Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me”: never has a 12 bar blues sounded more beautiful

by Tony Attwood, updated 5 August 2018 with additional video links.

Of course you never know with Dylan, but it is hard to put any interpretation on “She Belongs to Me” other than that it is about a child – a daughter most like, but it could be the daughter of a friend.

Never has a 12 bar blues sounded so beautiful, so relaxed, so warm, so kind. Perhaps a listener who is in his 20s smoking dope might not find it so, but anyone who has a daughter instantly sees it, feels it, warms to it.

If the lyrics don’t convey the message then the music and the accompaniment does. The most famous version of course is on Bringing it all Back Home, but there are also examples on the curious Self Portrait album, recorded at the Isle of Wight, and a truly lovely version on “No Direction Home”. This last version is perhaps the earliest attempt by Dylan to have an instrumental break without a lead instrument – something that he worked on over and over again in the concerts and recordings of the late 90s and early 21st century.

The girl in the song has everything – she never stumbles, she has an Egyptian ring, she’s got everything she needs…

Of course it is a child – the child who can play forever with the simplest toys, who can paint or crayon a picture and make it exactly what she wants it to be. She is the girl you idolise, the girl you bow down to, the girl whose birthday you make into the biggest occasion in the history of the world. The girl to whom you want to say, “I made you, you are everything, this is the world I give you.”

And of course you buy her toys.

What father would not have wanted to give her such a beautiful eloquent testimony as this elegant song, in that most simple and traditional of formats, the 12 bar blues with its repeated opening line.

Quite how it is possible to interpret the song differently, and still make sense of the title is beyond me – although I must admit much of the world is beyond me. The girl has the freedom of the world – which only the young have. And yet she belongs to the adult in her life. Only with a child is the title, the general lyric, and the final line about the trumpet and drum meaningful, without getting into the most convoluted analysis of the trumpet and drum, not to mention the title and half of the lyrics being symbolic for something else.

In a case like this, let’s live with Occam’s Razor – if there is a simple explanation why not take it, and make it so.

If you haven’t heard the version on No Direction Home, give it a try. It is just something to behold.  It is available on Spotify

And here is a fascinating live version which I really do love; it seems to give a new insight into the song every time I hear it.

And two more live versions

What else is on the site

1: 500+ reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

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31 Responses to Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me”: never has a 12 bar blues sounded more beautiful

  1. Peter says:

    This is an interesting analysis. I always thought ‘she’ was time. She wears an egyptian ring cause she’s been around for ages, she can make the day time black because she is time and day goes into night..

    I interpreted the keyhole line like you’re ‘looking’ back on your past and you can’t get to it cause it’s through a keyhole/it’s already happened.

    I guess you never really know with Bob.

  2. Sam says:

    Hi Tony,
    sorry, I don’t get why the female person in this song should be a child.
    The descriptions are pretty dark. Lines like
    “She’s a hypnotist collector, you are a walking antique”
    or
    “She’s nobody’s child, the law can’t touch her at all”
    doesn’t seem to fit into your intpretation.
    Also the second verse doesn’t make sense to me if I think about a child:
    “You will start out standing, proud to steal her anything she sees
    You will start out standing, proud to steal her anything she sees
    But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole, down upon your knees”
    Could you please tell me your opinion about my arguments?

    thanks,
    Sam

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    Sam, quite honestly I can return to some of these songs – especially this song – and see it a different way next time around. In fact the reason that twice I have stopped writing more reviews on this site is because I get to the stage of thinking – hell I want to go back and change the reviews to something else.

    That would then leave me chasing myself around in circles, so I don’t … but the true answer is, if you can put together a coherent explanation of the song, then that’s great, and our version is just as valid as mine.

    Just cos I’m the guy with the web site certainly doesn’t mean I’m right.

  4. Rob says:

    I would go all-in that the ‘She’ is a full-grown woman with whom the narrator used to be intimate.

  5. Don Matthews says:

    She, is not a person. She is The U.S.A. You start out believing all the patriotic stories you are taught in school and become disallousioned. The Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks is around the top of the pyramide on the back of a dollar bill. Bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes, July 4th. Let’s not forget he was a protest singer.

  6. Dorothy Dullea says:

    USA. (I agree with Don and here’s why)
    She’s got everything she needs – the flag is a she, the USA is freedom as well as a superpower.

    She’s an artist, she don’t look back – we created our own democracy and our own constitution, but fail to look back on it’s high principles.

    She can take the dark out of the nighttime – light up the sky with blaze of warfare weapons. And paint the daytime black – what the atom bomb did.

    You will start out standing, – saluting the flag
    Proud to steal her anything she sees, – patriotically go along with all the invasions

    But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole upon your knees- Watergate, etc.
    She never stumbles, She’s got no place to fall – internationally and geographically.
    The Law can’t touch her at all – The Presidential ability to suspend the right of habeas.
    She wears an Egyptian ring – the pyramid on the dollar bill.
    that sparkles before she speaks – money talks.

