Summer Days; Bob Dylan’s brilliant if confusing 12 bar blues.

By Tony Attwood

This review updated July 2018, with help from Larry Fyffe, and it now includes links to two live versions by Dylan, plus a version by Howard Markman and Glenn Workman with The Stone Hill All Stars.

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.  Here’s a live verson

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.

The All Music site says, “Lyrically, this song is preoccupied with growing old (one of the song’s funniest lines being “The girls all say, ‘You’re a worn-out star'”), but the narrator is clearly wanting to enjoy the process, rather than dwell on it (unlike, say, the Dylan of Time Out of Mind). The song is a testament to Dylan’s genius of phrasing. It is easy to assume that only he could sing lines such as “She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past’/I say, ‘You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can'” and make them both funny and profound. A series of highly charged, tightly constructed verses highlight Dylan’s continued skill as a lyricist, but the success of this song is more to do with the way he sings it, rather than what he is saying.”

This second version by Dylan has good filming though the recording isn’t as clear as it might be

And finally I do like this third recording, not least because of the pianist.  He really knows how to play this type of song.  OK the quality of recording is naff, but hell, it’s fun.  It’s by  Howard Markman and Glenn Workman with The Stone Hill All Stars at The 4th Annual Night of 1000 Dylans.  How about that!


Overall 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 ….except for a satire on my part.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. Actually Atwood gets it right -‘Summer Days’ is an out-take from the 1969 ‘The Mask Marauders” album featuring Bob Dylan and others.

    The album was actually produced in ‘a small town near the site of the original Hudson Bay Colony in Canada”.

    The idea came from Dylan; he had earlier recorded there in 1964 while staying at a log cabin provided by the CBC.

  5. Just found another reference. “What looks good in the day at night is another thing” is pretty darn close to the last line in chapter 4, the sun also rises.

  6. Attwood gets the song all mixed up with Dylan’s ‘Red River Shore’ and it’s relation to the Canadian song ‘Red River Valley”, the latter featuring a Metis maiden; a ‘half-breed’, like ‘Joe Two Rivers’ is supposed to be in the CBC’s 1964 log cabin.

    Obviously TA hasn’t visited ‘the Colonies’ lately, likely having heard about the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.

  7. The line that says, ” I’m short on gas my motors starting to stall ” plus the one before it about having eight carburettos and using ’em all, always struck me as being about the aging process, he’s trying his best to ” repeat the party animal past but time is not on his side, it takes longer to recover but he’s still rocking. Reminds me of his other line, ” you say I’m over the hill, you say I’m past my prime “.

  8. So, when it all boils down to the bare bones, we don’t have a clue, do we? Nice try, though.

  9. I’d say Jeremy it is more a case of gathering the evidence and very slowly trying to piece it together. That’s not quite the same as not having a clue. If anything we have too many clues.

  10. God’s River is also the title of a song recorded by the Georgia Blackface performer Emmet Miller in the late 1920s. Remembering that the album’s title “Love and Theft” is taken from Eric Lott’s book on Blackface minstrelsy, I would contend that Miller’s song is the more likely source.

  11. Could be referencing Jimmie Rodgers song ‘The Long Hot Summer’, written by Alex North, from the movie that takes place in the recent South: ‘The long hot summer/Seems to know what a flirt you are’

  12. I agree with this more than other theories. … Just think it’s more simple and direct. I see summer days and nights being gone as symbolizing the next stage of life… entering the autumn years as they say.

    Another thing I see that hasn’t been mentioned is the politician in his jogging shoes (running literally & figuratively) being a reference to Bill Clinton.

    Another live clip:

  13. Then I’ll give it all to you, mama
    Like a Cadillac changing gears

    (Blind Willie McTell: Rough Alley Blues)

  14. Mile by mile, I paddle my old canoe
    I’ll be in heaven when my journey’s over
    For the one I adore
    Is watching the shore
    God’s River
    (Emmit Miller: God’s River)

  15. But I can’t escape from the memory
    From the one I’ll always adore
    All those nights when I lay in the arms
    Of the girl from the Red River Shore
    (Dylan: Red River Shore)

  16. Who said they didn’t understand what this song is about? Is about getting on in life.
    The first verse says it all….
    “I know a place where there’s still something is going on!”
    ” I got a long haired woman and she’s got royal blood”
    “I’m standing on a table proposing a toast to the King” …. “Gonn’ break the roof in—set fire to the place as a parting gift”
    You all should be so lucky when you start seeing the end of the road! Sounds like he’s having fun… 🙂

  17. The book ‘The Genius of Generosity’ came out later so it’s not clear as to Dylan’s reference.

  18. There’s a possible connection to the Freaks movie in which a toast by a midget on a table is raised to the beautiful (circus queen) Clio who’s actually poisoning and marrying another midget for his money; she declines the toast, gets attacked, and severely deformed.

