Forever Young: the meaning of the lyrics – an alternative view

We’ve already taken one look at Forever Young, but as we’ve seen before, there’s much to be said and much to be gained in considering an alternative view.  There’s a link to the original review at the end of this article.


Forever Young by Dearbhla Egan

I have a friend about the same age as myself.  Let’s just say we are both around the half century mark.  We have talked together a lot about music over the years but both have very different tastes regarding what we like to listen to.  It is funny really, because if you are especially fond of a particular artist, it can sometimes be very difficult to understand why another person does not share your enthusiasm.  Recently I asked my friend why she did not like Dylan and she said she didn’t hate him but she just had a preference for other artists and bands such as Led Zeppelin!! However, she did concede that she liked the Dylan song ‘Forever Young’. Well, I thought that was a bit of an obvious and corny choice when one considers the enormous list she had to choose from but each to their own I suppose.

I was thinking about this later and I began to think that perhaps I had been a bit hasty with my criticism of both my friend and of Dylan by dismissing this song so easily.  As a person who is lucky enough to have a child of my own I can certainly vouch for the fact that the presence of a child in your life changes you utterly in almost every way if you are a loving parent.  

There is absolutely nothing you would not do for this little person to ensure that they feel loved and protected and special.  Your entire perspective on life changes and where once your focus was  entirely devoted to meeting your own needs and desires, your focus shifts, almost overnight, to meeting all the needs and desires of your child.  I would imagine that any person who has had a child that they love will understand what I am saying here and more besides. This need to protect and nurture is something that is usually shared by both parents.

Before I proceed any further with this article I would like to state that even though I will make references to the joy and fulfilment involved in having children and how these emotions change us intrinsically, I am in no way ignoring or being dismissive of the fact that this is not always the case.  There are millions of babies born in the world every day who, for a variety of reasons, are not wanted or loved or welcomed and I am not forgetting this at all.  As an adoptive mother, I know, very clearly that in order for us to have been given the gift of parenthood, it came at a massive cost to a person or persons who we will never know or be able to express our profound gratitude to. Yet, to this day, there are thousands of babies and young children in orphanages around Vietnam or out on the streets alone or working as child labourers in the most deadly conditions.  Many of them will not make it into their teens. And this is just Vietnam.  The bigger picture is truly horrifying and I feel the need to acknowledge this just because there is nobody to write a song for them.

In my case our daughter was adopted from Hanoi in Vietnam when she was just three months old.  When you go through an adoption process that takes over three years I can tell you that when you finally hold your baby in your arms you want to shout it from the rooftops with just as much vigour as any parents who have given birth to their child. Surely, Dylan must have felt some of this overwhelming joy and elation following the birth of his children.  I am sure that he must also have experienced that huge emotional shift that I have described when he felt the real love of a parent for their child.  

There is a lot of written material about the different ‘stages’ of Dylan’s music encompassing the early traditional folk through to the protest songs, going electric, religious influences etc. etc. There is a great deal of debate about how he was changing as a person as his music evolved and as he began to experience new and challenging aspects of life.  

But, I am going to throw the cat among the pigeons here by saying that nothing changes the persona of someone more than having or losing a child.  There are so many successful artists who have written songs dedicated to their children because of this huge need to ‘tell the world’ that a miracle has happened.  What is refreshing about most of these songs is their simplicity and genuine good intentions towards children.  It is as if this kind of love is so great that it cannot be contained and in this case, for a musician, the obvious thing to do is write a song about it. (If I were to provide a list of such songs it would take forever but I will compile a short list which you can read after the conclusion of this article and by all means add to if you wish.)

There is a song called ‘The Joy of Living’, written by the late Ewan MacColl, father of the late Kirsty MacColl, and a wonderful songwriter.  I would like to share a verse with you.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is because it is an amazing piece of writing and the second reason is that there is something about this verse that is reminiscent of parts of Dylan’s, ‘Forever Young’.  There are four verses in this song.  In the first he is bidding farewell to the land and the landscape in which he has lived his life. In the second verse he is bidding farewell to his beloved wife.  In the third verse, which I will show you, he is bidding farewell to his children and finally in the last verse he is coming home.  The song was written when the man was terminally ill.

