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

By Tony Attwood

Revised 13 October 2017

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.

But Bob did have a musical source in Chuck Berry’s “Too much monkey business”   Just try some of these lines…

Salesman talking to me tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy it, go on try it, you can pay me next week

Blonde haired, good lookin’ tryin’ to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, get a home, settle down, write a book

Same thing every day, gettin’ up, goin’ to school
No need to be complainin’, my objections overruled

Pay phone, somethin’ wrong, dime gone, will mail
I ought to sue the operator for tellin’ me a tale

Dylan takes this idea and updates it a bit.  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.  And really that is not the point.  The point is the scatological approach to poetry and life: this can be nothing more than a scatological experience as both Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan said.

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.  And again going back to Chuck Berry, it was the everyday that was the source of the story.

And 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 new ground right at the start of the album.  It is hard to remember this far on but we really had never heard anything remotely like this before – except from Chuck Berry – and his music was pushed off into the backwater of rhythm and blues that appeared to white kids, along with Bo Diddley

Rolling Stone has the song it in the top 500 greatest songs of all time, everyone seems to have quoted it somehow, and yet if taken apart 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.

The borrowing from Berry doesn’t really matter.  It is the transformation that counts.

What else is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

 

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10 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: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/602/Subterranean-Homesick-Blues (Additional Information)

  4. maximous.net 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.

  9. Chris Ruttan says:

    I think the lyric “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” is simply a statement about common sense. Like a lot of things in life, it’s as easy as turning your face into the wind. No expertise required.

  10. Jim Lambrinos says:

    I like this video with the words on the cards and plan to show students the condensed version of the sixties. Also enjoy reading the commentary.

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