Workingman’s Blues: The meaning of the music and the lyrics in Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

Dylan has often turned to the step by step base line in his music, the base guitar either working its way down part of the scale, or up it.

The descending bass used here turns up in Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, I want you, Caribbean Wind, Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine, Stuck inside of Mobile etc etc   That this is a classic Dylan musical device has of course been picked up by many before me.  Indeed Bowie very particularly chose to use it in “Song for Bob Dylan,” way, way back.

Some find Working Man’s Blues of overwhelming import in the Dylan canon, others such as Heylin don’t.  Heylin says, “There is a laziness that manifests itself in the way Dylan wanders from thought to thought, resorting to the lexicon to fill in any blanks…”

The #2 part of the could relate to any one of a number of sources.   Working Man Blues by Merle Haggard could be one of the key influences, but the two songs have little in common – in fact musically they have nothing in common.

Heylin takes us back to Big Joe Williams “Meet me at the bottom”.  Or we could go in a different direction and find one of the strangest bits of borrowings which comes from “June’s Blues”, by June Christy, which if you have a mind to, I’d recommend you have a listen to – and please don’t be put off by the start if this is not your style.  The way June Christy handles the lyrics in the first verse is unexpected, but at least go past the trumpet break and listen to the third verse.  I’ve read that Dylan played Christy on some of his radio programmes.

So all sorts of references musically, and as with Christy, with the lyrics.  Also apparently there is a line from Henry Timrod (1829-1867) “to feed my soul with thought” – but I still, after ages of trying, can’t see what the attraction is in Timrod’s work.  It is I guess my utterly different cultural upbringing – my loss, I’m sure.

I did get the reference of course to Long Tall Sally (“I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall”) which of course comes from Robert Johnson “Hot Tamales (They’re Red Hot)”, but then the amount of Johnson that has survived is small, so it is easy to remember.  And besides, that is my cultural heritage!

So, is it “all he’s got left in the tank” (Heylin) or one of the great masterpieces?   Or just a collection of borrowings?

For me, neither – it’s a middle ranking song with some nice ideas but moments that are uncomfortable for me.  But this is just me, I often get that uncomfortable feeling always comes around when Dylan says things like

They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

And maybe this is why I always turn back to The Drifter’s Escape and Visions of Johanna, and indeed It’s all good, because they are not trying to force complex impossible-to-resolve issues into the simplicity of the structure of a popular song.  Instead they let the mists of uncertainty roll in and around the music, allowing us to take out our own elements and issues – and encouraging us to laugh at others who ludicrously simplify the world (It’s all good) rather than trying to simplify the world ourselves.

Heylin says, “There is a laziness that manifests itself in the way Dylan wanders from thought to thought, resorting to the lexicon to fill in any blanks…” and for once I agree with the old buzzard.  It does seem a bit of a cut and paste job built around that familiar descending base.

In verse one he’s thinking of the Good ol’ Days, and how the modern world ain’t up to much.

There’s an evenin’ haze settlin’ over the town
Starlight by the edge of the creek

He wants a bit of comfort in his old age now he’s handed the fight over to those younger than he who can take up the cause

I’m listenin’ to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping it’s way into my gut

Not insisting that others must take up the cause of the working man – your choice…

You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues

He’s thinking of the old days, how he was a fighter for the cause…

Now, I’m sailin’ on back, ready for the long haul
Tossed by the winds and the seas
I’ll drag ‘em all down to hell and I’ll stand ‘em at the wall
I’ll sell ‘em to their enemies

The enemy is at the gate in fact, and I suppose my own personal problem is that Dylan’s did that so, so, so much better in 2005.

I walk by tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season’s dawn awaits
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate

OK, it is not the same type of song, but

Now the place is ringed with countless foes
Some of them may be deaf and dumb
No man, no woman knows
The hour that sorrow will come

Compare and contrast (as they used to say in English literature examinations where I come from)…

Tell ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die

I suppose what I adore in Tell ol Bill is the uniformity of the composition while Working Man seems to me to have bits and pieces in it.  For the life of me I can’t understand the coupling of

I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall
Sleep is like a temporary death

It is almost as if Dylan was reminded of Long Tall Sally, liked the line and left it there without any particular reason for doing so other than he likes it.

