Tell me it isn’t true: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

For the moment, if you can, forget the music to this song and instead just read these opening lines

I have heard rumors all over town
They say that you’re planning to put me down

Just get the rhythm of the words as you say them in your head or out loud.  And then try these words

I bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew
‘Bout your plans to make me blue

Similar theme, similar beat, similar rhythm.

I bet you’re wonderin’ comes of course from the classic “I heard it through the grapevine” which was a hit one year before Dylan wrote this song.

Dylan’s own commentary on the song suggests he was trying to write a polka, although it isn’t quite clear how these lines could be a polka, so we are left with a sad lament.  It’s a bit mawkish to my taste, and doesn’t really take us anywhere new musically or lyrically.  Indeed it is the sort of song that Dylan could write with his eyes closed and the headphones on playing another song.

And yet…

In an interview with Rolling Stone Dylan suggests that having recorded the first four songs of the album it was then a case of picking up bits and pieces.   Which pretty much explains why Nashville Skyline doesn’t have the unity that John Wesley Harding has.

Whereas the songs of JWH were seemingly all written as a set of lyrics, with the music set to them in short order subsequently, Nashville Skyline was created in a very bits-and-pieces manner with nothing really unifying it except to say that these were simple love and lost love songs, country style.

All I would like you to do
Is tell me that it isn’t true

is delightfully simple, and the music does indeed play some nice tricks.  Whereas many, many of Dylan’s songs are build on three chords (exactly as the old blues songs in the 12 bar format were) this song uses every chord available.

It is in F (common at this time for Dylan, but unusual in the rest of his career and not a favourite key of most guitarists) and takes us through F, Gm, Am, B flat, C, and Dm – in fact all the chords that are available.

But all for what… it is after all a very simple lost love song.  Nothing more.  A very effective lost love song, but still, a bit of a filler.

And yet…

If we look at the lyrics Dylan does indeed pull a lot of this off.

They say that you’ve been seen with some other man
That he’s tall, dark and handsome, and you’re holding his hand

That use of the commonplace phrase “tall, dark and handsome” works perhaps because it is so unusual and so unexpected in the song.  It is like a parody of a description thrown in because the singer can’t bear to give a real description.  I can’t imagine any jilted lover would actually say to his girlfriend, “So I hear you new man is tall, dark and handsome…”

This gives us a basis for a complete simplicity in the song, making Dylan the Everyman character, the regular guy who can’t fully take in what is happening, and even as he does get it is far too much a gentleman to make too much of a fuss.  Using the commonplace phrase because he doesn’t want to make it too personal.

All of those awful things that I have heard
I don’t want to believe them, all I want is your word

No matter what, he’ll believe her.  He is not accusing her of lying or betraying him – all he wants is her word and she will take it as true.  No argument.  No row.  Just tell me and that’s enough for me.

It is the absolute simplicity of the song that really makes us accept the character in the song.  It’s not a great piece, but it avoids over emotionalism, and we do get the feeling that the guy is honourable, and just quite simply lost.

All Music’s review says that in parts Dylan “clearly tries to imitate Elvis Presley,” and yes you can imagine Elvis singing this sort of song.

It also says that these are “Dylan’s most cliché-ridden, even trite, lyrics,” and yes they are.  But Dylan is, even as this moment, such a consummate song writer that he is able to give us a melody and accompaniment that keeps us listening.

I can’t imagine many people played it over and over again but if most people had included the song as a filler on an album we would have found it completely acceptable.  Somehow, even now, I find myself expecting Dylan to be a genius all the time.  He’s not, because no one.  But he is a damn good song writer.  Even when writing a filler.

Links to all the songs on the site

Dylan’s songs in chronological order

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