Bob Dylan’s compositions of 1962 and their themes: what was Dylan doing in his first prolific year?

By Tony Attwood

The Chronology Files of Bob Dylan for 1961 show that Bob wrote four songs that are particularly remembered today (although not considered in any way to be masterpieces), three of which are strongly related to life in New York, one a talking blues making fun of the “Bear Mountain Picnic” story, and two which take existing folk songs and adapt them to an urban rather than the traditionally rural setting.

That, by and large, was 1961 – a preparation for the first major year of composition.

1962 was Dylan’s  first year of writing songs that are still recalled today by the public beyond Bob Dylan aficionados, and having got his feet on the floor, Dylan continued to be not just incredibly prolific but also incredibly varied.  Indeed for six straight years Dylan wrote around 20 songs a year that can be called significant compositions, either because they were on his LPs, or because others recorded them, or because they have subsequently been considered “lost gems”.  It was an extraordinary achievement over an extraordinary six years.

So the question is, what was Dylan doing in 1962, his first full year of composing?

My answer simply is that Bob was writing songs around themes and concepts that he knew well from the music he listened to.  And he was borrowing melodies from wherever he pleased, because that is what the musicians of the past whom Dylan so admired, readily did.  They worked and re-worked the traditional music, the traditional lyrics and the traditional themes.

Therefore the question to be answered is, “what were these themes?”

I’ve tried to give a one line sketch after each of the songs of 1962, (with a link of course to the review of the song), and basically they come down to the following themes (allowing of course for the fact that some songs have more than one theme within them.)

Of course this list is flawed.  It is my interpretation of the key element of each song, and then an attempt to bind these songs into groups.  And given that some of the songs are in a group of their own, that’s not very helpful either.  But if you can improve the list, please do.

Dylan’s themes of 1962

  1. Death (1)
  2. It’s up to each of us how we see the world (1)
  3. Leaving, moving on (3)
  4. Lost love (2)
  5. Optimism (1)
  6. Protest (7); broken down into, protest against racism (1); protest against right wing politics (1); Protest against war and the way society is going (4); protest against poverty (1).
  7. Robert Johnson style blues (4)
  8. The social outsider / rejection of being a hero (3)

Except… as you might imagine I have been pouring over these songs for years, firstly collecting together the songs written just in this year, and then reviewing each one, trying to find antecedents where possible.  And believe me I have turned this list upside down and inside out time and time again, and I fully admit there are other ways of interpreting.  This is just the best I can do.

Some of these themes stayed with Dylan for years to come – particularly such themes as that of the outsider, and moving on.  And of course love and lost love.

But if nothing else the list does show us that the notion of Dylan as the king of protest music, is, at least as 1962 is concerned, an analysis that is flawed.  It is an analysis based only a tiny number of the compositions of the year.

There’s one other point.   In looking at the order in which Dylan wrote the songs (and as always I admit it is not a perfect order), we can see an ebb and flow.  The first seven songs, for example

  1. Ballad for a friend
  2. Rambling Gambling Willie
  3. Standing on the highway
  4. Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
  5. Let me die in my footsteps
  6. Blowing in the wind 
  7. Corrina Corrina

Dylan covers a wide range of different approaches. He didn’t start out as a latter day Robert Johnson, for the first seven songs were all from different arenas.   It was only after that, that having written one Johnson type song (Standing on the highway) he wrong two more, one after the other (Quit your Lowdown Ways and Down the Highway.)

After that we had one lost love song (Tomorrow is a long time) followed by three protest songs, Hard Rain’s a gonna fallBallad of Hollis Brown and John Brown

Then came the great song of leaving – the song of the loner walking away, Don’t think twice followed by the most curious oddity of the year: Paths of Victory.   Instead of protesting, or just walking away, suddenly Dylan is telling us that everything will be ok.

But it was just a one off because we then get four songs emphasising the negative side of life, Walking Down the LineOxford TownKingsport TownHero Blues, and rounding the year off, another Robert Johnson blues Whatcha Gonna Do?

What is interesting in all this is that protest music is there in 1962, but it is not the dominant feature – it shares its position with Robert Johnson style blues, and songs of walking away, being the loner.   But mostly Bob is walking down that long lonesome road, babe.

Perhaps Dylan got his protest music reputation not just from “Blowing in the wind” and “Don’t think twice”, but also from the fact that he hardly touched the three central themes of popular music: love, lost love and dance.   Listen to the top 40 of 1962 and those themes dominate the music, as they have done through most of the popular music’s reign as the supreme artistic forms from the 1950s onwards.

Dylan gave us none of this in his breakthrough year save for two lost love songs, “Corina, Corina”, and “Tomorrow is a long time”.

No wonder the world perked up its ears and took notice.  Not only did Dylan sing differently and write different types of songs, he wrote about different subjects.  And you didn’t need any musical education to grasp that.

But let me finish with the middle section of the list of compositions:

I think many people would pronounce that Hard Rain was the stand out song of the year – and yet when you look at the songs composed immediately before and after Hard Rain you can see there is little (if any) connection.   Hard Rain is an absolute monument to Dylan’s genius in itself, but we have little to guide us as to where exactly this explosion came from.

Perhaps the answer is “Let me die in my footsteps” which got Bob thinking along these lines.  But certainly when we look at the songs in the order written it is most curious to see just how close Paths of Victory was after Hard Rain.

Hard Rain however stands in isolation – there was little before it to prepare us for the song, and no real aftermath.  It is just there, on its own.

Here is the complete list of compositions in order…

1962 

  1. Ballad for a friend (Blues; Death)
  2. Rambling Gambling Willie
  3. Standing on the highway (Blues)
  4. Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues (Right wing protest)
  5. Let me die in my footsteps (We’ve forgotten how to live – protest about nuclear war)
  6. Blowing in the wind  (It’s not the world, it’s the way you see the world)
  7. Corrina Corrina (Lost love)
  8. Quit your Lowdown Ways
  9. Down the Highway (Lost love, Song of Leaving)
  10. Tomorrow is a long time (Lost love)
  11. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall (War protest)
  12. Ballad of Hollis Brown (Rural protest)
  13. John Brown (War protest)
  14. Don’t think twice (Song of Leaving)
  15. Paths of Victory. (The future will be fine)
  16. Walking Down the Line
  17. Oxford Town (Racism Protest)
  18. Kingsport Town (lost love, moving on)
  19. Hero Blues (I just want to be me, not your hero)
  20. Whatcha Gonna Do?  (Robert Johnson blues)

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there.

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3 Responses to Bob Dylan’s compositions of 1962 and their themes: what was Dylan doing in his first prolific year?

  1. Jerry Hallier says:

    Hi Tony. Thanks for the interesting overviews of 1961 and 1962. A song Dylan recorded informally at the end of 1961, which also falls into the theme of ‘leaving’, is ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’. While not recorded for the Freewheelin’ album, it too seems to reflect the widening of Dylan’s songwriting focus found in the songs you refer to from 1962. I assume this song was not considered for inclusion on Freewheelin’ because it was overtaken by the flood of songs about leaving which Dylan was beginning to write. Still, for me, ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’ is a song I love and return to regularly.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Yes, indeed, Mr. Attwood; see my comments on
    “Ballad of Donald White” under “Tangled Up In Blue.”

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    “There’s danger on the ocean where the waves roll mountain high/
    There’s danger on the battlefield/
    Where the angry bullets fly”
    (Peter Emberly)

    “And there’s danger on the ocean/
    Where the salt sea waves split high/
    And thete’s danger on the battlefield/
    Where the shells of bullets fly”
    (Ballad of Donald White)

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