Handy Dandy: Bob Dylan playing at contradictions.

By Tony Attwood

I am always worried when I write a review which is based around the meaning of words and phrases, simply because a word or phrase that I, as a person born and brought up in England, understand as meaning one thing, might mean something quite different to a man brought up in Minnesota.

But I continue to write such reviews, secure in the knowledge that if there is a separate Minnesotan meaning for the word or phrase in question, I will soon be told about it.

And thus we come to Handy Dandy.

In Shakespeare “handy dandy” takes on what I believe is the classic meaning, of choices or opposites with each in the end being fairly similar to the other.   Thus for example in King Lear the King himself says to Gloucester, “What! art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?”

The notion “which is the justice, which is the thief?” seems very Dylanesque to me, and is, I believe, the starting point in this song for lines such as “He’s got that fortress on the mountain With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in.”

In British culture handy dandy is also a children’s game in which an object is passed from one player to another and then suddenly the passing stops and one player is required to guess which hand the object is being held in.

So we are in the world of being frivolous and secretive – rather like the characters in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee – whom Dylan also sang about.   This is particularly so since the dictionary definition of Handy Dandy includes exchanging one position for another, in a rapid or continuous manner.  Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee were identical (if contrary) twins.

There is also a sense here of Subterranean Homesick Blues

Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again.

Confusion is everywhere in these songs and is the essence of Handy Dandy – we really can’t be sure what’s going on, when, and how.  Like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in the original poem agreeing to have a battle, but then not because they get frightened by a crow.

Part of this confusion, light-heartedness and the fact that nothing is as it seems, is given to us as we listen to the piece for the first time by the way the organ is played at the very start.  The style and approach is in a manner that makes one think of “Like a Rolling Stone.”  But what we get is something quite different.  Such misleading confusion is the essence of Handy Dandy at all times.

Originally it seems the song was over half an hour long with the notion that the band would just keep recording and then it would all be edited down.  I’m not sure if that is so (some reports contradict this) but either way, we end up with a piece that goes much more towards the oddity end of the scale.  As with

Handy Dandy, if every bone in his body was broken he would never admit it
He got an all-girl orchestra and when he says
“Strike up the band,” they hit it
Handy Dandy, Handy Dandy

But the Tweedle Dee Tweedle Dum element continues to be there…

You say, “What are ya made of?”
He says, “Can you repeat what you said?”
You’ll say, “What are you afraid of?”
He’ll say, “Nothin’! Neither ’live nor dead.”

But the contradiction does come back as we travel along

He’s got that clear crystal fountain
He’s got that soft silky skin
He’s got that fortress on the mountain
With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in

And in the end we get nowhere – we just go round and round.

Handy Dandy, he got a basket of flowers and a bag full of sorrow
He finishes his drink, he gets up from the table, he says
“Okay, boys, I’ll see you tomorrow”
Handy Dandy, Handy Dandy, just like sugar and candy
Handy Dandy, just like sugar and candy

Musically the piece is simplicity itself – just three chords going around over and over – there’s no real development, and in the end the conclusion seems to me to be that this was an experiment – and in the end one that doesn’t actually seem to take us anywhere or offer any real insights into the state of the world.

But then as I have said elsewhere, all artists do such experiments and we find them in their note books and on sketchpads.  Dylan’s however are often kept for posterity, and if put on an album, as this song was, take on a position that seems far more important than perhaps Dylan ever thought they ought to be.

Here’s the out-take from the album…


The song was played live just the once – on 27 June 2008 – some 18 years after it was written.




  1. The borrowed nursery rhyme imagery does make the meanings and contradictions in the songs on the Under the Red Sky album particularly difficult to decipher. That said, I’ve always thought that the contradictions you identify in Handy Dandy are used to describe a particular type of conflicted character. For me, at least, the song depicts a man whose frailties and uncertainties cannot be overcome by his material success and power over others. His success enables him to get others to do whatever he wants – even to forming an all-girl orchestra especially for him to conduct; he can build an immensely luxurious and fortified home to protect himself and his possessions; he can have any number of women but at his core he remains unfulfilled and does not know whether people like and respect him for who he is or if they just fake their friendship and consent because they want a piece of what he has or fear him. Seemingly, he has everything but a sense of his own worth. His inner dilemma is represented by the fact that he holds a basket of flowers, not an ordinary spray or bunch of flowers, but still carries a bag full of sorrow.

  2. I had been under the impression that you could read some of the lyrics as references to Prince (or a Prince-like figure). The “all-girl orchestra” is the most obvious, but not the only one.

  3. Often, Dylan lines remind me of another of his songs

    “He’s got that fortress on the mountain
    With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in”,

    “If I could take you to the mountain top, girl
    And build you a house made out of stainless steel”.

    Also, there is a “Can you Please crawl Out Your Window” feel to the song:-

    “All-girl orchestra” – “Strike up the band, they hit it” puts me in mind of
    “With his business-like anger and his bloodhounds that kneel”.

    Handy Dandy strikes me as the man who has (in his own mind) an answer for everything and would be only too pleased to be referred to as Handy Dandy.

  4. This song is about isolation and anxiety.
    His house is like his mind:

    “He’s got that fortress on the mountain
    With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in”

    He wont admit it or talk about it:

    “Handy Dandy, if every bone in his body was broken he would never admit it”

    His communication with other people about his anxiety is denial:

    You say, “What are ya made of?”
    He says, “Can you repeat what you said?”
    You’ll say, “What are you afraid of?”
    He’ll say, “Nothin’! Neither ’live nor dead.”

    But then one lazy day he opens up and ask Nancy if she is afraid too. In fact he does not ask if she is afraid, he jumpes directly to the solution of being afraid. He offers her a gun. Very sweet way to talk about something very difficult. It is almost like children think and act. Very concrete. But she does not understand at all and takes the question very literally. In fact she gets a little afraid.

    Handy Dandy, sitting with a girl named Nancy in a garden feelin’ kind of lazy
    He says, “Ya want a gun? I’ll give ya one.” She says, “Boy, you talking crazy”

    Conclusion: If he tries to speak about his anxiety, people dont understand it and find him crazy.
    Where does that bring him: Back in black isolation but with a perfect white surface.
    “Handy Dandy, just like sugar and candy”

  5. I simply CANNOT believe that of all the stuff written about this song I have yet to read of anyone suggesting it might be a song/lament/dirge about the passing of Andy Warhol. Dylan spent time w/Warhol in the mid-60s when drugs were being passed around like sugar and candy. Andy reveled in the decadent. Both Dylan and Warhol were pushing the artistic envelop, and Dylan had written eulogy about Lenny Bruce, and later John Lennon and Willie McTell. I won’t go into any lyrical ‘proof’ of my interpretation but listening to Lou Reed/John Cale’s “Songs for Drella” where the authors state the songs are about Andy Warhol’s life, one can easily see the parallels between the two wonderful works of art. Maybe one day I will read of someone else making the connection. The girl with the offered gun? No exact match but some whacko feminist named Valerie S(omething), got a gun and shot her one-time mentor. In fact, due to the shooting, it was suggested by some that the fair skinned albino(Warhol) turn his “factory”(his proletariat art studio) into some fortress where the riff-raff couldn’t get in.

  6. Handy dandy is Dylan himself.

    He says, “Ya want a gun? I’ll give ya one.” She says, “Boy, you talking crazy”
    No, she don’t want to kill him anymore! All not meant literally of course. Now everything between them is sugar and candy. Even the world is a mess, they are happy together.

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