    She’s a hypnotist collector , – wake up, people!
    You are a walking antique – your asleep

    Bow down to her on Sunday – now remember at the time this was written, “good people” always went to church on Sunday.

    Salute her when her birthday comes – the 4th of July.
    For Halloween give her a trumpet – (need help here. Angels & Demons?).
    And for Christmas, buy her a drum – Parades.

    The title, She belongs to me refers to the esoteric truth of conspiracy theory:
    “they” are “we” . We all participate in this and need to take personal responsibility. Or, it’s my country, but nah – that’s too simple.

  7. Dorothy says:

    This song is the USA. Here’s how obvious it is:
    She’s got everything she needs – the flag is a she, the USA is freedom as well as a superpower.

    She’s an artist, she don’t look back – we created our own democracy and our own constitution, but fail to look back on it’s high principles.

    She can take the dark out of the nighttime – light up the sky with blaze of warfare weapons. And paint the daytime black – what the atom bomb did.

    You will start out standing, – saluting the flag
    Proud to steal her anything she sees, – patriotically go along with all the invasions

    But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole upon your knees- Watergate, etc.

    She never stumbles, She’s got no place to fall – internationally and geographically.
    The Law can’t touch her at all – The Presidential ability to suspend the right of habeas.
    She wears an Egyptian ring – the pyramid on the dollar bill.
    that sparkles before she speaks – money talks.

    She’s a hypnotist collector , – wake up, people!
    You are a walking antique – your asleep

    Bow down to her on Sunday – at the time this was written, “all good people” went to church on Sunday.

    Salute her when her birthday comes – the 4th of July.
    For Halloween give her a trumpet – (need help here. Angels & Demons?).
    And for Christmas, buy her a drum – Parades, (Dylan may say, “well, the line fit in.)

    The title, SHE BELONGS TO ME : We all participate in this and need to take personal responsibility. Or, it’s my country, but nah – that’s too simple.

  8. Thelonious says:

    I think she’s more of a muse/goddess figure.

    I can understand not wanting to rewrite all of your reviews, but you should at least consider revising the “I don’t see how any other interpretation makes sense” rhetoric in here

  9. Stephen says:

    I agree with Thelonius, but more than just a muse more like Bob’s entire creative process. But whatever its about I just adore this song.

  10. She’s Marilyn Monroe.

  11. Roger says:

    Thelonius is right, stephen is. She is art, and title is not contradicting the lyrics at all. Bob’s an arrogant prick, but he’s right on this one.

  12. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/555/She-Belongs-to-Me (Additional Information)

  13. Tony S says:

    This song is about bob’s relationship with Joni Mitchell. He even bought her an Egyptian ring. No doubt about what he meant. A woman/former lover who left him ‘peekin thru her keyhole, down on bended knee’. Jerry Garcia’s cover of this song is exceptional, Dylan said Jerry played this and Tough Mama as if he wrote them himself.

  14. tony says:

    Meant to say his relationship with Joan Baez, whom he gave an egyptian ring to prior to writing She Belongs to Me. Who gets a child or the USA drunk for Christmas? While I love to ponder about latent meanings or lyrics, seems that many are going too far on this one…

  15. Lorraine says:

    The album this song was on was given to me after a (short) relationship faltered–actually it never got started because I was an emotional basket case at the time for reasons I won’t go into her. The guy gave me the album and told this song was written for me. It happened eons ago, but I can’t hear it without thinking about what he said, bitterly, as he walked away.

  16. Lorraine says:

    The album this song was on was given to me after a (short) relationship faltered–actually it never got started because I was an emotional basket case at the time for reasons I won’t go into here. The guy gave me the album and told this song was written for me. It happened eons ago, but I can’t hear it without thinking about what he said, bitterly, as he walked away.

  17. TonyAttwood says:

    Lorraine, for the moment after the affair has ended and there are these lines from Dylan

    You trampled on me as you passed
    Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
    All of my doubts and fears have gone at last
    I’ve nothing more to tell you now

    Read more: Bob Dylan – Tell Ol’ Bill Lyrics | MetroLyrics

  18. Louise Luna says:

    What a hoot some of these comments are. The U.S.A.? A little girl? That’s no little girl he’s writing about. More like a free-flyin’ gypsy woman. So far ahead, that you’re a walking antique. I would agree that it’s about Joni Mitchell, who had her fun in the sun with all the pretty boys in the bands. And who is unique enough to inspire Dylan to write about her. While Dylan’s lyrics can be Dali-esqu, some are fairly straight ahead.
    ‘Tempest’ is pure genius and without a doubt, he earned that Nobel prize. He is our resident song hero.

  19. Larry Fyffe says:

    About a child???? When Mr. Attwood is on, he’s really on, but when he’s off, he’s really, really off! ie Summer Days.

    ‘She Belongs To Me”s likely about Joan Baez, who Dylan thinks is caught up too much in the folk protest song box which prevents her from expanding her artisic wings.