So the Working Man has lost it all

Well, they burned my barn, they stole my horse
I can’t save a dime
I got to be careful, I don’t want to be forced
Into a life of continual crime
I can see for myself that the sun is sinking
How I wish you were here to see
Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking
That you have forgotten me?

He thinks of the person he has lost, of the world that is gone, of all his belongings that have gone and I am still reminded of that much more robust fight by one man against a different, but just as evil, force.

The evening sun is sinking low
The woods are dark, the town ain’t new
They’ll drag you down, they’ll run the show
Ain’t no telling what they’ll do

But while Tell Ol Bill is a constant struggle by one man against everything around him, in Working Man it can get a bit confusing

Now I’m down on my luck and I’m black and blue

and from the same verse

Got a brand new suit and a brand new wife
I can live on rice and beans
Some people never worked a day in their life
Don’t know what work even means

What has work got to do with it?  Is he happy with the marriage or down on his luck? How different is the ending to

All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?

Of course they are very different songs, but both written within a year or so of each other, both are about a man running out of options, a man alone trying to sort out what is going on, how to get through, how to get out.  A man without money, on his own calling out to one person (at least I think that is what WMB is about).

It is just that for me, one of those two songs is an utter success, and the other, somehow just doesn’t make it.

So when I read on one site “Workingman’s Blues #2 is a standout track” I just don’t see it.   That review says, “Workingman’s Blues managed to be both timeless and utterly contemporary, with its opening lines a poetic snapshot of renewed hard times,” and of course that is the wonder of music – like visual art you can make up your own mind.  It is just that for me, no, if you want that poetic snapshot of renewed hard times, you take

The river whispers in my ear
I’ve hardly a penny to my name
The heavens have never seemed so near
All of my body glows with flame

But I do think some of my difference of opinion from that of others is cultural.  One review said, “The chorus has a wonderfully elegiac, empathetic tone, just right for a late-night picket-line singalong.”  I can only imagine the writer had been on very, very different late night picket lines from me in my youth.

The song is of course about Modern Times – the throwing away of the past, and some of the people who made the past with it.  But also (and this is just me) at times it is about nothing much – just a collection of lines from other sources (there is inevitably Ovid, because where Dylan goes a-searching for Timrod he also seems to find Ovid quite often.)

Chris Gregory in a review on line writes, “Like Visions of Johanna or Desolation Row or Idiot Wind or Jokerman or Blind Willie McTell it can be subjected to many different interpretations,” and that I suppose is where I disagree most of all.  The issue isn’t just, can you interpret the songs differently? but what approach is being used, and how successful is the approach.  For me, Idiot Wind isn’t a song like this at all – it is a clear commentary in which the opening line “Someone’s got it in for me…” tells us everything that is going on here and it has a clear unity throughout.

Likewise “Johanna” brings down the mists from the first moment, “Aint it just like the night to play tricks.”

Here though, “There’s an evening haze settling over town Starlight by the edge of the creek” this is the everyday world.  And when you are telling tales of the everyday, you need to be extraordinary in your rendition of it.  Dylan can do it, but for me, personally, not here.

Chris Gregory concluded, “I marvel at this song every day… I am in awe of the artistic brilliance of both works… but, without Dylan’s ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ I doubt that Ulysses would hold the said standing among scholars of artistic literature.”

I wish I could share such enthusiasm, but I can’t.  But then, I can always turn instead to Tell Ol Bill.  And indeed that is exactly what I am doing, because the Dylan related novel I’m working on at the moment, (“Visions”) is named very obviously, but actually takes Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost into the world of Tell ol Bill.  Give me another six months or so and I’ll let you know if I’ve managed to pull it off.

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11 Responses to Workingman’s Blues: The meaning of the music and the lyrics in Dylan’s song

  1. Dave Chesterman says:

    Hi Tony,

    With the greatest of respect it’s not really a “classic Dylan musical device” but just Pachelbel’s Canon in D – present in countless incarnations in rock down the decades.

