You’re a big girl now: the meaning behind Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

According to Dylan’s notebooks, this was the third of the Blood on the Tracks songs written.   The order of writing appears to be

Lily, Rosemary etc is a song that takes us back to Billy the Kid, and obviously relates to the thinking he had at the time of working on the movie.  As such it is outside the ambit of much of the rest of the album.

Tangled up in blue is different – such a magnificent work of art that it is hard to classify. It plays games with us in terms of the order in which things happen – it is almost as if the singer can’t remember exactly what happened when and how, cause and effect have broken down.

There are also notions that the “I hate myself for loving you” concept of “Dirge” has all been set aside, he’s mastered the events of his private life, and now he moves on.  But then Dylan wrote “You’re a big girl now”.  It (and four other songs from the album) were recorded in New York in September 1974 and then again in Minneapolis in December.  One version (the second) appears on the album and the other (the New York) on Biograph.

It really is necessary to hear both versions, to get to grips with the song, and indeed if you familiar with the album version I can guarantee that the Biograph version will make you stop in your tracks and just listen.

It has been suggested by many writers that the song relates back to “Just Like a Woman” written eight years earlier, in particular “I’m back in the rain” relating to “Tonight as I stand inside the rain”.  Maybe, but the basic essence of the two songs is quite different.  In “Just like a Woman” she breaks just like a little girl.

I don’t see any woman or girl breaking in “Big girl”.  Rather I find a man who is broken, and there really is only one way to read lines such as…

I’m going out of my mind, oh,
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart

There are also moments of Hank Williams here, in particular “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” but that is a simple way of saying it all.    I am not knocking “I can’t help it” but compare the end of Williams’ song with the four lines of Dylan above

It’s hard to know another’s lips will kiss you
And hold you just the way I used to do
Oh, heaven only knows how much I miss you
I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you.

To me “Big Girl” is one of the most successful overpoweringly emotional songs of Dylan – perhaps the ultimate emotional song in his entire output – although I think one has to listen to the Biograph version and the album version to get this completely.

There is just so much here to hit anyone who has had a deep, intense, meaningful loving relationship which has ended with the other party leaving.  So much that one could sink into its hurt and pain and never re-emerge.  Perhaps I feel the song so deeply because I seem to have had far more than my fair share of such events.  And I know that in the aftermaths I’ve never been able to approach within a million light years of this song.  I need the mists of Visions and Johanna, or the anger of Idiot Wind, not the sheer plaintive agony of this song – and again especially not that of the Biograph version.

It is not just “Our conversation was short and sweet, It nearly swept me off my feet, And I’m back in the rain, oh, And you are on dry land,” it is also that absolute self-destructiveness of the whole concept.

I’m going out of my mind, oh,
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart

He doesn’t even have the strength to blame her, he has lost so much of himself every normal male emotion has gone.  This is desolation and isolation, hopelessness and emptiness, all rolled into one song.  You can face the sheer horror of “selling postcards of the hanging” and know that this actually happened, but you can’t deal with lost love when it is this overpowering.

On Blood on the Tracks,  the sleeve notes quote Yates,  “We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”   Or as the All Music review said of this song, “It is like seeing your father cry for the first time.”  There really is no escape from pain of this sort… you just have to let it take its course.

In another review  I found, the writer reflects on taking a regular session called “Sociology of Rock ‘n Roll” at OhioUniversity taught by a lecturer who himself wrote protest and folk songs.

One Friday he solemnly laid down his guitar, put his hand over his heart, and vowed that he could never write another song. It was all hopeless. He waved a purple album cover in front of us. “This,” he said, “has done me in. You can’t write a better album than this. There’s no sense in even trying.”

It was  Blood on the Tracks, … There was only one song that immediately struck me, sitting in that bar, and it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

The writer of that piece then takes us into “Big Girl”.

Musically the two versions (the original New York version and the later album version) are very different – even the chord structure has changed, the NY version being much, much more complex, but then sounding (strangely) simpler because of the way the accompaniment is arranged.

I appreciate that you, dear reader, might not know what I am rambling on about when I start to do my thing about chord sequences, but please nonetheless, stay with me for a moment.

The album version runs a chord sequence of

  • Bm, Am, Bm Am
  • G C G C
  • Am Bm Am D

On the New York version the guitar is tuned in a completely different way and the chords are (thanks to because I certainly struggled with this)…

Emaj7, B11, Emaj7, B11

E, B, A, E, B, A

F#7, Emaj7, B11, E, A, E, B

If you are a musician you’ll know what I mean, but even if not, you might notice that we have in here chords I’ve never mentioned before in any review on this site – Dylan rarely, if ever, uses chords like “E major 7” or B11.  I won’t take up your time describing them – just take it from me, a lot of very good guitarists would have to pause and work out how exactly you play these chords.  Dylan is, indeed, off in a different land.

So the song rolls from its false opening

Our conversation was short and sweet
It nearly swept me off my feet

which sounds like it could have been a really good meeting, because sweeping a person off his/her feet is normally a positive emotion (at least in English English)  but then

And I’m back in the rain, oh, oh,
And you are on dry land
You made it there somehow
You’re a big girl now

And so we know this is something going terribly, terribly, terribly wrong.

Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence
He’s singin’ his song for me at his own expense
And I’m just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singin’ just for you
I hope that you can hear
Hear me singin’ through these tears

No one is making me do this, no one is paying me to do this, I’m just making this record because I can’t find any other way to deal with this hurt and pain.  This is all I have.

Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast
Oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last
I can change, I swear, oh, oh
See what you can do
I can make it through
You can make it too

Yes he really is desperate – that plea “I can change” is always the last desperate “give me one more chance” of the hopeless man with a hopeless case.

Love is so simple, to quote a phrase
You’ve known it all the time
I’m learnin’ it these days
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh
In somebody’s room
It’s a price I have to pay
You’re a big girl all the way

I have no escape, there is no solution, there is, in fact, nothing.

My one hope, if you are reading this, and you feel up to it (ie not if you are within six months of a serious breakup and there is no sign of anyone new on the horizon), you listen to both versions of the song, and then maybe listen again, not to the voice, but to what the instruments are doing.   We are talking two different languages in the construction of this song, and that in itself is a masterpiece.


Between 1 May 1976 and 29 October 2007 Dylan played this song 212 times live.  Looking at the totals of live performances that is only three fewer than Visions, and half the number of times he’s played Tweedle Dum.  Make of that what you will.

But let me leave you with a comment from a reviewer on the internet.

“I haven’t played Blood in the Tracks for a few years, but I’ve been listening to it over the past few days. I’m going to play that song at an upcoming arts conference. And I’m going to talk about why the words “oh, oh” might constitute some of the best songwriting ever.”

I can see exactly what he means.

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to 

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2 Responses to You’re a big girl now: the meaning behind Dylan’s song

  1. Pat Sludden says:

    Brilliant and heartfelt review Tony, it brought a tear to my eye reading it. Two great versions of a magnificent song

  2. L.R. says:

    And of course “Yates” is “Yeats.”

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