Changing of the Guards

Below in the review of this song that I wrote in 2008.  After that is an additional commentary added in March 2013.

Changing of the Guards: first track on Street Legal, failed to make it as a single (presumably because Dylan fans buy albums), and yet turns up on Greatest Hits 3 and The Essential.   Someone who selects these things (Dylan himself?) thinks it is a great song.

There is a review on Wikipedia which suggests that the song ends on the dominant chord (that is the chord based on the fifth note of the scale the song is in.)  This is completely wrong – it is performed in A flat, and ends on the chord of A flat.  There is nothing odd about the chords used – A flat, F minor, D flat and E flat – exactly as you might expect.

And it is this repetitive normality of the music that takes so much away from the lyrics – the music doesn’t do anything to make you want to understand or even listen to the lyrics.

The meaning is fairly simple: if you think of the reality of the mediaeval period (the poverty, persecution, disease, and belief that both the dead and living share the earth as everyone waits for Revelation to come to pass), you get the pictures.

Interesting stuff, but overall there is the feeling that it was as if Dylan desperately wanted to write another epic song and did a cut and paste job with a load of lyrics that had something to do with the mediaeval period, and said to the audience, “make something of that.”

Which perhaps is how we get to something so very unfitting by the third line: “Where the good shepherd grieves”.  In this song it just sounds so out of place.  OK he was about to go all Christian, but this doesn’t seem to be Christian, except in that it was a celebration of everything that was wrong about Christianity and the power of the priest at this time.

Unless (and this is just a guess from me) it is all about a reading of the tarot cards.  The clue to that comes at the very end, (“Between the King and the Queen of Swords”).

But for that sort of song, if the song is to be strophic in its form, it needs something more than the jolly bouncing melody, three backing singers and repeating and ultimately rather dull sax solo.

In the end the lyrics don’t matter, the melody doesn’t matter, nothing matters – and yet there are horrors going on in the song and I end up wondering why.

Of course Dylan knew what he was doing – the failure is mine.  I haven’t got a clue.

 March 2013

I haven’t played this song in a long old time, and put it on by chance, enjoyed the overall sound but was then bemused by such of the lyrics as I could remember/understand.

But one couplet did catch my ear

But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

For me “Eden is Burning” is full of such potential that I want to think it through, use it in one of my own songs (not to suggest that I am even on the same compositional planet as Dylan, but it just catches me that way) and then think, oh, what a dull way to use it.

brace yourself for elimination”  must be the Second Coming, which means the next line says you either are for Him or against Him, and I really, truly dislike that sentiment.  If that is the God we have ruling over us, then I am still to be counted out.  Blind faith is not something I am willing or able to offer, and I am so sorry that Dylan felt he could at this time.  Of course, my judgement is meaningless, who am I to say what’s right or not?  But then who is Dylan?  He can write the most staggering songs, but does that give him, or any Christian, Muslim or Jew the right to tell me that you are either part of the fold or an outcast?  No, for me the answer is totally “no”.


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26 Responses to Changing of the Guards

  1. Stuart says:

    I have enjoyed reading some of your comments on Dylan’s songs. He is a master. They don’t come along very often. So we mortals may be presumptuous to do much more than listen and enjoy. However, I think you may have missed it on this song. I always assumed this song was about the breakup of his marriage to Sara.

  2. Andrew says:

    For me, the line prior is much more important. “Gentlemen he said, I do not need your orginization. I have shined your shoes, moved your mountains and marked your cards. But Eden is burning!…” That to me, profoundly whispers notions that this is about a rebellion. An uprising of the middle class against corporate greed and determination to conquer the natural world.

  3. roger says:

    I highly doubt this perplexing song is about Sara. It’s roughly four years after he wrote an entire album about her with ‘Blood on the Tracks’ …and then he put a bow on her when he wrote ‘Sara’ on the ‘Desire’ album. That’s enough , isn’t it ? How long do you want the poor guy to carrying around a torch for her ? The song obviously means what it means. What that is, I have no clue. He was undoubtedly reaching for the stars with this one…like he had done so many times in the past with songs like, Mr. Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind, and Idiot Wind. He may have fell a bit short with this one. Maybe. But can you fault a guy for trying to pull the sun back into the sky one last time ?

