Narrow Way: Bob Dylan’s absolutely ultimate most brilliant blues ever

by Tony Attwood

This review updated 23 Feb 2018, correcting a mistaken historical reference and adding a link to the song on Spotify.  There is also a clarification about the war of 1812, and much more in relation to this song in Larry Fyf’fe’s article “The Not So Narrow Road That Leads To Dylan’s Door”

If this song had been on Highway 61 Revisited it would be known world-wide as a Dylan masterpiece.  As it is, coming so much later in his career it is seen by some as just another Dylan blues.  There’s also been a lot of comment on the Biblical references throughout – but I would argue that neither the “another Dylan blues” nor the Biblical approach give us a full understanding of this song.

A blues yes, but not just another blues.  After all how many blues do you know that are 15 bars long?  You have to go back to the early days of the blues and to people like Robert Johnson to find such things.  Today it is 16 or 12, but not 15.  No way.  And as for the Bible – there may Biblical references, but if we take them as pointing us in a certain direction, what does it all mean?

However as we get going on “Narrow Way” we must note that not everyone is convinced.  The endless conundrums posed in the words are too much for some.  The LA Times for example is reported as having said, it “rolls like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ with a flat tire.”

The music is the fast blues which sets the scene for a song about life and the difficulties of life – and indeed the inequalities of life.  And it starts out just as a blues should.  (The lyrics here are taken from various web sites and my own listening – curiously has refused to put the lyrics up so their page on the song remains profoundly empty).

I’m gonna walk across the desert ’til I’m in my right mind.
I won’t even think about what I left behind
Nothing back there anyway that I can call my own
Go back home, leave me alone
It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way
If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday

So are we into Matthew 7:14 with “Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”   The origin presumably of straight and narrow as a common phrase.  But then Dylan likes phrases like this, such as “Everybody’s moving if they ain’t already there” (Mississippi).   They don’t have, and don’t all have to have, Biblical connotations.

Verse two however takes us somewhere else…

Ever since the British burned the White House down
There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town
I saw you drinking from an empty cup
I saw you buried and I saw you dug up

This certainly isn’t the Bible but relates I presume to the War of 1812. And this is where we have to start thinking, “this may use religious imagery but that does not make it a religious song.  Take verse one and two together and you have a man saying, “I am not straight with the world, but that is because since the War of 1812 the country where I was brought up has not been right with itself – or the world.  Old ideas are set aside (for example in the 1960s) and now they have been resurrected.  (Either that or Dylan is suddenly talking about vampires, which seems extremely unlikely).

Yes the empty cup could be from the last supper, but that starts to stretch the connection with the British burning the White House down to breaking point.

Look down angel from the skies
Help my weary soul to rise
I kissed your cheek, I dragged your plough
You broke my heart, I was your friend ’til now.

And this is where the pattern begins – Dylan could be talking throughout about his country or about his girlfriend.  But given later lines about men and women, the country theme fits best.

I won’t continue with reference to the Bible – other writers have done it far more comprehensively than I could – but I would continue my argument that the theme of Biblical references as a theme of Dylan stating that the Bible is not right; the Second Coming is going to destroy most of you, really has to stretch a point with many of the lyrics.  To me it makes much more sense to say that Dylan knows his Bible as many people of his up bringing and well publicised conversion do, but that does not mean he is using the references to talk about either the Second Coming or elements of the Old Testament in general.

What we have to remember is that Dylan has chosen a bouncy lively 15 bar blues that pays tribute to the music of the black musicians of the first half of the 20th century to deliver this song.  Thus although the lines

You went and lost your lovely head
For a drink of wine and a crust of bread

could have Last Supper connotations but they could also be a metaphor for the way in which the USA has utterly lost its way in both home policies and foreign policies (and we are talking here of a songwriter who has been given a medal by his President).

Thus when we bounce further along with

We looted and we plundered on distant shores
Why is my share not equal to yours?

it is hard to know what this is about other than American imperialism (and I write this as a UK citizen whose country has done more than its fair share of plundering on distant shores).

Your father left you, your mother too
Even death has washed it’s hands of you

then suggests that the founding fathers of the USA have been left far behind – so far behind that you now have nothing to hang on to.  In which case

This is a hard country to stay alive in
Blades are everywhere, and they’re breaking my skin
I’m armed to the hilt and I’m struggling hard
You won’t get out of here unscarred.

speaks for itself.

