How Dylan writes songs. Part 1: The types of song

By Tony Attwood

Type the phrase “how does Dylan write his songs?” into Google and you get about 13 million results.

Some of the pieces you will be led to are pure speculation, some are interviews, and many quote extracts from interviews.

I’ve had several days of reading through the result articles, and I can honestly say that for the most part I am really not much the wiser as a result of my efforts.

Indeed using the approach that most people use in writing articles about Dylan’s songwriting methodology is tough.  Tough because he doesn’t say much about it directly, tough because when he does talk about it he sometimes contradicts himself, and tough because many of the people who have sought to describe what Dylan does in writing his songs start from their own point of view, and often use just a selection of Dylan quotes to back up their claims.

There are exceptions of course, and I’ll quote one below, and in a later article I will be relying very much on what Dylan said in one speech he made.

But mostly trying to unravel this is a bit dispiriting because although I am very happy with opinion and theories, I like to have a bit of evidence to show that the opinion and theory is valid.  Not that I want absolute proof and truth necessarily, because without Bob telling us, it is hard to know, but at least a valid set of conclusions drawn from such evidence as we have.

So although in this series of pieces I am going to come back to what others have said about how Dylan writes, and indeed what Bob Dylan himself has said, I am going to start somewhere else: by very briefly considering the various types of art.

1  Representational art

A photograph can capture a moment, a portrait can get close to expressing what an individual looks like, a landscape can do the same for the area the artist portrays.  Songs are rarely portraits, but if we accept that songs such as Plain D and 4th Street are indeed about real people, then Dylan is in this realm.

We never know how close Dylan is to expressing the truth (insofar as anyone can express the truth) about the individuals and situations he sings about, but this is probably the closest he gets to representational art.

2  Symbolic art

To be understandable the symbols used in symbolic art need to be recognisable by the audience – and this is where, in my view, a lot of the problems with understanding Dylan occur, where critics claim that a certain person, image, idea, place etc is a symbol for something else.   Some of these suggestions look plausible, but most seem to me to be open to debate.

I would go down a different route and say that “One too many mornings” is symbolic of the lost traveller, the drifter, the wanderer, the sort of person who has haunted folk song from its origin.   It is not about an actual moving on, but about all moving on, about a quality in the human spirit (and particularly I think in Dylan himself, given the Never Ending Tour) that some people bring to the fore.

Restless Farewell is another such song – not so much about him, but about everyone who moves on.  Indeed if we turn back to the source of that song (The Parting Glass) the symbolism becomes ever clearer.   Don’t think twice fits into such an analysis too.

These are symbols of broad ideas – and Dylan has produced many masterpieces in this form of art.

3  Abstract Art

Not too many artists try abstract art with words.  In contrast music is just about the most abstract of the arts.  Which means that songs are generally in that strange halfway house – half concrete, half abstract.

But occasionally Dylan has taken the words into a more abstract level – I would think of Subterranean Homesick Blues as an example.  115th Dream approaches this, and I’d say that Gypsy Lou has an element of it as well.

4 Surreal Art

I am not sure if many, or indeed if any, songwriters attempted to incorporate surrealism into rock music before Dylan, but when it got into it, he certainly kept going for a while.  Tombstone Blues is a perfect example, as is Just like Tom Thumbs Blues.   Obviously Five Believers, Tiny Montgomery, Million Dollar Bash… they all have strong surrealist tendencies.

5 Hidden meanings in Art

And this is where we run into trouble, because hidden meaning is what so many commentators on Dylan claim to have found.  Many of the songs on John Wesley Harding are set up as pieces with all sorts of hidden meaning, and indeed there is a website that reviews Dylan songs totally from a religious angle, finding Christian messages in all sorts of places.

Thus Duquesne Whistle has the line “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling, must be the mother of our Lord …” and this, it is claimed is there to show us that Dylan is a Christian, rather than reflecting on the sounds he hears.  And that the line in Pay in Blood: “I’ve sworn to uphold the laws of God … Man can’t live by bread alone, I pay in blood, but not my own, …” is a personal reflection rather than just a song about a set of images, in the way that a visual artist might explore a set of images.

6 Fictional Art

Visual artists can imagine landscapes, novelists clearly make up their stories, poets consider imagined situations and emotions.  So does each song of Dylan’s have to be about somebody, about some clear and concrete thing that he wants to put across?

I can’t see why Dylan has to be so different from every other creative writer – he might take moments from his own life, twist them, turn them, explore them, look at them from every angle, and then write a piece that might sound as if it is from the heart, but in effect is from the imagination.