  4. Pamela Cohen says:

    Bob Dylan is Amazing and a Genius. I just love him and can’t stop singing or playing his stuff. Of course being almost 63 years I remember him from the 60’s.
    Changing of the Guards resounds in my head and drives me crazy and I don’t know why but I just love the Lyrics. Came on google thinking i would get some answers as to the meaning of this song but as we can all see our brains are being exercised. Also the Tune is amazing. I am taking up the Guitar……Thank you Mr Dylan…..may you always be blessed. xxx

  5. Rohan Healy says:

    Like you guys I am perplexed by the meaning of the song. I love both the lyrics and the music as I do so many other Dylan songs. I guess I will be left to ponder its meaning but in the meantime just to enjoy listening to what I believe is a really fantastic song. I also like Patti Smith’s cover on her album “Twelve”. well worth a listen. Thanks for your comments everyone. They are interesting and thought provoking.

  6. Ilkka Ranta-aho says:

    I think the meaning of CotG became clear in retrospect when Dylan put out Slow Train Coming. In Street Legal he had already found God, but was not quite sure how to manifest the big change in his life. Thus CotG and New Pony.

    We should remember that the god Dylan found was not a friendly old fella smiling on us from the clouds. He was a furious, apocalyptic god, ready to rain fire on the creation that was not to his liking. Eden is burning and we all must be ready for Armageddon. There is a glimpse of hope, however, if we are brave enough to abandon our false idols and cherish – nay, fear – this god Dylan offers. In so many words, we must be ready to perform the changing of the guards. Old ones out, new ones in.

    With this in mind, I believe that if there is a reference to real persons and events in the song, the “she” in the song must be Mary Alice Artes, who introduced this pentecostal god to Dylan.

    Btw, it seems obvious that the body of the lyrics was originally written for a different kind of composition. The lyrics are full of perfect rhymes, most of which fall in wrong places within this melody. It doesn’t diminish the song in any way, it’s just that this melody has no real use for rhymes.

    We could do an exercise here. Let’s take the second verse and do some cutting:

    Fortune calls from the shadows
    Merchants and thieves, hungry for power
    She’s smelling sweet like the meadows
    On midsummer’s eve, near the tower

    And, say, the seventh:

    She wakes him up, the sun is breaking:
    Mountain laurels and rolling rocks
    What measures he now will be taking?
    She’s clutching onto his golden locks

    Now the rhymes make sense. It’s like he thought he would like to use these lyrics for the melody he had come up with, but they didn’t fit as such, so he filled them up with additional phrases. Now the lines are full but the meaning of the song much more obscure. Oh well, like THAT ever bothered Dylan…

    Of course, this is all my fantasy combined with some mechanical interpretation. It is not ingenious or important. The finished song, in its present form, is.

  7. Mick Grace says:

    It’s a kind of retelling of the Joan Of Arc story. The references throughout are clear and narrative in nature. Like all other Dylan songs their are many more dimensions. If anyone is interested I can walk you through the references when I’m at a computer and not my phone.

  8. John Shaw says:

    I think we have to see glimpses of early Dylan’s “When The Ship Comes In” in parts of “Changing of the Guard”. The song contains several references to a Black woman (“a Black nightingale”) and an “ebony face”, and “she” (perhaps this Black woman) wants to know “what measures he (Dylan?) now will be taking (on her behalf?)”. She (and we) proceed to see: “Gentlemen, he said, I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes, I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards, but Eden is burning, either get ready for elimination, or else your hearts must bear (I do not hear “have” in this space) the courage of the changing of the guards.” In the context, Dylan is indeed the righteous avenger, but no more so than he was in “When The Ship Comes In”, and the foe is not unbelievers, but the “gentlemen” (perhaps the “businessmen who drink my wine” of the Watchtower) whose “organization” (corporate America?) he was once a flunky for. Fully awakened, he now warns them that their “Eden is burning”…their days of ease are at an end, as “yonder stands their orphan with his gun.” At least that’s how I’ve always taken this song. And the feeling is vaguely reinforced by the reference to “socialism” in “No Time To Think”, which occurs immediately afterwards.

  9. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/116/Changing-of-the-Guards (Additional Information)

  10. Sinfronio Mendes Ferreira Neto says:

    You can guess how difficult it is for me, a non native english guy, to understand a bit of this song.
    However it sounds great. The melody is catching and the lyrics are intriguing.
    Your comments have helped me but not that much..

