Outlaw Blues, On the Road Again, and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream

By Tony Attwood

When I began writing reviews of Dylan’s songs I had no thought that I would reach a situation in which it would be necessary to review a whole group of songs together to make sense of them individually.  But after hours, weeks and indeed months of contemplation that is exactly where I am.

The songs that have brought me to this impasse are on side one of Bringing it all Back Home.  In the first group of songs we find we have four songs that have taken up a permanent residency in the Dylan catalogue.  They are regularly played, remembered and (by many people) loved.

Those four are Maggie’s Farm, Subterranean Homesick Blues, and the two love songs, She Belongs To Me, and Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

Then there are three songs that are far less recalled, and which are only occasionally mentioned in discussion, and less frequently performed: Outlaw Blues, On the Road Again, Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.  It is those final three that I am finding hard to tackle, and so have lumped together in this one review.

Bringing it all back home is an album with considerable coherence and sense of direction.    Three of the songs on side 1 of the original LP have very similar introductions involving the late arrival of the lead guitar…

  • Track 1 – Subterranean Homesick Blues
  • Track 3 – Maggie’s Farm
  • Track 7 – Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream

So there is a link across the songs.  The whole of side two (the last four songs on the CD version starting with Tambourine Man) have a consistency too – they speak of a world and in a voice utterly different from that on side one.

But even on side one the final three songs are songs of a different nature.  True, the construction of the songs is similar in terms of chord sequence, melodic style and genre, but the nature and intent of the songs appears to me to be utterly different from all that has gone before in the first four tracks.

Outlaw Blues is a perfect rendition of rhythm and blues in the 1960s style.  It is in E major (the favourite key of rhythm and blues guitarists), with the guitar playing a fast four beats a bar starting from the fifth rising to the flattened 7th and then declining again with each note played twice.  If you are not a musician, don’t worry – you’ll know what I mean as you as you hear the song again.

This is a travelling song, a song perhaps about the outlaw lifestyle, which the original blues singers to some degree had.  The outlaw in specific detail turns up where Dylan knows he “might look like Robert Ford” (who assassinated Jesse James), but he feels “just like a Jesse James,” (that is, he has been hunted down and shot.)  This is presumably a reference to the folk song purists – and I’ve dealt with that a little more in the review of Maggie’s Farm.

Outlaw Blues starts however with the less obvious and less glamorised life of the outlaw:

It ain’t hard to stumble and land in some funny lagoon

While On the road again takes us a step further into the surreal

Well I wake up in the morning there’s frogs inside my socks

The outlaw, we start to realise is not dealing with the wild west, is not the subject of interest to the point of veneration, but is in fact a guy having to deal with the parents of his girlfriend.

Of course there is an immediate temptation to link On The Road Again to Jack Kerouac, but Dylan won’t let us.  The surreal is gaining ground all the time.

People are bizarre, circus characters, where idiosyncrasy merges with insanity and paranoia in which wearing a mask of Napoleon is just something that is done.  Everyone who has been through that period in one’s teens and maybe 20s of meeting the parents of a boy or girlfriend from a different background will know how odd other people can be, and yet how ordinary (through familiarity) they become.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream which is itself a continuance of Motorpsycho Nitemare takes the journey that started with Outlaw Blues and continued through On the Road Again, out to the furthest reaches of crazed imagination.  Now we don’t just have Napoleon we also have Moby Dick.

The outlaw has now moved so far away from mainstream society that nothing makes sense because there are no expectations that can be relied upon.

I commented earlier on the opening of the first two songs in this little group at the end of side 1 and we can now complete the set

It ain’t hard to stumble and land in some funny lagoon

Well I wake up in the morning there’s frogs inside my socks

I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land

This is truly a descent into increasing madness or silliness or an ascent into increasing surrealism and fun.  It is subversion of the form (that is of rhythm and blues) growing and growing, step by step.  Love Minus Zero has a strange landscape but it is made real through the love behind the song.  With these last three songs however there is nothing at all to hold onto.  Where previously we had beauty with

People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her


Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

now we have not beautiful landscapes and enchanting dreams, but something that is only one step away from insanity and madness.

Subverting the form – undermining the concepts and beliefs on which the form is based, tearing away the basics so that we realise just how pretentious or bizarre the form is, is valuable in itself.  Dylan perhaps is saying to us, this is rhythm and blues, but the lyrics don’t work any more, because they were written for another age.  Now everything is breaking down, nothing is certain, the dream and reality mix.

It is funny, and to some degree the humour lasts, as long as you don’t play the record too often.  But most of all Dylan is saying, across these three songs, “everything is available for re-writing.  Just go where you want.”

Put this way, and indeed considered with the whole of Side 1 of “Bringing it all back home” this is quite probably the greatest post-modernist musical manifesto that has ever been presented.  Nothing is what it seems, the past is available for re-invention, just because it is new doesn’t mean it is good.  Irony rules.

But the funniest thing was
When I was leavin’ the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin’
They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck”

Full index of songs


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4 Responses to Outlaw Blues, On the Road Again, and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream

  1. Johnny says:

    thanks for sharing.Outlaw Blues, On the Road Again, and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream | Untold Dylan gave me much help.

  2. billautism says:

    Yes, great stuff. Dylan wrote each song at so many different levels of understanding. I don’t think he even understood it at the time he was writing the songs. That is how brilliant he was/is.

  3. mel kinder says:

    With regard to “On The Road Again”:
    On the liner notes, Dylan remarks about writing a History of the UN. This is IT!

  4. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/83/Bob-Dylan's-115th-Dream (Additional Information)

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