The Wicked Messenger thus could be a coded religious tract, but equally it could just be an imaginary story.   I dreamed I saw St Augustine likewise.   Positively 4th Street might be about a real person but could also be a song about an imaginary  man being extremely annoyed with a woman.

Unless Dylan tells us, or unless someone very close to Dylan gives us clear information, we can only guess.

My view is that everyone working in the creative arts, creating new works of art, accumulates images, sound, information, ideas, feelings, smells etc, and spends his/her life re-working such ideas into art, by which time they might often sound or look as if they are about a person, place or thing, but often are not.

7.  Religious Art and Propaganda

Religious art and Propaganda are the most obvious forms of art as message givers – the creator of the art knows what he/she wants to say, and the audience know it too.  There can be no mistake either when one sees Christ on the cross or Lenin waving the red flag.

Dylan did, for a while, express himself as a religious artist, with albums such as Slow Train Coming and Saved and Shot of Love and there is one particular interview with Dylan which ran in Rolling Stone which I would cite here, because it helps understand the whole issue of grappling with Dylan’s approach to art.

The interviewer asked, “But weren’t three of your albums — Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love — inspired by some sort of born-again religious experience?”

And Dylan replied, “I would never call it that, I’ve never said I’m born again. That’s just a media term. I don’t think I’ve ever been an agnostic. I’ve always thought there’s a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come. That no soul has died, every soul is alive, either in holiness or in flames. And there’s probably a lot of middle ground.

What is your spiritual stance, then?
Well, I don’t think that this is it, you know — this life ain’t nothin’. There’s no way you’re gonna convince me this is all there is to it. I never, ever believed that. I believe in the Book of Revelation. The leaders of this world are eventually going to play God, if they’re not already playing God, and eventually a man will come that everybody will think is God. He’ll do things, and they’ll say, “Well, only God can do those things. It must be him.”

You’re a literal believer of the Bible?
Yeah. Sure, yeah. I am.

Are the Old and New Testaments equally valid?
To me.

Do you belong to any church or synagogue?
Not really. Uh, the Church of the Poison Mind [laughs].


I’ll continue with this theme of how Bob Dylan writes songs, and the meanings that we might find in them, in later articles

All the songs reviewed on this site

Dylan’s songs in chronological order


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5 Responses to How Dylan writes songs. Part 1: The types of song

  1. Kieran says:

    You might enjoy this interview with Paul Zollo, who interviewed Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and a bunch of other songwriters for a very informative book on the art of songwriting:

  2. Meridian Man says:

    Dear Tony:

    I commend your discussion here and your commentaries generally for their knowledge, care, patience, and modesty — qualities sorely lacking in criticism, public life, and on the internet.

    You say, in your critique of “Sign On the Cross,” “Of course, I am almost certainly wrong . . . ” I cannot imagine anyone, especially in American universities and colleges, uttering those words — those essential words, for with them enlightenment begins. I call it “epistemological humility,” a deliberately highfalutin phrase, designed to irritate the intelligentsia, for an attitude or approach that, eons ago, was taken for granted in scholarly circles.

    I don’t at all begrudge your attempt to classify or categorize the songs of Bob Dylan. I think it’s a useful intellectual project, one I hope that you will pursue and refine. When we think about it (or at least when I think about it), classification, or catergorization, was once part and parcel of education, an indispensable starting-point for a research paper, even in secondary school. Categorization, far from generalizing, helps the student to narrow his focus and discover precisely what his thesis is. It compels the writer to determine exactly what he’s trying to say, to identify the thesis that he’s articulating and defending. Categorization fundamentally promotes the clarification and organization of our inchoate thoughts on a subject. It brings them into focus.

    That’s why this poor pilgrim, anyhow, finds your classification of Bob’s songs so helpful. No, the critical enterprise doesn’t stop there; but classification is certainly an important way station. It helps point the way, to find our way. Once we’ve arrived at a general viewpoint or provisional standpoint about a song, we can begin to fine-tune our perspective. Does this approach seem reasonable? I know at one time it did. But that was so long ago that it seems like a dream.