  11. Georg von Laufenberg says:

    After hearing that BD finally very rightfully received the Nobel Price I spent the following couple of days playing my favorite songs of his. Changing of the Guards is one of them, but – like most of you – I find it intriguing and elusive at the same time. Somewhere I read before that it was inspired by Joan of Arc (maybe in Patty Smith’s liner notes of her great album “12”), and that makes sense for some parts. However, the following changes of perspective remains a mystery. Sometimes the first person seems to be an observer of the events around the events, then again it could be the singer, and then there is the captain, which could also be a biblical allusion. John definitely makes some good observations here; there are definitely images that we can find throughout Dylan’s work. If you could provide some more precise references, Mick, I’d be glad to read them. On the other hand, the ambiguity of perspective and imagery is exactly what makes the song so great. Every time we listen to it we get carried away with different associations, and maybe we should just leave it at that.

  12. Yes, like the best Dylan songs (and much poetry) it can yield up multiple interpretations.
    Jez Lowe (English singer with Irish roots) heard it as being about the Irish 1916 Easter Uprising, and interprets it that way in his excellent version (the best track on the record) on the compilation of Dylan covers Younger Than That Now…
    I can see something else, in the figure of the Black Nightingale and her collusion with the avenging Captain. Dylan is on record as saying what an impact seeing a production of Brecht & Weill’s Threepenny Opera had on him, and in particular their song Pirate Jenny. The impact is there in When The Ship Comes In, (as John Shaw implies) and more explicitly in Black Diamond Bay. Those great and much-discussed lines:

    “Gentlemen, he said
    I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
    I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
    But Eden is burning, either getting ready for elimination
    Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards”

    can apply equally to various kinds of Apocalypse – Biblical, Environmental or, as eluded to in Brech’t lyrics, the overthrow of Capitalism.

  13. Mike Ridd says:

    After completing a re reading of Stephen Hawkings biography I’m determined to get a grasp on ‘ general relativity’ Wish me luck I have more chance with that than I would in unravelling this Dylan Masterclass in lyrical obscurity
    Did he have a genuine theme or is this a cobbled-together effort at creating another Dylan modern-day Classic?
    I have no idea I’m clueless to its meaning but I’m quite sure the man himself will never grace us with a plainspeak explanation
    The song still grabs my attention enough to never let the remote out of my sight lest I lose control of the ‘ repeat ‘key or someone takes charge of the CD player
    Who cares what it means, it’s a brilliant effort at a classic, a quasi ” positively 4th street ” attempt at conjuring the spirit of the 60s and for that effort alone I salute the great man
    Long may you live Dylan, like yr poetic forborn namesake, maybe a genius, maybe not but I suspect your legacy will still be relevant in centuries to come and it should be thus!

  14. Mike Ridd says:

    I can’t leave comment on this song alone
    It’s as though he’s throw everything against the wall and picked up the pieces, some kind of fractured canvas, much the same as Bowie did when his creative instincts hit a roadblock
    Bowie threw out clever but independently meaningless lyrics then cut and pasted them
    I thing Dylan had several genuine ideas, themes happening concurrently but couldn’t coalesce them into a strong central theme
    He references capitalism, the bible, a lost love and who knows what else?
    This was a confused period in his life and anyone- no matter his/her talent or perceived brilliance looking for redemption in religion-is Destined to a state of confusion While considering my opinion please bear in mind I’m usually wrong.
    Ergo, Dylan probably knew precisely what he meant! It’s just a small shame that none of us will ever have the vaguest idea of it!

  15. Hans B says:

    Thank you all for your thoughts on this great song. I think that lyrics like these are impossible to “understand” logically, it´s about communicating on a completely different level, where images invoke associations and emotions (think of the surreal lyrics of Desolation Row). It´s like walking through a gallery with all sorts of paintings.

  16. james says:

    I initially thought this song had something to do about Joan of Arc.
    But – what makes this song special is that it can have several meanings depending on who is listening and the circumstances the listener is under.

  17. Larry fyffe says:

    To understand Dylan, among other things, it helps to know biblical stories, traditional folk songs, and the poetry of the Romantics: “The captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid” alludes both to the traditional ‘Maid of Fife’ and John Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. But most of all it alludes to the Book of Samuel I.

