Summer Days; Bob Dylan (“Love and Theft”)

By Tony Attwood

I think it is fair to say that for most fans “Summer Days” is just considered “another Dylan R&B song”.  Lively, jolly, very well performed on the album, with some excellent lead guitar work, no stumbles by any musician.  It is a good fun track, where it is probably best not to listen to the words too closely.

The structure and organisation of the song is primarily that of the extended 12 bar blues, but it has much more to it than that, because of the variant verses, and the sheer length of the piece – 15 verses (although the final is a repeat of the first) – makes it quite an extraordinary composition.  Perhaps we don’t always feel it as that because of the speed of performance.

The variant sections occur every fourth verse (ie 4, 8 and 12)  in which Dylan sings over what was initially an instrumental break with the lead guitar doing a descending solo pattern.  It is not something I have ever heard before or since in this type of song.

There is also the curiosity of verse 7 in which there are simply far too many words to fit the structure.  It is a verse that demands special attention because the structure almost breaks down, but Dylan continues singing and somehow it all fits together in the end.  As I try and show below, there is a reason for this.

And what does it all mean?   Well, here goes.

First off, this is from “Love and Theft”, which is an album, according to some critics, which is a homage to America’s deep south.  The Chicago Tribune ( September 11, 2001), said it was an album taking “the myths, mysteries and folklore of the South as a backdrop”.  What I am going to argue here is that in this song in particular Dylan is not in the deep south at all, but in the frozen north of Canada.  It is still Love and Theft, but the location changes.

The singer is marrying a lady from the Manto Sipi Cree Nation – a First Nation community.  (The First Nations are the original inhabitants of Canada who are not Inuit or Métis).

This gives a bit of context for the opening verse – ” Summer days, summer nights are gone, I know a place where there’s still something going on.”  Summer being over in the far north will mean far more than for most of the people of the planet, since it takes us towards eternal night.  “Still something going on” has a significance in this interpretation.

Verse three (“Everybody get ready—lift your glasses and sing”) is presumably the toast at the wedding.  I’m absolutely not an expert on The First Nations, but I am hoping that maybe a toast to the King is something one might find in the wedding services of the Manto Sipi Cree Nation.  (If you are going to jump in here and say that I’ve got all this wrong, fine – I openly admit I am struggling to put a meaning together).

The Flats could be the area of Cleveland, or come to that a lot of places in Canada – and who is the businessman to be stopped.  An oil developer?  This is now just guesswork.  I don’t know about Gods River – I can only hope I’m on the right track.

Certainly it is possible to tie in the issue about The Flats.  Gods River flows into the Hayes River and the result is rapids, lakes, waterfalls, and as it nears Hudson Bay, tidal flats.

There is then a suggestion that the marriage in real trouble from the off, and then the very curious extended verse seven.

She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.”

That is particularly interesting because the most common expression of the past is that you cannot go back and repeat the past.  Suddenly the lines from Mississippi comes into my head

“Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay; You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way. Only one thing I did wrong was stayed in Mississippi a day too long”.

But this line: “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can,” is from The Great Gatsby.  Now Gatsby, in the novel, was indeed a very generous man – especially at his parties which might be relevant in relation to the Genius of Generosity below.  But at least we know why Dylan expanded the structure to put this point in – it is a quote and he wanted to give it in full.

And the mystery continues in verse 8…

Where do you come from? Where do you go?
Sorry that’s nothing you would need to know
Well, my back has been to the wall for so long, it seems like it’s stuck
Why don’t you break my heart one more time just for good luck

So we can take it that the marriage went wrong and the guy is off in his car, which is swish and fast, but running out of petrol.  Goodness knows what’s going on in verse 10, but now he’s really challenging anyone and everyone in verse 11, and the politicians in verse 12.

You got something to say, speak or hold your peace
Well, you got something to say, speak now or hold your peace
If it’s information you want you can go get it from the police

Politician got on his jogging shoes
He must be running for office, got no time to lose
He been sucking the blood out of the genius of generosity
You been rolling your eyes—you been teasing me

The “Genius of Generosity” is a book by Chip Ingram and a philosophy of a contemporary American church which relates to giving by the members of a church to help that church.

Standing by Gods river, my soul is beginning to shake
Standing by Gods river, my soul is beginning to shake
I’m counting on you love, to give me a break

Gods River (which is the clue that gives us the First Nations link) is a remote, (and I believe it is Gods River, not God’s River) settlement in Northern Manitoba, Canada and the location of the Manto Sipi Cree Nation.

And then back on the song, the singer is off.

Well, I’m leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift
Yes, I’m leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift
Going to break the roof in—set fire to the place as a parting gift

Summer days, summer nights are gone
Summer days, summer nights are gone
I know a place where there’s still something going on

It is difficult to interpret – but perhaps it is best to say it is a wedding and a divorce, with tradition and the church not always playing a good part.   The Gatsby quote is the key for me, because Dylan has gone out of his way to put it in, in full, and because of the apparent contradiction to his earlier comments on the subject.

I love this song, and would love to be able to get more explanation out of it.  But there again, maybe I am pushing too far, and there is none to be found.

Index of articles and songs

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6 Responses to Summer Days; Bob Dylan (“Love and Theft”)

  1. liam says:

    Hmm, wacky.
    It’s quite obvious that the king is elvis, no?

  2. Thelonious says:

    I see this as more about Dylan himself (especially Dylan as a rock performer) than as a story about a wedding.

    To me, the opening/closing verse is saying “The heyday of rock (the Summer of Love) is long gone, but there are still a few of us carrying on the spirit” which also supports the “repeat the past” quote.

    The “Where do you come from? Where do you go?” verse is about people and the press always asking him about his personal life instead of his art.

    The other verses express his attitude towards other aspects of life (politics, religion) and finally, he offers complete destruction as the climax of the show (think of The Who destroying their instruments) – part of the whole death/rebirth cycle Dylan often invokes as the transformative nature of his art.

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    Okay, wabbit, I’m ajumpin’ ….Since the Gods River, Manitoba, Cree band settled there in the 194O’s a toast to the Queen would be more likely referred to at a wedding, assuming it’s being held after 1952 with the souped-up Cadillac and all.
    But who’d be crazy enough to drive a Caddy on an ice road across the frozen Canadian tundra in the depth of winter to reach Gods River, no road otherwise available in the summer days that are
    gone. The reference to an ‘Indian’ of royal blood is evidence just too flimsy.
    And how many pigs, if any, roll around in the mud up there, you’ll have to inform me…..I just don’t know…..maybe Elly May, the Eskimo, can tell you.
    Gods River?

  4. TG McEwan says:

    Hah just noticed that this is a recent novel and Dylan features in later chapters. Maybe it’s littered with shout outs to Dylan lyrics.
    But the politician, police, wedding choir, and either Elvis or MLK as king, all evoked the deep south for me.

  5. Hello Tony, Thanks for posting this interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box and listen to every version of every song.

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