    The overlap, or spilling over, of some songs with categories other than that to which you originally, and ideally, assign them is unavoidable but not a drawback. Of course, Dylan purists, or fundamentalists, or absolutists, or . . . whatever they are will object to classification on the grounds that you unfairly or illegitimately try to corral their guy into a certain class, group, or rubric — that you pigeonhole a song and, therefore, restrict its meaning. While Dylan’s songs, naturally, like artworks and literary works generally, open up themselves to multiple interpretations, not all interpretations are valid, and some interpretations are better than others. You insist, for example, in the case of “Sign On the Cross,” that its admirers DEMONSTRATE WHY THEY THINK THE SONG A MASTERPIECE. You would simply like to see the criteria for making this claim. This used to be a basic expectation in serious discourse. It isn’t any longer, and hasn’t been for decades. Thank you for sticking up for a standard of critique.

    And when it comes to “Sign On the Cross,” Tony, you’ve got me. I like the song (though, at this point, I wouldn’t presume to call it a masterpiece), or at least I think I like the song, or what exists of it. But, admittedly, I like it at a visceral level, pre-cognitively. I’d like to be able to tell you why I think that you should give the song a second chance. But, so far, I can’t. Your critique is a real challenge to me, and, as you say, since Bob himself put away the song forever, you’ve got a pretty strong witness on your side. As for me, I’m still exploring the possibilities of “Sign On the Cross.” Right now, may I ask, tentatively, whether the song is indeed a gospel song, but one conceived by a recent convert, or someone wrestling with a conversion, who is, nonetheless, theologically confused? That’s not saying much, I know. But give a guy a break.

    Speaking of giving a guy a break, your restraint about Clinton Heylin and other prominent critics is admirable. Personally, I’d like to take it to Greil Marcus, whose eminent reputation remains to me one of the great mysteries of the age. To paraphrase Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac, that’s not writing, that’s hyperventilation. Chaos is not an argument, and incoherence is not a style.

    One last thing before I put this appreciation to bed: In your discussion of “Positively 4th Street,” you write that the disdainful song is “a wall of disgust that pours out from Dylan.” I’m wondering whether that phrase mixes metaphors. Might I, with your indulgence, suggest three — I hope not too obscure or pretentious — alternatives? Yes, a torrent of water can form a wall. But try, instead of “wall,” simply “torrent” or, more dramatically, “mudslide” or “lahar” (I’m a rockhound, an amateur geologist: hence the references). A monstrous pyroclastic mudflow sweeping away everything in its path certainly conveys the incandescent disdain that animates “Positively 4th Street,” one of the greatest songs ever written, one of the greatest artistic achievements of Western civilization (remember that?).

    Keep doing what you’re doing. I promise to look in from time to time.

    Sincerely yours,

    Meridian Man

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    Meridian Man – you are too, too kind – I am completely overwhelmed.

    When one ventures into this type of blogging one expects a lot of negative criticism, some “you are a total idiot – stop writing” type comments, and maybe, if one is lucky, the very occasional “thank you for running this site”.

    But you have sent me something way beyond anything I could have expected, or ever deserved. I’m in your debt. Thank you.

    And yes, of course you are right. The metaphor on 4th Street is just plain daft. My only defence is that I hopefully might have realised when revising the text for the forthcoming book. But now I don’t have to hope – you’ve pointed it out for me. More than I deserve after such a silly phrase. But that’s what happens when I write a review with the song playing in the background.

    Again, a million thanks.


  4. Meridian Man says:

    Dear Tony:

    You’re welcome.

    I look forward to hearing what you have to say about “Wild Wolf,” which, like “Sign On the Cross,” has drawn a lot of attention, and won a lot of — perhaps fulsome — praise, from reviewers and critics since the release of “The Complete Basement Tapes” in November 2014. We’re told that it’s a gem, one of the great finds in this long-awaited collection. I’m game; I’m a good sport (sometimes). But your questions about “Sign On the Cross” and the acclaim that has greeted that song has left me a little skeptical about “Wild Wolf” and all the hoopla around it.

    I have a feeling that you’re not quite as impressed as some people are, and I know that you have good reasons to back up your position (whatever that might be).

    In the meantime, it’s not dark yet (or maybe it is).

    Sincerely yours,

    Meridian Man

  5. Mystery D says:

    I’ve been working on a technique for a few years that allows me to write songs that are very similar to Bob Dylan’s style. Please check out this book, especially the chapter on lyrics and phrase creation:

    I’ve taken a 5-day songwriting course/seminar with Wayne and he is a brilliant scientist and music researcher and is a huge fan of Bob Dylan as well. If anyone has figured out a way to develop your style like Bob Dylan, it would have to be him. The first 6 chapters are free and it’s quite a long read especially if you already know basic music theory, but the sections that come in the paid version really are priceless.

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