A Christian song or a song about lost love? Bob Dylan’s “Somethings’ Burning Baby”

By Tony Attwood

Empire Burlesque was written in three different years as the chronology shows:



  • Something’s Burning Baby


What’s more, in between Dylan wrote a whole range of other songs, such as  Neighbourhood Bully and Foot of Pride and 1983 and New Danville Girl / Brownsville Girl in 1984.

What I also find fascinating about Empire Burlesque is that it contains Trust Yourself which on the face of it seems to contradict the Christian stand point of earlier work, and indeed some of the imagery of Something’s Burning Baby – although as I want to point out here, I don’t see this as a religious song.

But from the moment I bought the LP upon release in the UK (and I am rather pleased to say, I still have it, and have just confirmed that it is perfectly playable, although Dark Eyes – by far my favourite song from the album has a horrible scratch on it) I loved the end of this album far more than any other part:

  • When the night comes falling from the sky
  • Something’s burning baby
  • Dark Eyes

For some reason, in the early days of this website I reviewed When the Night, and Dark Eyes, but not Something’s burning baby.  So time to make up for that.

It is the rotating two chords that send us forwards and the opening certainly seems to suggest that this is about the breaking up of a love affair.   And this is interesting, from a man who has often been known for throwing in wholly unexpected chord changes in his work.

We have no doubt about the nature of the song from the off…

Something is burning, baby, are you aware?
Something is the matter, baby, there’s smoke in your hair
Are you still my friend, baby, show me a sign
Is the love in your heart for me turning blind?

And the second verse seems to insist that this is the issue – she has changed, but is it that she has just fallen out of love for him, or is there something deeper here?

You’ve been avoiding the main streets for a long, long while
The truth that I’m seeking is in your missing file
What’s your position, baby, what’s going on?
Why is the light in your eyes nearly gone?

Verse three confirms our suspicions; she’s changed, and he wants to know what it is all about.  Rock n Roll teaches us that its always another man, no matter what the woman says, so we are awaiting the confirmation.

I know everything about this place, or so it seems
Am I no longer a part of your plans or your dreams?
Well, it is so obvious that something has changed
What’s happening, baby, to make you act so strange?

From all that has gone before I take “this place” to be “having a woman go cold on the relationship”, and that contrasts nicely with the “something burning motif” which basically is a straight metaphor for “our love is affair is going up in flames” confirmed by “I see the shadow of a man, baby, making you blue.”

Something is burning, baby, here’s what I say
Even the bloodhounds of London couldn’t find you today
I see the shadow of a man, baby, makin’ you blue
Who is he, baby, and what’s he to you?

The constantly rotating two chords and the lack of a chorus or a middle 8 drive us on all the time, relentlessly pushing the notion that she is lost to the world.  We’ve gone as far as we can like this, so it is time for us to lay the cards on the table and say what is going on.

We’ve reached the edge of the road, baby, where the pasture begins
Where charity is supposed to cover up a multitude of sins
But where do you live, baby, and where is the light?
Why are your eyes just staring off in the night?

Then suddenly although the structure of the song is the same, the melody changes, and there is a new insistence in the words

I can feel it in the night when I think of you
I can feel it in the light and it’s got to be true
You can’t live by bread alone, you won’t be satisfied
You can’t roll away the stone if your hands are tied

Now this verse suddenly contains the first Christian commentary with the “bread alone” reference, Deuteronomy 8:3

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

It’s an important element within the Christian faith as Matthew 4:4 also includes it as a comment from Jesus, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

And of course rolling away the stone is a fundamental in the faith with Jesus ordering the stone in front of the tomb of Lazarus to be removed and He rolls away the stone from the tomb at the resurrection.

But then Dylan is straight back to saying that some light has gone out of her life.

Got to start someplace, baby, can you explain?
Please don’t fade away on me, baby, like the midnight train
Answer me, baby, a casual look will do
Just what in the world has come over you?

Next, out of the blue, we get a bit of geographic context, but still the message is overwhelmingly “something is wrong, please tell me what it is”.

