Lay down your weary tune: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

Lay Down Your Weary Tune” was written in 1963 – my evolving chronology has it within this sequence of writing

Reports suggest that Dylan was initially very excited by his new composition and tried to persuade Joan Baez to perform it at a forthcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl, but she felt she wanted more time to get used to the song.

This excitement that Dylan felt led next to his desire, so we are told, to put it on The Time They a-Changin’ album but then of course it didn’t appear until Biograph.

One reason for the loss of the song at this time was perhaps because criticism and controversy was emerging concerning Dylan’s use of other people’s materials and his habit of claiming copyright himself.  This song would certainly fall into this category, and he admitted that it originated in Scottish folk ballads (O Waly, Waly and The Water is Wide are the most obvious).

After that opinions differ.  Some have it replaced by Restless Farewell and others suggest it was Only a Pawn in their Game which took the place on the album.

Restless Farewell was the last song added to the album, and this itself is based on an Irish ballad, and contains the famous rebuttal to Newsweek about various issues, particularly the issue of taking other people’s work and Dylan’s relationship with his family.

So maybe Dylan didn’t want another old folk song re-worked, or maybe he didn’t want more ammunition for the doubters of his talent, or maybe he wanted some more variation, and so chose Only a pawn, which like Hattie Carroll was contemporary in the extreme.

Dylan was certainly on top of the song, for his recording was made in a single take on 24 October 1963 and he performed it at Carnegie Hall a couple of days later.

Many of the commentaries focus on the song as mystic or religious.  Stephen H. Webb called it “one of the greatest theological songs since King David composed his psalms.”  I wouldn’t like to comment on that.

The source – The Water is Wide – is a song that has been collected from Scotland to Somerset (which in terms of the United Kingdom is pretty much north to south), and turns up in the collections of Cecil Sharpe, whose collecting of folk songs laid the basis for the Morris Men revival in Britain in the 20th and 21st century.

The song is particularly well known for its development of the phases of love within it – the all encompassing phase at the start, the fading or love as it grows old before it fades away like the morning dew.

A rough translation from the original Scots would be

O woe is me upon the bank,
And woe woe down the hill,
And woe woe by the riverside,
Where I and my love want to be.
I lean’d my back into an oak,
I thought it was a trusty tree;
But first it bowed, and soon it broke,
Just as my true love did lie to me.

You can appreciate the same feeling from the Water is Wide

A ship there is and she sails the seas
She’s loaded deep, as deep can be
But not as deep as the love I’m
I know not if I sink or swim.

What really marks out Dylan’s composition and his reference back to the original ballads is the use of common measure – a way of composing that is incredibly common (as its name suggests!) in traditional British folk ballads.

In essence this means you have four lines of music and in lines one and three there are four beats, and in lines two and four there are three beats.

Additionally the stress is on the second of each pair of beats so we get

Lay down your wear-y tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest your-self ‘neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

where the words or syllables in bold are stressed.

Now what makes this so common in the music of the 16th and 17th centuries is that songs written like this are easier to remember – with most of their performers being illiterate and having to learn the songs by heart.  If you have a long ballad you at least have a chance of knowing where you are going with this repeated pattern.

Musically the song is simple – three major chords in the accompaniment and the same basic melody for both verse and chorus – common for the folk music of the time but unusual for Dylan.

And there is no storyline, no telling us how to behave or reflection on how we have behaved.  It is just a person talking about the natural world – and how the natural world is superior to anything mankind could make.

Which when we look at the album this might have been on (Times) we can see is a real contradiction to the title track.  Maybe that was another reason not to put it on the album.  As the album actually emerged, the final track was the moving on song, keeping going, finding something new, doing my thing.  If Lay Down had been there instead we would have had a something else – a sort of times they are a changing but nothing is changing, album.  Of course I have no idea if this would have worried Dylan, but it is possible that it might have done.

If there is a link between this song and other Dylan work it is not with the songs of Times but with concepts like every grain of sand.  Even “When the Ship Comes In” uses the ship as the allegory; but we’re not thinking that laughing fish are real!  But in Lay Down, this is a description of the real world.

If we want to take it further we can say that Dylan is in some way harking back to William Blake, a poet many of us entering college and university as teenagers were reading at the same time as appreciating Dylan.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

Dylan’s vision is not the same but there are similarities

Lay down your weary tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

It suggests, I think, that we should set aside our own troubled world and instead take refuge in the natural world and draw strength from all that we see therein – exactly as Blake suggested.

Struck by the sounds before the sun
I knew the night had gone
The morning breeze like a bugle blew
Against the drums of dawn

At whatever time of day or night the natural world can offer you insights, beauty, understanding…

The ocean wild like an organ played
The seaweed’s wove its strands
The crashin’ waves like cymbals clashed
Against the rocks and sands

Even in the changing nature of the weather we can find insight

I stood unwound beneath the skies
And clouds unbound by laws
The cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang
And asked for no applause

It is a beautiful song, but not, I feel, the message Dylan wanted to give out at that moment of conflict on an album called Times they are a Changin’

Index to all the songs on the site

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2 Responses to Lay down your weary tune: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Minko says:

    I find a distictly Whitmannish touch in this song. Perhaps it’s the first one where Dylan speaks of God through natural symphony. You were dead right about the use of common measure—it simply is brilliant. The visual imageries so completely and engrossingly gets transferred to the aural domain that it makes your hairs stand on their end. It was astonishing that a twenty-three-year-old would come up with this piece of ancient wisdom.

  2. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)

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