The Joy of Living by Ewan MacColl; 3rd Verse

Farewell to you my chicks, soon you must fly alone
Flesh of my flesh, my future life, bone of my bone
May your wings be strong, may your days be long, safe be your journey
Each of you bears inside of you the gift of love
May it bring you light and warmth and the pleasure of giving
Eagerly savour each new day and the taste of its mouth
Never lose sight of the thrill
And the joy of living

The intention here is so clear and also sad in the context in which it was written although, ironically, it was not meant to be heard as a sad song, quite the opposite in fact.

Dylan has six children. Jesse, Anna Lea, Samuel, Jakob, Maria (adopted) and Desiree.  He had four children with his first wife Sara Lownds as well as adopting her daughter, Maria, from a prior marriage. He had another child (Desiree) after he divorced Lownds with Carolyn Dennis, a backing singer who he married in 1986 and subsequently divorced in 1992.  

Evidently Dylan said that he wrote the song, Forever Young, while on tour as he was missing his sons.  It was released on the album ‘Planet Waves’, 1974 and the song was recorded twice, the first in the slower rhythm with which most people are familiar and a second, more upbeat version on the reverse side of the album.


The joy and attraction to this song is, in a way, because of its sheer honesty and clarity. The emotion and wish that he is expressing is nothing that most parents would not want for their children and we are drawn to this song because Dylan expresses this emotion with such sincerity and accessibility.  Dylan has found a way to express this wish or prayer if you like in the most extraordinary manner while keeping things as ordinary as they can be.

Although it reads as a prayer from the start…

‘May God bless and keep you always’

this is not a religious song.    

Across many cultures the ‘blessing’ of a baby takes on many different forms and practices but it is generally common to acknowledge and celebrate the birth of a baby in most cultures.  In this case it does not really matter that Dylan asks that God be the one to protect his child, the important thing is that he wants his child protected and calls in God to help.


May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

The last two lines are sage advice to give to anyone, adult or child.  It shows how Dylan himself has learned that one must be able to both give and receive love in equal measure to be a rounded human being.  It seems like a simple lesson and yet so many people go through life without ever fully getting this.

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

Of all the lines in this song, right or wrong, these are the ones that most people will remember if you mention it. And there is no great surprise in this.  What greater wish to have for your child than to hope they will reach the highest heights but not just by leaping up there. Yet again, Dylan is telling the child that he wants him to reach his fullest potential, to reach the stars but not without climbing on every rung along the way.  So, Dylan is not carried away so much that he is wishing his child’s life will be a piece of cake.  Yes, reach the top, but learn every lesson you can along the way – climb on every rung.


May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young

I think we can learn a lot about Dylan from these lyrics.  This verse is not all up in the air dealing with wishes and dreams.  It is about important values that he would like the child to have as he grows older.  Of course, the values that we crave for our children are quite often the values that we either pride in ourselves or wish for in ourselves.  Here, values like righteousness, truth, courage and strength of character are immediately identifiable as characteristics that have always been important to Dylan and have been at the backbone of much of his work as a writer and activist. He has first-hand knowledge of how difficult it can be to hold your ground when you are on the wrong side of the tracks.  He knows how important it is to seek out justice and truth and to have the courage of your convictions even when you are scared.  This verse is a challenge more than a prayer I think for if, in fact, all these wishes come true, the subject has his work cut out for him and the daunting task of living up to a father who made good on all of these challenges.


May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young

There are two distinctly different themes in this last verse of the song.  In the first four lines Dylan still occupies the role of father as role model, giving advice based on what he believes is the right thing to do.  Have a good work ethic.  Be prepared for the twists and turns that life will inevitably throw at you and never sell yourself short or lose the courage of your convictions. The times are always a-changin’. Stay grounded and hold on to your beliefs.

But in the second half of this verse he lightens up again and, while knowing it is not realistically possible, he wishes for his son that his heart will always be joyful and that his song will always be sung.  These lines, like the opening lines of the song, are indicative of the immense surge of emotion Dylan is feeling towards his son and after all has been said and done, he just wants him to be happy. He has done his duty as a good father by giving guidance and now it is time just to cherish the wonder of his baby and all he wants for him.   