    The ghosts of Eli’s city howl in the lyrics of Dylan’s
    tunes. The wickedness of the sons of the old high priest Eli leads to the loss of the Ark of God with its Seat of Mercy, but with the changing of the
    guards, Hannah’s son Samuel, with God’s intervention, defeats the Philistines who had returned the Ark along with gold. See: The Wicked Messenger.

    The theme even howls in “Romona:

    “Everything passses/
    Everything changes/
    Just do what you think you should do/
    And someday maybe/
    Who knows baby/
    I’ll come cryin’ to you”.

    Often missed is the fact that Dylan is amazingly
    consistent in his lyrical outllook.

  18. Larry fyffe says:

    The “Ark of God” is stationed in Shiloh where young Samuel is under the stewartship of Eli; Eli’s wayward sons look after it but it was removed and lost in battle with the Philistines. Dylan, of course, has a Jewish upbringing,

  19. Larry fyffe says:

    *(sp) Ramona..thought by some to be about Joan Baez. Johanna means deliverance/mercy

  20. Larry fyffe says:

    The Second Coming (New Testament) and awaiting of the Messiah (Old Testament) are difficult to reconcile; less so when taken in the context of pure literature with all of its symbols and metaphors.

  21. Richard File says:

    Love this song. For me, every time he uses I or me in the lyrics, then it’s an autobiographical reference, while the other lines are a history of the world, especially the civil rights movement. I think the veiled woman was Joan Baez. The shoe shiner was an ordinary black man. The last deal gone down was an acknowledgement that he had been commercially aware, at least at times. Great song and a great enigma.

  22. Ponyboy says:

    I discovered this song through my love of the work of Frank Black (aka Black Francis of Pixies fame) . When I finally heard the Dylan version, I too though the arrangement detracted from the power of the lyrics and chords. I believe that Frank’s version, with his excellent backing band The Catholics, nails the emotion and power of this great song. Give it a listen sometime, it’s real rock and roll. Interestingly, unlike his Pixies work, all Frank Black and The Catholics recordings are live to 2-track, no overdubs.

  23. Paul Hammer says:

    Interesting posts. When the album first came out, the pundits claimed it was mainly about Dylan’s (then) 16 years in the music industry and his difficult relationship with Grossman – his manager: ‘I have signed your shoes… Moved mountains…..etc

  24. It’s strange that after so many years following Dylan (starting about 1975 when I was 16 and I discovered the Greatest Hits vol. I) that from time to time I still find something new with his songs. Perhaps it is the advantage of not being an English lenguage speaker and having to dedicate some time to the lyrics to know what he says. It happened to me with Positively 4th street some months ago (I had heard the song many times but I had not paid attention to all the words until I wished “that for just one time” someone “could stand inside my shoes”) and it’s happening to me now with Changing of the Guards.
    Perhaps the reason now is that now I’m trying to change the guards again. And this is the meaning of the song for me. I guess that Dylan words are much closer to his emotions than to any other thing. And after “16 years” in the highway walking some parts of the road with Suze, Joan, Sara,…, being hurt and parted from Sara and at the same time Elvis died, but something new and a new hope with “ebony face” was coming (“Whose ebony face is beyond communication. The captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid”. I don’t know who she was (Mary Alice?, Helena?, …). But he was lucky at that time because something new really came (ebony women, Christianity, …). Well, just one more interpretation. But the important thing is that this lyrics are meaning something for me just now. I would like not to be disappointed in my turn and that my time for the “changing of the guards” could really come. (And excuse me for my English, just in case there are many mistakes!)

  25. TonyAttwood says:

    No problem with your English at all Guillermo – very grateful to you for taking the time to write.

  26. john wallis says:

    Ive loved dylan songs most of my life.I have anilise his songs, and read what i like in them , I feel this is what they are for.A few years after street legal came out. I had a big struggle with drug and alchol abuse, I read it like how changing of the guards helped me was the lyrics for eden is burning, meaning.My past life up to then had been.Very good Enjoying,Drinking Drugs and women.But over time my life had steadily become worse And i needed to really take myself in hand and lead a more resposible better life,As i knew my old way of life was going to kill me.then the lyric get ready for elimination of your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.Helped me make those changes A very classic Dylan song most of his songs if you listen to the lyrics they are about change. most people are a bit afraid of change i think that his main message

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