    There’s a quote from the movie in Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.

  19. Interesting interpretations of a mercurial song. It’s one that I have been listening to lately as I try my hand at some 50s rock and roll songwriting.

    I like the idea that the song centers around a wedding (which for Shakespeare was the setting of “comedy”) between the protagonist (a “worn out star”) and an “Indian” woman (that premise is very romantic for Dylan). And also, in Shakespeare comedy (whom I mention because we know Dylan is an avid reader of the playwright), there is a lot that goes on aside from the plot (subplots, quirky characters, questions of identity, birth origins, transvestism, royalty. commoners, etc).

    I would also very much keep a reading of this in the context of the rest of the album, it’s themes and imagery, what we’ve learned was influencing Dylan at the time (the black face minstrel book, the god’s river book, the yakuza book, just to name three).

    I don’t really care about having a coherent narrative to appreciate the lyric, it is eclectic as usual and I doubt we can ever get to the bottom of it. My feeling is that Dylan creates from a highly intuitive place, drawing in the disparate stuff that’s in his mind at the time, and does not create a lyric based on an outline like for a movie screenplay (I’ve always seen his songs as being influenced by cinema, especially in the ingenious way he creates segueways between the lines like scene changes).

    I just look at the themes: Dylan is on the hill (at the top of his game), he’s in love (even thought that is fraught, as usual, with uncertainty especially at his age – 60 – which he comments on with droll self deprecation), and is celebrating life (beginning again with marriage) and giving thanks (to the King/god). There are references to what could be sexual decline (motor is stalling, hammer ringing but nails ain’t goin down) or maybe just to his slowing down due to age (though certainly not creatively) – or that is the perception (girls say he’s a worn out star).

    The protagonist here isn’t just Dyaln, just as in Po’ Boy and Bye and Bye. These are decent but deluded guys. In the latter, the guy is too dumb to know his wife is carrying on in front of him and overpays for things. Here, the older man probably marrying a younger woman who is fickle and he is deluding himself that he is young and she loves him (how can you say you love someone else when you know it’s me all the time?). What a great line. So deluded. The girls have moved on to the young star and he still thinks he’s the one and will always be (can’t repeat the past… of course you can — well, actually you can’t, at least not in the way he thinks he can).

    Dylan repeats the first verse at the end which seems important in that it seems that whatever the hapless chap has been through (marriage, disappointment, etc) he is right back where he began, trying to relive summer (youth) and while he may not be in his youth, he knows how to amuse himself — even with his own folly.

  20. Love and theft. His love was stolen. He was jailed, he was poisoned, she was poisoned. She tought that she loved another, the thief. She ran away. After a lot of years, she is back. She loved him all the time. They are both at a certain age now. But they enjoy each other. Summerdays.

  21. There’s Allen Ginsberg’s:

    Do the meditation, do the meditation, do the meditation, do the meditation
    Learn a little patience
    With generosity, generosity, generosity, and generosity
    (The Last Word On The Blues)

  22. Lincoln’s Address on Temperance in Springfield Illinois on Feb. 22, 1842 contains this line “The demon of intemperance ever seems to have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and of generosity.” In “Summer Days” we find the quote, lightly edited. “politician’s got on his joggin’ shoes, must be runnin’ for office no time to lose, he’s been sucking the blood out of the genius of generosity…” In his address, Lincoln continues “What one of us but can call to mind some dear relative, more promising in youth than all his fellows, who has fallen a sacrifice to his rapacity? He ever seems to have gone forth, like the Egyptian angel of death, commissioned to slay if not the first, the fairest born of every family. ” In Lincoln’s address “he” refers metaphorically to intemperance. In Dylans song, “he” refers to the unnamed politician, perhaps a “Master of War.”

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