Bob Dylan in 1971 – taking more time out but producing two brilliant songs.

By Tony Attwood

This is part of a series of articles each of which summarises Bob’s compositional work during one year.  A list of the articles so far in this series is given at the end of the article.   To see all the songs Dylan wrote, in the order he wrote them, with links to the reviews on this site, follow one of these lines


After writing 13 songs that we now particularly remember in 1970, including the songs for the New Morning album, Bob took time out in 1971 and left us with just three new songs

  1. When I paint my masterpiece
  2. Watching the river flow
  3. George Jackson

1971 was in fact part one of a two year break from songwriting and made many people (who took note of such things) think that we would never see the massive output of the years up to 1967 again.  In that year he had written 22 songs that were to be remembered, but since then the totals had been

  • 1968: 1 song
  • 1969: 8 songs
  • 1970: 13 songs
  • 1971: 3 songs

Worse, for those who were concerned about such things, there was considerable criticism of some of the songs on “New Morning” – a feeling that Dylan was recording all that he had, rather than (as in the past) the best of a very, very good bunch of new compositions.

What’s more, from the time of his first album in 1962 until the 1990s, this was the longest period that Dylan went without releasing an album of new material.

Of course the volume of composition is nothing without the brilliance of the content – but brilliance and volume was what we had before 1968, for six solid years.  If we thought that 1970, with the composition of “New Morning” was a return to the ceaseless writing, we were misled.

But there was another issue here, for even with the drying up of compositions in this period Dylan had still produced an album a year after the one year pause in 1968

  • 1969: Nashville Skyline
  • 1970: Self Portrait; New Morning
  • 1971: Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits

But none of the albums were completely new.  The 1971 album included only one new composition “Watching the River Flow” – although the song only crept into the bottom of the top 40 charts and was backed by a song that was not a Dylan original (Spanish is the loving tongue).  As such “greatest hits” is (at least in this regard) a bit of a misnomer.

But let’s take these songs in order.   To my way of thinking When I paint my masterpieceis a masterpiece, a brilliantly inventive piece of music that shows Dylan on the top of his form as a lyricist.   I have tried to bring across some of this in my review of the song, for I do think some of the nuances and references are easily missed, and in this case that is a shame.

As I said at the time of writing the reviews “Masterpiece” pairs with Watching the River Flow, in terms of its consideration of artistic process and for me it really is worth the effort to go back and listen to both of them.

For me the same cannot be said for “George Jackson”  a song that was written quickly and then recorded and released rapidly following the death of Jackson.   Dylan was clearly highly motivated by the subject but even so… irrespective of the facts of the case, for it is just isn’t a very exciting song.

Dylan year by year – the series

Dylan in 1961: The Overview

Dylan in 1962: The Overview

Dylan in 1963: the overview – Dylan the storyteller part 1

Bob Dylan in 1964: the overview. Dylan the storyteller part 2.

Bob Dylan in 1965: the overview – the year Dylan invented two totally new forms of music.

Dylan in 1966 the overview: writing songs while the band patiently waits

Dylan in 1967: the overview.   A year of two, or maybe three halves.

Bob Dylan in 1968 – the overview.  As his country pulls itself apart, Dylan takes a year out.

Bob Dylan in 1969: everything is lovely

Dylan in 1970: a stuttering return to song writing.



  1. Can Bob Dylan sue himself for plagiaizing himself?

    “I woke up this mornin’/
    There were tears in my bed”
    (George Jackson)

    “Well I wake up in the morning/
    There’s frogs inside my socks”
    (On The Road Again)

    Who’d pay the court costs?

  2. Well I woke up this morning.
    and realized
    Amagedon is here.
    All the english speaking people will soon be mute or sued to death.

    goodmorning goodmorning goodmorning
    Happy I am not one of them.

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