  2. stuart schuster says:

    Bass is the correct spelling in reference to music and/or guitar, not base.
    Also, listen to the song again, or go to, the correct line is:
    “…if we want to compete at all”
    I love that you are trying to make sense of these songs and even acknowledge that much of it is not supposed to make sense.
    After all, he is a poet whose rock and roll sensibility and gift of melody are the vehicle for the words. His mentor Woody Guthrie did it first, especially with silly childrens’ songs.

  3. Kieran says:

    Good review! I think it’s a poor song, with a pretty, Christmassy tune and arrangement. The lines like, “the buyin’ power of the proletariat’s goin’ down, money getting shallow and weak” betray Bob’s distance from the actual type of working man he’s trying to portray. He has nothing of insight to say! Compare them to the beautiful, and sharp, lines from Tangled Up In Blue:

    Her folks they said our lives together
    Sure was gonna be rough
    They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
    Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough

    These lines are poignant, visionary, and show that he could empathise with people still. But the years have gotten in the way, as they must, and he’s far removed from such social concerns, I’m not criticising him for it, you get the same embarrassing stuff from other old rich billionaire rockers wearing faded jeans. It’s a mis-step, and there are a few on Modern Times, but thankfully that album has the priceless Nettie Moore!

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    What I meant was that it is something that often turns up in Dylan compositions.

  5. Mad Dog says:

    You might also consider the lyrics he has been singing in the live performances.

  6. TonyAttwood says:

    Mad Dog, yes I thought of this. Heylin is very dismissive of them, and I’m collecting together the variations, to try and get an overview before adding this to the review.

  7. Michele says:

    I think you’re missing a lot,

    the point is not how Bob is able to offer insights about the worker’s condition, beside some Hollis Brown or North Country Blues he has never really meant to do stuff like that, here the fact itself that, after spending decades deconstructing the folksinger and the politically committed songwriter image, he says something completely clear and direct, with no metaphors, and he speaks about exploitment, in a very actual way, with a comment about the big corporations policies, which are unfortunately totally working like that. His insight is the very comment itself, those words, meant like a quotation and an awful alibi, full of injustice, is a kind of shocking statement coming from him. Also, in this songs he mixes up the levels, the public (the work), the private (wife, love) and the universal, adding to one single thing, life itself. Lexicon is there, but it’s always been, along with original poetic imagines, now, here, he uses a tender tune to comment and underscore the tragedy of the Western Modern World, that loaded the “crisis” that they invented on the shoulders of poorest people, it’s all pretty clear, and it’s awesome how he makes of the 3 levels the meaning of life itself. Using such a “pop” tune is an awesome veichle to land that synthesis, chapeau!

  8. says:

    I have a different take. This song reminds me very much of the Civil War.
    I wonder if some of it refers to someone who is struggling with the choice of joining the fight (on the front lines) or staying home and taking care of business. (work). The band sounds very much like the setup for “Cross the Green Mountain” which was done for the Civil War movie, Gods and Generals.
    Not everything fits, but it is only in a few of his songs that it does!
    any thoughts?

  9. Shabtai Shacham says:

    Hi Tony
    IMO you missed a great song.
    This is an ingenious peace of poetry depicting all kind of feelings and thoughts ( some of them conflicting) preoccupying the “hero” mind and soul.
    He is simultaneously : confused, depressed, worried, angry, nostalgic, self-comforting and hopeful.
    Maybe this can help you understanding the lines :
    “Got a brand new suit and a brand new wife
    I can live on rice and beans
    Some people never worked a day in their life
    Don’t know what work even means”
    I also agree with the analogy to Ulysses

  10. CerpherJoe says:

    Well I think it is a masterpiece. So evocative. Beautiful art. But then I’m a free market kind of guy like Dylan also.

  11. CerpherJoe says:

    Oh, and I meant to add … I long ago gave up trying to identify Dylan’s message in the songs. It’s better that way.

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