If we are following the theme of America past and present however we then have to see the Cake Walk as the old slave dance – symbolising the fact that even the slave era had occasional lighter moments which continued into black culture.  Dylan is thus looking at the fact that America is now a union of black and white, with its first black president now in office.

Cake walking baby, you could do no wrong
Put your arms around me where they belong
I wanna take you on a roller coaster ride

I don’t mind admitting that as the song draws to a conclusion so the meanings increase in obscurity.  Maybe many of the lines mean nothing – they are there because they sound good – just as the 15 bar approach sounds good.  Without Bob Dylan telling us we don’t know, but that is no reason for not trying to find out.


Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these.  We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email

What else is on the site

1: Almost 500 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.

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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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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  1. A very difficult song to analyse but you’ve made some compelling points Tony about the issues of race and US imperialism that still exist today in modern America. Your sense of what Dylan is on about in the song are made more forceful by the fact that the White House was actually burned down in the 1812 War with Britain, not the War of Independence. The 1812 War also marked the emergence of two other issues relevant to your analysis of the song. First, the 1812 War marks the beginning of the separation of slave states in the south from the Northern states which began to abandon slavery. The other issue raised by the 1812 War is that it becomes the first time that the USA look for advantage in other countries. Indeed, the USA saw the war with Britain as an opportunity to capture and incorporate parts of Canada. This goal failed but it was part of the agenda in declaring war on Britain.

  2. In Canada, the War of 1812 is considered a war of
    independence from the United States; the loyal Americans that moved to Canada after the American War of Independence sided with British regulars to protect British North America. The capital Washington was captured and the White House burned then, not before, to revenge the destruction of Canadian property undertaken by the American invaders during the War of 1812.

    From the particular to the universal, ‘Narrow Way’ continues the theme of ‘Desolation Row’:

    “The Titantic sails at dawn/
    And everybody’s shouting/
    Which side are you on?”
    (Dylan: Desolation Row)

    It makes no difference which side of the ship you’re on because the ship is going under, but it makes all the difference whether one can maintain grace under pressure given the circumstances:

    “The passageway was narrow/
    There was blackening in the air”
    (Dylan: The Tempest)

    “It’s a long road/
    It’s a long and narrow road”
    (Dylan: Narrow Way)

    Given the shortness of life, its narrowness in terms of Existential meaning and purpose in a seemingly amoral Universe, Ernest
    Hemingway refused to give into nihilism.

    Likewise, Dylan: there’s hope of peace and love being found within the heart of each individual in spite of it being outwardly distorted and corrupted by organized religion and politics.

  3. Indeed, Narrow Way makes a reference to the Dog
    Of War:

    “That corpse you planted last year in your garden/
    ….Oh, keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to man/
    Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again”
    (TS Eliot: The Wasteland)

    “I saw you buried and I saw you dug up”
    (Bob Dylan: Narrow Way)

  4. The use of religious imagery by Dylan often leads to interpretations that attempt to place the
    meaning of the lyrics into the straightjacket of orthodox religious teachings by interpreters steeped in those teachings since childhood …that Roll On John is about John the Baptist, not John Lennon, to give just one example.
    But many of the lyrics are deliberately written in such a way to lend themselves to more than one point of view, as in modernist Cubist paintings or Vortex poetry.
    It is folly to assert that a viewer or listener has discerned the one and only correct answer as to what the artist intends to present in his/her work when no such intention on the part of the artist existed in the first place.

  5. Means that people aren’t going to make it on their own, it’s a long and narrow way and we need the help of the one who works his way down to us- Christ

  6. Tony, at the time of the War of Independence, there was no White House to burn down; the cornerstone was not laid until 1792!

  7. John – or it means if you don’t free yourself from a narrow way of thinking doom awaits because it leads the killing of rebels like Jesus Christ, John Lennon, and Martin Luther King.

    Dogmatizing Christ’s teaching, closing one’s mind so only one religion is considered the means to salvation, is indeed a narrow way of thinking.

  8. It’s not so difficult. It’s a love song, about break-up and reunion:

    ‘Look down angel, from the skies
    Help my weary soul to rise
    I kissed your cheek, I dragged your plow
    You broke my heart. I was your friend ‘til now’


    ‘You got too many lovers waiting at the wall
    If I had a thousand tongues I couldn’t count them all
    Yesterday I could have thrown them all in the sea
    Today, even one may be too much for me’


    ‘Cake walking baby, you can do no wrong
    Put your arms around me where they belong
    I want to take you on a roller coaster ride
    Lay my hands all over you, tie you to my side’

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