“One more cup of coffee”: the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics and the music

By Tony Attwood

The writing of songs in 1975 started with Money Blues (as we have seen, which now I come to look back, maybe didn’t have much input from Jacques Levy), followed by One More Cup of Coffee, and Golden Loom, which were not related to Levy’s input.  Indeed, looking at those three songs now, they increasingly seem to me to be a prelude to the Levy songs – a prelude that caused the Dylan/Levy songs to be written as they were.

Both Golden Loom and One More Cup have a vision of a life that is outside the norm, most certainly outside the hurly-burly of life.  Golden Loom, written after One More Cup developed the “beyond this world” feel of One More Cup, which as Dylan himself pointed out, is Romany orientated.

Dylan told Robert Shelton that he had been in France with David Oppenheim, when his host suggested they visit a local gypsy festival in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence, France, on Dylan’s birthday where he came across a Gypsy King in declining old age, abandoned by most of his wives and children.

But as it turns out that is only part of the story, for in June 1975 Dylan then met Scarlet Rivera  “wandering in the streets of the Village” according to Heylin.  Rivera was unknown at the time although has since made a dozen or more albums.  Her violin playing certainly had a profound influence on the way the song developed.

The song develops its “gypsy” feel through using the harmonic minor (very much a western classical concept, and itself nothing to do with Romany music) in which Dylan uses the chords that emerge from the descending version of the scale (A minor, G, F, E).  It is not a Romany scale in the true sense (such as the Hungarian Gypsy Scale or the Phrygian dominant scale).

There are many commentaries which suggest that the song is related to Dylan’s break up with his ex-wife, particularly because during this year Dylan also wrote Sara.

This of course might be true, but really would someone who wrote

Sara, Sara
You must forgive me my unworthiness

would also write and include on the same album

But I don’t sense affection
No gratitude or love

about the same person.  Of course he might, but I think the case is not proved – at least not proven for me.

The lady in this song is beautiful but remote and distant, and very much not one who gives her emotions to another…

Your breath is sweet
Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky
Your back is straight, your hair is smooth
On the pillow where you lie
But I don’t sense affection
No gratitude or love
Your loyalty is not to me
But to the stars above

And so the singer is on his way to the valley, after something as prosaic as a cup of coffee.  Whether the valley below is Hades or whether it is simply a case of popping off down the hillside… well that’s for each individual listener to decide.

For me, you don’t leave the great love of your life, or the guru you’ve just found, by saying, “I’ll just have one more cup of coffee.”  Rather, you might do that, having had a jolly afternoon or evening and so then you say…

One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee ’fore I go
To the valley below

The influence of the visit to the gypsy camp, as per the story of the old king, now surrounded by the remains of his family, comes through strongly in the second verse, emphasised all the way through by the violin playing.

Your daddy he’s an outlaw
And a wanderer by trade
He’ll teach you how to pick and choose
And how to throw the blade
He oversees his kingdom
So no stranger does intrude
His voice it trembles as he calls out
For another plate of food

The whole Romany notion of fortune telling, mystery and illiteracy is explored in the third verse, particularly with its last two lines…

But your heart is like an ocean
Mysterious and dark

She is thus the unknown, and unknowable, remote woman.  An interesting experience for an afternoon, not the love of his life.

Emmylou Harris who sings the vocals told this story about making the album, which gives us a very good insight into the way Dylan has always liked to make recordings…

“There was a fellow at Columbia that was a fan, who was like an executive producer, and I think Dylan told him ‘I need a girl singer.’ Don DeVito was his name and I got a call that Dylan wants you to sing, but that wasn’t true because he just wanted a girl singer. I mean we basically shook hands and started recording. I didn’t know the songs, the lyrics were in front of me, and the band would start playing and he would kind of poke me when he wanted me to jump in. Somehow I watched his mouth with one eye and the lyrics with the other. You couldn’t fix anything. What happened in a moment was on the record.”

There is also the story that the introduction of the bass part, which has of course become part of the essence of the song.  This came about because violinist Scarlet Rivera wasn’t ready.

The bassist, Rob Stoner told Mojo magazine in October 2012: “The beginning of ‘One More Cup of Coffee’… that wasn’t arranged for me to do a bass solo. Scarlet wasn’t ready. Bob starts strumming his guitar – nothing’s happening. Somebody better play something, so I start playin’ a bass solo. Basically the run-throughs became the first takes.”

The song was performed 175 performances times between 1975 to 2009 by Bob and his Band.  There is a version with Joan Baez on the internet here.


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2 Responses to “One more cup of coffee”: the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics and the music

  1. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/471/One-More-Cup-of-Coffee-(Valley-Below) (Additional Information)
    Bob Dylan’s Music Box.
    Play every version of every song performed or written by Bob Dylan plus notable interpretations legally for free…

  2. stan aucott says:

    Recently learnt this song( slight chord difference)…and yet to play it in public(open mike)
    Added a fourth verse too ….love playing it cos it suits tone of voice .So thanks for explaining its origins

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