Legionnaire’s Disease: the meaning behind the music and the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

I am not at all sure that writing a song about Legionnaire’s Disease was Dylan’s best idea, and then mixing it with scattered musical elements of “Like Rolling Stone” didn’t really help much.  I have no idea if the “uncle” of the song was actually Dylan’s uncle, but if so, and indeed if the history of the family fighting wars is anything like true, rather than being a story, it certainly is one hell of a concept to write a song around.  But I suspect this is just fanciful story telling, and that takes a lot of the edge off the song.

And I guess maybe if 1978 were not such a curious year I would skip over this song totally, but we are in 1978 when Dylan was experimenting with writing on the road once again.  He’d done it extensively with Helena Springs, and now he was trying to find his own voice again.

As we look at the chronology of songs we can see

Now we know what Slow Train became, but the journey just by looking at the songs isn’t clear other than the fact that it is troubled.   Indeed looking at it now, this journey looks like one of the most fascinating parts of Dylan’s travelling through song.

More Than Flesh and Blood gives us the line “I reach for you at midnight just to find you’re never there”.

Then we have “I must have loved  you too much” which I postulate was based on Dylan Thomas’s writing about his desperate love for his soon-to-be wife.

Next it is Stepchild with

I wanna turn my back and run away from you
but oh, I just can’t leave you babe

You will see a certain theme developing here – the theme of emotions out of control and highly problematic relationships.   A life in fact in turmoil.

But then up pop’s Legionnaire’s Disease, another one of the songs that was performed as part of the sound check routine before each gig – but which never evolved beyond that stage.

The awful illness gets its name from the fact that the American veterans’ association “The American Legion” (for those who had served their country with honour) was staying at a hotel in Philadelphia.  182 of them became very ill with an unknown form of pneumonia with 28 eventually dying.  The strain became known as Legionella.

The bacteria is found in water, particularly indoor plumbing and air conditioning systems, and these days all institutions from hotels to swimming pools check for the bacteria and there is now technology that protects the water systems from allowing a build up of the bacteria.

     A                     D           E                A         D  E
Some say it was radiation,  some said: acid on the microphone
    A                             D                E                      A      D  E
And some say it was a combination   of things that turned their hearts to stone
    D                                       E
But whatever it was, it drove them to their knees
E7                     |: A . . .  D . . .  E . . . | . . . .  :|
Oh, that Legionnaire's disease

I wish I had a dollar for everyone that died within that year
Got 'em grabbed by the collar, and plenty a maiden shed a tear
Now beneath my heart, it sure put on a squeeze,
Oh, that Legionnaire's disease
It was Legionnaire's disease

Granddad fought in a revolutionary war, father in the War of 1812
Uncle fought down in Vietnam and then he fought a war all by himself
But whatever it was, it hit him like a tree
Oh, that Legionnaire's disease
It was Legionnaire's disease
It was Legionnaire's disease
It was Legionnaire's disease

This seems at first wholly unrepresentative of Dylan’s output during the year – a completely odd one off.  And it can be considered as that when we have the fact that Dylan was writing these songs as pieces to be played during the sound check sessions before the gigs.

Or at least that is how it sounds until one realises that the next song was Slow Train

I had a woman down in Alabama
She was a backwoods girl, but she sure was realistic
She said, “Boy, without a doubt
Have to quit your mess and straighten out
You could die down here, be just another accident statistic”
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Looked at in this way 1978 was indeed quite a journey.  The Times they are a Changing.  Again.

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  1. Nice write-up with very nice videoclip to the song that is, knowing Dylan, hardly odd. He keeps doing such one-off pieces all the time. “I’m not there” strikes me at the spur of the moment.

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