write my review, seeking to throw new light (for anyone who wants to read) on this piece of music.

Only if you take Dylan absolutely literally do you get a sense of disengagement.  And when, pray, has it been a good idea to take Dylan absolutely literally?

But even if it is literally talking about watching without doing, thinking or anything to say, there is also the point that most artists need periods of disengagement from public life and from their art in order to think and re-think.  These down times are not what make the artist famous – Picasso isn’t famous for sitting on a beach looking at the sea, he is famous for painting Guernica, but he couldn’t paint Guernica without some down time looking at the waves.

Besides, when you listen to the song, it is anything but “lazing on a sunny afternoon”.  This is nothing like the sitting in the log cabin and going out to catch a fish for the evening meal that you get in New Morning.  This is the river of life that is so incredibly energetic that you certainly do need to sit back sometimes, just to draw breath from everything moving past you at ten thousand miles an hour.

Indeed it is quite possible to argue that Dylan is having a bit of fun here.  “Hey,” he is saying, “so you liked the rural charm of New Morning?  Ok, I’m going  to just sit back in my little log cabin up in the mountains and watch the world go by….  Like hell I am.”

In this approach this is the rock n roll musician’s retirement, not the retreat to the woods retirement.  This is the music of the 70 year old who is still bopping away at the dance clubs.  That is really the point.  I might be sitting in looking at the river, by inside me that old rock n roll is still playing.

Besides, he in the all-night cafe, he’s not going to bed as the sun goes down and getting up in the morning at sun rise.  He is in the country in the style of New Morning, but unlike New Morning he very much does not want the peaceful idyll.  He wants to be in the city.  Maybe today he doesn’t want to be in the middle of the action, but I bet that even Che Guevara had the occasional day off.

The overriding fact is that phrase “I don’t have too much to say” has multiple meanings.

One is, I ain’t anyone special, rather like “Don’t follow leaders” – as in “do your own thing, not what I say”.  I’m just this guy, you know.

One is that I am a quiet man, a man in retreat.

Another is that, just at this moment I am contemplative, considering, building up information.  I have no idea where my next masterpiece is coming from, but it’s in there, or out there, somewhere.  Just give it time, and before you know it “Tangled up in blue” will emerge.

Another is that the answer to the question is so simple I can say it in a few lines.  As in, “It’s not that complicated.  Just be kind, forgiving, loving and giving.  What else do I need to say?”

So my point is that “I’m fresh out of ideas” is just one of the many interpretations of the song.  It is the one most people have jumped on, but it is by no means the only one and I don’t think it is the right one.  Dylan is always far more complex than that.

So let’s go right, right back to the start.  Remember this

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

No one who has heard Ballad for a Friend has ever said that at this point he was losing it because he just sitting, without too much to say. He’s contemplative because his friend was in an automobile accident.  That is a worthwhile state of mind to be in, to cope with the sudden catastrophe.

Watching the river is a song of restlessness.  “I’ve got somewhere, I want to go on.”  The exact opposite of the run down artist fresh out of ideas.

Wish I was back in the city
Instead of this old bank of sand
With the sun beating down over the chimney tops
And the one I love so close at hand

If anything those are lines from a love song, not a “oh woe, I have lost my muse” song.

So he is contented.  He just knows he needs to go, but this is nice and peaceful here.  Give me another minute.  And why shouldn’t we.

There is a pattern to life that goes way beyond our individual time on this earth – the fundamental Taoist philosophy…

Oh, this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Dylan hadn’t been reading Lao Tzu’s 81 poem masterpiece Tao Te Ching with its images of the river of life against which you cannot fight.  And why not – it is a volume that has brought inspiration and comfort to many of us.  There was a time in my youth when I used to read a poem from the book before I went out on a date.   Seemed to work for me.  If you don’t know it, give it a try.

But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

According to reports the music for the song came first, and knowing that, I developed a really different insight into the opening line.  It is quite unusual for a songwriter to work totally in this way.  One may start with the music, and indeed start with a jam session, but then some words emerge, and the music and lyrics both change as they accommodate each other.  I suspect that is what happened here.

The song is in F and after a couple of lines modulates to C by way of the G major chord.  This change of key, perfectly common and natural in popular song, gives us the feeling of progression.  When we get back to the final line of each verse we are back in F, and all is complete.  We’re home.  Relax, take it easy.

The middle 8 (People disagreeing…) does the same trick.  The D minor chord over “why only yesterday” builds the tension, we know we are reaching a climax as we reach “couldn’t help but cry”.

And then we are back.

It’s a great fun song.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the everlasting Tao.

Index to all the songs reviewed on Untold Dylan.

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6 Responses to Watching the river flow: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Sam Chianello says:

    “People disagree’n on just about everything, yep! It makes you want to stop and read a book ….! Why only yesterday, I saw someone.. who was really shook ! ”
    I take this sentiment personally, for it perfectly describes the chaos of confounding American politics during the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. Dylan yet again hits the proverbial ‘nail on the head’.

  2. Sam G Chianello says:

    “People disagree’n on just about everything, yep! It makes you want to stop and read a book ….! Why only yesterday, I saw someone.. who was really shook ! ”
    I take this sentiment personally, for it perfectly describes the confounding chaos of American politics during the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. Dylan yet again hits the proverbial ‘nail on the head’.

  3. Sam Chianello says:

    Tony, please delete the earliest entry, Thanks.

  4. lafcadio munez says:

    Time is the river I go fishing in,

    Said by Thoreau

  5. lafcadio munez says:

    The Tao that can be spoken is not the everlasting Tao.

    So what does this mean for your review?

  6. lafcadio munez says:

    make the but the stream

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