Subterranean Homesick Blues: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

Subterranean Homesick Blues

This was Dylan’s first successful attempt to integrate the emotions of the Beat Generation which he had understood from Alan Ginsberg and others combining the thoughts of the moment with three minutes of everything that was happening in the world of the mid 1960s.

It’s sources in Dylan’s own writing go back to Gypsy Lou – the song about the Beat Generation and his frustration with it (or with himself for not being able to write Beat Generation music), and its sources in lyrical terms come from Jack Kerouac who wrote a novel called The Subterraneans.

The fire hoses were used to break up demonstrations then, as much later – although if you get too close to the lyrics the fire hose bit could be taken to suggest that one should NOT get involved in civil rights protests – which given the context of so much of Dylan’s early writing, would seem odd. Or maybe he was just being post-modernistically ironic.

Some “insights” that commentators have found in the song are barely that – “I’m on the pavement thinking about the government” could be an allusion to anti-government protests in the streets, but if so is hardly mind shattering.

Then there’s the Weathermen bit – “Don’t need the Weathermen to know which way the wind blows.” Some sources cite this as the origin of the name of the Weathermen, the radical and violent anti-governmental group. Others say that Dylan was citing an already existent organisation. Either way, given the simplicity of the “I’m on the pavement” bit, he could just be talking about the weather.

But in many ways this is what the Beat Generation poetry was all about – it was taking a scatological approach to lyrics and rhyme, rejecting all that had gone before, linking the future to the past and back again, finding new models, new expressions, new ideas, even if no one knew what they meant.

Maggie turns up as well, and “Maggie’s Farm” puts in its first appearance as track 3 on side one of the album. There’s more interaction with the law (“must bust in early May, orders from the DA”) and so it goes on. If anything it is perhaps a reflection of the turmoil of life (“twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift”).

Quite why it has been so popular and so highly revered is hard to say in any way other than the fact that it so dramatically broke so much ground.  It is hard to remember this far on but we really had never heard anything remotely like this before.

Rolling Stone has it in the top 500 greatest songs of all time, everyone seems to have quoted it somehow, and yet it is just a boppy little rock song with no melody and three chords. In the end its meaning, its important and its sheer memorableness can only be ascribed to the fact that almost every line is quotable somehow, somewhere, it does symbolically catch the moment, and it is the opening to a truly great album.  Dylan called it a subconscious poem, and it is certainly that.  It’s brilliance is that it taps into a whole community’s subconscious.

It has been widely commented upon that there are links to Chuck Berry lines in the song – and that’s quite right of course.  I am not sure that is particularly significant.  Chuck Berry borrowed, and Dylan was already borrowing from everywhere he could find, in the earlier albums.  The borrowing doesn’t really matter.  It is the transformation that counts.

Index to all the songs.


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8 Responses to Subterranean Homesick Blues: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Thelonious says:

    I’m pretty sure it’s “you don’t need a weather-man”

  2. Dylan Fan says:

    In “Subterranean Homesick Blues” the line is “You don’t need a weatherman [lowercase] to know which way the wind blows.” I don’t find it a hard line to understand; it means you don’t need someone to tell you the way things are going; you can figure that out for yourself. And it ABSOLUTELY predated the Weathermen–the song came out in 1965, and the Weathermen didn’t organize until 1969. So any source that tells you otherwise is completely inaccurate. But, yes, it IS said that the Weathermen alluded to the line in the song when they named their group (later also called the Weather Underground)–and one can see why this particular song would have resonated with the group, given its subject matter.

    As for the lyrics about the fire hose, the singer/speaker is quoting the advice of others (mainstream society) who tell him to “Look out, kid,” and not get involved. It’s not the speaker/singer or Bob Dylan himself suggesting one should not get involved in the civil rights movement or any other activity that could lead to a fire hosing; OTOH, the singer/speaker and Bob Dylan aren’t saying to get involved either. The song just captures the underground life and the paranoia of fear of being arrested for it, and also the contrasting dictates of mainstream society that drove one to it, “Get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success [suck-cess]” . . . ” Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift” [a really great line].

  3. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)

  4. says:

    Greetings! This is mmy 1st comment here soo I just wanted too give
    a quick shout out and say I genuinely enjoy reading your articles.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same subjects?
    Thanks a lot!

  5. TonyAttwood says:

    Maximous – sorry but not really. I started this blog because I couldn’t find anything else that really seemed to do this.

  6. Don says:

    Hi – I have to say, excellently written pieces and I’m incredibly glad I found your site. Thanks for putting these articles up for everyone to see.

    Just one small point (and feel free to delete this comment if I’m incorrect, or if it otherwise doesn’t serve the page) – I don’t think you meant “scatological” as used above. Maybe scattershot or something similar? Although the Beat poets did not shy away from descriptions of sexual events, the grotesque, etc., I am not sure they are generally understood to be largely concerned with urine or feces, or other bodily waste products.

    It just struck me as one off note in an otherwise wonderful song you’ve written about a singular Dylan tone-poem.

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Don you are quite right – I have been misusing the word for years!!! Glad I have been put right. How embarrassing.

  8. Peter Guglietta says:

    The Chuck Berry reference is significant. The similarities in structure to “Too Much Monkey Business” are deliberate on Dylan’s part, just as were his attempts to infuse this song with the spirit of the beat poets. Dylan was very much influenced by Berry….and who wasn’t? But this was also his sideways shot at the crowd who wanted him to be the darling of the folkie movement, who disdained rock music and considered musicians like Berry, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Elvis to be nothing more than teeny-bopper idols. Dylan by this time had told the folk movement to go piss up a rope, and was on his way to fusing a new sound that left the intellectually dishonest folk music scene behind and brought a newer, more adult version of rock music to the forefront.

    More people borrowed from Chuck Berry than Berry himself borrowed from anyone to any significant degree. Dylan knew that, and he knew that Berry had a keen eye for storytelling and rhythm, and from that point Dylan sought to establish a kind of stream-of-consciousness twist on the form that Berry pioneered and “grow it up” a bit.

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