This is a beautifully composed love song or lullaby where we see how Dylan takes full responsibility for his role as a father.  As a song, it has always been well received and appreciated by an audience that is wider than just Dylan fans.  It is easy to see why as it delivers such a universal message.  

Unfortunately, with any of Dylan’s songs that become popular in the mainstream, they can end up being a little dismissed or side-lined by hard-core Dylan fans but I think it would be a mistake to dismiss this song too easily.  After all, there is a lot to be learned about Dylan by looking closely at the lyrics and it is certainly a good way of gauging where Dylan was emotionally placed at that time.

With regard to the music, I personally love the melody in this song but have always found the choruses very jarring.


Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

The verses are so gentle and then the choruses come in like a bombshell, no longer asking that his child stays forever young but demanding it.  Maybe it is just me.  I am also intrigued as to why Dylan chose to include an ‘upbeat’ recording of the song on the same album.  We know that Dylan has never looked forward to ageing himself.  He has said, and I quote, ‘People don’t retire, they fade away, they run out of steam’.  It is easy to see that a man who is now in his seventies but who insists on doing live concerts which are sometimes criticised terribly, is desperately trying to hold on to something.  Steam perhaps? Could this upbeat version of the song have something to do with that? Staying forever young?

Here’s that list of songs I mentioned near the start…

Paul Simon ‘Father and Daughter’, Harry Chapin ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’, Neil Young ‘Here for You’, Stevie Wonder ‘Isn’t she lovely’, John Lennon ‘Beautiful Boy’, David Bowie ‘Kooks’, Lenny Kravitz ‘Flowers for Zoe’, U2 ‘Original of the Species’, Thin Lizzy ‘Sarah’, Eric Clapton ‘Tears in Heaven’, Joan Baez ‘A Young Gypsy’…


  1. Thank you. Wish I could have found the words to express what has been in my heart all these years for my now adult children.

  2. It didn’t take a genius, or a whole lot of thinking to discern that this is a legacy song to our adult children. I cry many tears every time I hear this song, and it remains one of the favorites in my list of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan legacy songs. May they stay Forever Young, as well as myself and my grown children.

  3. My daughter is at that pivotal age of 16, about the time for this song. She is right here beside me relaxing and I’m loving it. I never knew how close a song could touch the core of your heart. Rod Stewart’s version breaks my heart as it is from a father to his daughter. I will play it for her one day, but I’m not quite able to yet. I love that it took first one of the master poets of our age and a Scotsman to create for me, the song for my daughter. James Taylor wrote the song for my wife :Only One.

  4. HI Charles, I’m a lover of music in general and count Dylan as a master of lyrics.Rod Stewart has done many covers and with Forever Young I think it has been done well.As a father I remember seeing the video a fair bit and on one occasion i have to admit it bought a tear to my eye.The power of the written word eh! It was a bundle of thoughts that came rushing as the song played,reminding me of my daughter as a sweet baby and growing through different stages and the laughter and tears we all experience when raising our offspring.Stewart’s cover of Only A Hobo is a quality recording too,it seems Dylan is the teacher and Stewart the pupil like many others.

  5. Mostly agree with analysis of the song but c’mon. Dylan an activist? Maybe for 10 minutes in the early sixties but he moved on leaving others to carry the load. He reportedly told Baez that what made them different was that she believed you could effect change and he did not.

  6. This hits so close to home now. I lost both of my daughters in law this year. One was 54, and the other was just 47. I also lost a friend, to murder, and she was only 49. There were other deaths in my circle, but these three were the youngest. And they will be “Forever Young” in my heart.

  7. Patty I am so sorry to hear that. I know that nothing can ever compensate for such losses but hope that you do find support through music – and indeed in other ways – to see you through such times.

  8. I recommend this essay for a unique take on the song:

    Very interesting and considering Dylan’s spiritual journey, makes sense. That doesn’t mean the song isn’t to a son, only that it is very probably informed by his own Christian experience and private religious journey. Dylan often draws from sources outside his own creative imagination and then morphs them with his artistry. He is likely familiar with the Bible and was influenced by it in Forever Young.

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