    ‘I bought you some cufflinks/
    You bought me something’: ‘Diamonds And Rust’, Joan Baez).

  20. Lukas Lindwasser says:

    I took this song to be a commentary on how men and women treat relationships. The song is sung from the man’s perspective, where he treats his lover like a prize, or a nice car. Bowing down to her on Sunday like she is a god, and giving her everything. The title “She Belongs to Me” is how the man feels about his lover, but in reality the way the man describes his passion for her shows the exact opposite. It is really the man that belongs to her, because she has him running around worshiping her.

    The song is about chivalry, and the hypocrisy it makes. I’m surprised nobody else sees this.

  21. Nancy says:

    I agree with Lukas…..She Belongs to me is the Before (the fall) and Like a Rolling Stone is the After (of course, from the perspective of the man). Bob has written very few true love songs….maybe that is why he is singing ones written by other people now.

  22. Hazard says:

    I enjoyed reading these comments above. I tend to agree with Nancy, in that there is a BEFORE and an AFTER. I also agree with Sam and Lukas too:

    The BEFORE – She Belongs to Me:
    1. This is a song of pride. “she’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist she don’t look back.”
    2. Bobby is happy that he’s got his girl. Finally.
    3, She IS a woman not a baby. However, a few people – wrongly – thought that she acted like a little child. Therefore ruling out Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez….
    4. She did have an Egyptian RED diamond ring (which did sparkle, like her eyes.)….I do notice subsequently that Dylan often removes his “RED-ring” reference from his lyrics in live performances of this song and has done so many (many) times over after 1965.
    5. As Lukas states above, this girl DID actually used to run rings around Dylan…….she used to make him wait…..and wait…..and wait. Not just Dylan. But this waiting around did annoy him. A lot. But he also worshipped her – “she’s nobody’s child, the law can’t touch her at all.”
    6. She was a party animal. A great dancer too and she could definately “turn the dark out of the night-time and paint the daytime black.”
    7. Dylan was captivated. Totally.

    The AFTER – Like a Rolling Stone:
    8. This song is chilling. When you have songs that have been written about very good friends of people that you know and love, it is extremely upsetting.
    9. Dylan starts nicely “once upon a time, you dressed so fine” but quickly taunts his lost-girl time and time again:
    “Now you don’t talk so loud, Now you don’t act so proud, about having to be scrounging around for your next meal” – which says something because at that time, the grit and grime that existed in New York in 1965 is well-documented. “Oh you’ve gone to the finest schools, Miss Lonely, but you only used to go and get juiced in it”and “you better take your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe” ending with dispair “You’re invisible now, You’ve got no secrets to conceal.”

    I’ve actually been hoping – for many years now – that Bobby totally regrets
    writing this song.

    Respectfully,
    Hazard.

  23. Paul Archer says:

    The first Bob Dylan album I ever bought and this album introduce me to Dylan his writing his voice, I have never heard a Singer Express pain and raw emotion like Dylan does

  24. Larry Fyffe says:

    S/he who says a Dylan song with ambiguous lyrics has one particular and certain meaning is standing on a box with a metaphorical noose around his/her neck.

    Makes it far too easy for someone to come along and kick the box out from under them.

  25. Larry Fyffe says:

    Rainer Rilke wrote an elegy in which he’s the musician Orpheus, who mustn’t look back because the guide for the dead – Mercury – will then cause Orpheus’ recently departed girlfriend (she’s beautiful when alive), who is being escorted out of there, to fall back down once again to the underworld.

    In Greek/Roman mythology, Orpheus does look back.

  26. Larry Fyffe says:

    Again ‘Rolling Stone’ is ambiguous-she doesn’t say how she feels -could be that it’s not that bad to be on your own and rely on your own resources!

  27. cody says:

    as someone in his 20s who smokes dope i have to say i was offended at your comment in the beginning, don’t forget dylan was also in his 20s and smoking dope when he wrote the song you’re interpreting.

  28. Larry Fyffe says:

    But that ‘She Belongs To Me’ is said to be about a child has to be bait for comments — that’s not up to Tony’s usual ethical standards, if that be the case.

    .

  29. Larry fyffe says:

    To be fair though, there are some who think the song is about Dylan’s ‘first child’, his step-daughter.

    Also, it is a known fact that he got real drums for his 13-year old daughter.

    However, his step-daughter’d be only 4 years old at the time of the song’s release.

  30. Larry fyffe says:

    Desiree, Dylan’s daughter, does play drums , but she was born many years after ‘She Belongs To Me’ was written.

  31. Riley says:

    If I could pick one Dylan song that was simply exquisite, it probably would be this one.

    It is extraordinary how many compelling & coherent alternative interpretations can be written for this song. Which goes to the power of rich ambiguous imagery, to Dylan’s almost supernatural facility to string evocative images & ideas with such economy of expression.

    The harmonic hook in this song, resolving on the tonic in the 7th, just makes it ring.

    There were maybe five or so Dylan song that made me stop in my tracks in the first time I heard them. This is one of them.

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