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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11 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: (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.

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