Bob Dylan’s “Baby Stop Crying”: the meaning of the lyrics and the song

By Tony Attwood

Baby Stop Crying has its lyrical (although not its musical) origins in Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down.  Just compare the lyrics


Baby, please stop crying
You know, I know, the sun will always shine
So baby, please stop crying ’cause it’s tearing up my mind


Stop breakin’ down, yes stop breakin’ down
The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby
Ooh, it’ll make you lose your mind

The difference is that Robert Johnson delivers the song with a rare bounce and hypnotic drive which isn’t part of Dylan’s work at all.  Dylan, for me, sounds really fed up.

Robert Johnson “Stop Breaking Down”.

Johnson’s piece was recorded by him in 1937 and was itself melodically (although not lyrically) based on the music of Memphis Minnie, Buddy Moss (try “Stop Hanging Around”) and the like.   The Rolling Stones recorded “Stop Breaking Down” in Exile on Main Street.

The problem for me is that knowing Stop Breaking Down, I can’t really do justice to analysing Dylan’s lyrics.  For example consider this set of lyrics…

I can’t walk the streets now, can’t consulate my mind
Some no good woman she starts breakin’ down
Stop breakin’ down, please stop breakin’ down
The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby
Ooh, it’ll make you lose your mind

This takes “lose your mind” into a different level and there is no comparison (for me) with

You been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe
But you’re back where you belong
Go get me my pistol, babe
Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong

Of course I get the point of singing “stop crying” eight times in every chorus, because that is the point with someone who is so distressed by the break up of a love affair that they simply cannot escape the misery and pain.

But like the paintings that make up The Scream by Edvard Munch I don’t need to look at it that much before it just overwhelms me.  The Scream overwhelms me with horror, Stop Crying with depression.  Different views of life, but not something that I want every time I come to play the album.

In fact I can handle the poem behind The Scream better than I can deal with the painting…

“I was walking along the road with two Friends / the Sun was setting – The Sky turned a bloody red / And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood / Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black / Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire / My Friends walked on – I remained behind / – shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature.”

And maybe if I was in that state (thankfully I’m not this week) or if a friend was, then maybe I’d have more empathy with the song, but somehow without that, I fail to appreciate the chorus. And by the end hearing the phrase “Stop crying” 32 times is just a bit much.

So that is my problem.  I can appreciate The Scream as great art even though I can’t and don’t want to share the horror of dissolution and loneliness.  But I don’t want to head “Stop crying” sung 32 times.   But as always, I am sure the failure to appreciate this moment of Dylan’s work, is entirely my problem, not his as a composer.

It might be ok for me if the verses in between said something to me but

Go down to the river, babe
Honey, I will meet you there
Go down to the river, babe
Honey, I will pay your fare


You been hurt so many times
And I know what you’re thinking of
Well, I don’t have to be no doctor, babe
To see that you’re madly in love

really don’t cut anything with me.

The blues of course is a simple song form, but when I listen to the Robert Johnson song I just want to hear it over and over, and this Dylan piece does not do that to me.  Simplicity can work, but, to my mind, it isn’t enough on its own.   Dylan’s melody is ok, and the four chords (A, C sharp minor, D, E) give possibilities but are commonplace in this type of song.

So what was it that made it a hit (it reached 13 in the UK charts, and did well in most of Europe)?  I must say I don’t know, and I’m with the USA on this one, where it didn’t go down at all well and didn’t make the charts.

Maybe people in Britain in 1978 were just plain miserable at the time.   We’d had terrible storms, Margaret Thatcher was making anti-immigrant speeches, they gave Freddie Laker a knighthood, the IRA were letting off bombs, our Embassy in Iran was attacked, and the Yorkshire Ripper was on the loose.  Yeah, I guess we all were pretty fed up.

Dylan performed the song from 1 June 1978 through to 14 November 1978 (39 performances) but then on returning to the USA dropped it from the set list.

Here’s the live version from the UK tour.

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2 Responses to Bob Dylan’s “Baby Stop Crying”: the meaning of the lyrics and the song

  1. hans altena says:

    A song where its author identifies himself with Charon, by sugesting to pay the fare for to cross the last river, and yet pleads to have the addressed one stop crying and maybe live on, though this last idea is not mentioned, such a song indeed has a depth that is almost unbearable, but to which I can relate. You can count yourself lucky you don’t, and I agree about your analysis of the Robert Johnson song. But to me this song by a disilusioned Dylan is a solace nonetheless, and indeed, first heard in those dark days of ’78, where the last glimpses of the hope of the sixties disappeared finaly to make way for the dreadful eighties, which still reign up to this day. By the way, all this did not prevent me from getting lucky after all, now living with the lady who was the best friend of my first wife who died much too soon. Everytime I hear this song I think of these two women so close at my heart, and the miseries at least one of them survived.

  2. Alex o'brien says:

    I saw Dylan singing this live from four rows out at one of his Earls Court,London concerts.I dont analyse,just like the song.

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