I can feel it in the wind and it’s upside down
I can feel it in the dust as I get off the bus on the outskirts of town
I’ve had the Mexico City blues since the last hairpin curve
I don’t wanna see you bleed, I know what you need but it ain’t what you deserve

And the end – partly enigmatic – we don’t know who the “man” that suddenly pops up actually is, just that the singer is still concluding that the relationship is going up in flames.  But he has he will wait for her.  When it is over and done, he’ll still be there awaiting her.

Something is burning, baby, something’s in flames
There’s a man going ’round calling names
Ring down when you’re ready, baby, I’m waiting for you
I believe in the impossible, you know that I do

Now I don’t see a Christian message in this, and I don’t get the feeling, that Heylin professes to see, that throughout Dylan is concerned for the woman’s soul.  I think we must also take note of the fact that the song was being written and re-written as it was recorded, and this approach with Dylan often ends up with songs that are not literal truths but interpretations of the interconnection between the physical world and the emotional world.   And that is certainly what we seem to have here.

There is one reference that Heylin seizes upon – the final lines which relate back to Matthew 17:20 “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

But is that link enough to say that this was exactly what Dylan was referring to when he said,

Ring down when you’re ready, baby, I’m waiting for you
I believe in the impossible, you know that I do

I think not, so I don’t agree Dylan was trying to make it “crystal clear that the smell of burning was coming from down below” as Heylin suggests.   Dylan had already written a clearly non-Christian song (Trust yourself) and I can’t see why, if he wanted to re-establish his Christian credentials he would do it in such an obscure manner.   It makes much more sense for the burning to be a metaphor for the disappearing love affair.

When Dylan has in the past wanted to give us insights into his feeling about the Revelation of St John he really does leave us in no doubt, giving us clear quotes from the Bible.  I think he would have been much more overt had he wanted to write a religious message here.

But it is also worth noting that this song has never ever been played in concert, which is fairly weird to begin with – it is after all a terrific piece of work.

Yes I will agree that there is “apocalyptic imagery”, but the song (contrary to the Wiki review) is not “filled with apocalyptic imagery” just because Heylin says so.  If you go through the piece, verse by verse, that is not what is there.


Besides if you follow the notion of it all being a religious treatise, then where does that take “I see the shadow of a man, baby, making you blue.”

Of course we can all make up our own minds and all I can do is tell you how I see it and how I hear it.  And obviously my view is nothing in particular.  I’m just the guy who happens to be writing the web site.

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3 Responses to A Christian song or a song about lost love? Bob Dylan’s “Somethings’ Burning Baby”

  1. John says:

    This is what I love about Dylan’s writing. I have always been absolutely certain (and still am) that the “woman” in this song is America. The context of when this song was written is important. Every news report on TV had images of protesters abroad burning the American flag. Infidels contains direct geopolitical commentary and this follows up on that theme. If you listen to the song with America as “baby” every line make perfect sense. The founding fathers believed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were divine. Mexico City Blues I think was a book by one of the beat writers but also could be the direction that we were taking. A nation abandoning their main streets for a global economy and with it’s connection to the divine “fading away”. We should have been working on rolling away the stone within our own boarders. I’m not saying any of this is right or wrong but in the context of American media and politics in 1984 I think this interpretation makes a lot of sense. Thanks

  2. john. says:

    One of my favorite songs of Bob’s from one of my favorite albums. I never hear anyone talk about it so I feel like it’s my own secret gem. Don’t have much to add to the discussion other than that I’ve always felt the “Mexico City blues” line was a reference to Kerouac’s book of poetry of the same name.

  3. dylan fan says:

    My feeling about the lyrics is that Dylan is feeling far from the God and the Savior he was so close to several years ago. His career was stopped short when he proclaimed his faith and certain religious groups wanted to use him. Now he wants to be faithful, but sees that his channels for doing so are blocked. Therefore he uses phrases – the proper names are my own idea- like : ‘are You aware’, ‘are You still my friend’, ‘why is the light in Your eyes nearly gone?’, ‘am I no longer a part of Your plans and Your dreams?’, ‘even the bloodhounds can’t find You [and I can’t either], ‘ring down baby’ and ‘I believe in the impossible, You know that I do’. He is ‘the shadow of a man’ and he asks God if He is not unhappy with this. The midnight train is also an analogy to a Biblical train to get on. In several of his songs the term ‘baby’ could refer to Christ. There are many other references in my mind anyway. Interested to see if anyone else sees this.

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