“Tell me” by Bob Dylan; just a sketch that happened to be recorded.

By Tony Attwood

There are three “Tell me” songs by Dylan all told

  • Tell Me – which appeared on Bootleg 1-3 and has never been performed by Bob, which was written in 1983 – the subject of this article.
  • Tell Me that it isn’t true – which appeared on Nashville Skyline and was performed live 76 times between 2000 and 2005.  This was written in 1969.
  • Tell Me Momma which appeared on Bootleg 4 and was played 15 times in 1966 as the introduction to the electric set on the tour but which has never been touched since by Dylan.

Tell Me Momma is a rambling surreal piece that is hard to make any sense out of.  However the emotional theme of this “Tell Me” is very similar to the Nashville Skyline song with lines such

All I would like you to do
Is tell me that it isn’t true

This time he’s asking her if she still loves him rather than is it true she has met someone else, but it is still the same sort of plaintive ballad: the exact opposite of the aggressive Tell Me Momma.

There is some interest in the way the third and fourth lines take off, on a melody of their own but the melody really needs some lyrics of fine distinction to hold the song together, and we don’t get them, in my opinion.

Lines from the second verse such as

Shall I hold you close or shall I let you go by

are fine if there are other lines around which can give a kick or a buzz, or if the melody or rhythm are absolutely attention grabbing, but I find none of these things in this song.  In short the lyrics are not quite lyrical enough, the melody is not quite melodious enough and the rhythm isn’t quite rhythmic enough for the song to work.

I think the clue to the songs problems come with the very first verse – recorded song openings need something to grab the listener (again either in the accompaniment, the lyrics of the melody) but I don’t feel we find any of that here…

Tell me–I’ve got to know
Tell me–tell me before I go
Does that flame still burn, Does that fire still glow
Or has it died out and melted like the snow
Tell me
Tell me

As a simple example of what I am trying to say here, if we take  the song “That’s All Right”  written by Arthur Crudup and performed by Elvis Presley on his first single, the accompaniment and the vocal delivery carry the song through and make many people want to hear it again and again, despite simplistic words

Well, that’s all right, mama
That’s all right for you
That’s all right mama, just anyway you do
Well, that’s all right, that’s all right.
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do 

My point simply is that there needs to be something to grab the listener – and it doesn’t have to be the lyrics.  But with Dylan’s “Tell me” I fear we have nothing to compensate for very ordinary words.  Verse 2 continues

Tell me–what are you focused upon
Tell me–will it come to me after you’re gone
Tell me quick with a glance on the side
Shall I hold you close or shall I let you go by
Tell me
Tell me

The “Shall I hold you” line sounds to me like the sort of thing that a 15 year old boy writes when composing his first attempts at a pop song.  And so the song continues…

Are you lookin’ at me and thinking of somebody else
Can you feel the heat and the beat of my pulse
Do you have any secrets
That will only come out in time
Do you lay in bed and stare at the stars
Is your main friend someone who’s an old acquaintance of ours
Tell me
Tell me

Tell me–what’s in back of them pretty brown eyes
Tell me–behind what door your treasure lies
Ever gone broke in a big way
Ever done the opposite of what the experts say
Tell me
Tell me

What really knocks the song down for me at the end however are the lines

Do you have any morals
Do you have any point of view

Such a bleak and pointed question as “Do you have any morals?” deserves to come from an all powerful song of disdain, a “Rolling Stone” or “Fourth Street” but not this gentle ballad in which the singer is begging the lady to say that she has been faithful.

Is it some kind of game that you’re playin’ with me
Am I imagining something that never can be
Do you have any morals
Do you have any point of view
Is that a smile I see on your face
Will it take you to glory or to disgrace
Tell me
Tell me

By this time, and as I have said so many times before, this is just my opinion, the selected accompaniment style of the sliding guitar has really got too much – it is going nowhere at at all.  Once again this individual element does not matter if there is some other distraction in the music, but here there is not.

Tell me–is my name in your book
Tell me–will you go back and take another look
Tell me the truth, tell me no lies
Are you someone whom anyone prays for or cries
Tell me
Tell me

In short I think the “Tell me” line” came while he was strumming the guitar, and he just filled the rest in with a quick lyric and it doesn’t come off.  Either he is in pain, in which case the lyrics need to be focusing on that pain, or he is blaming her as in the songs of disdain, and we need much more pointed anger.

So for me it doesn’t seem to work either way, and in my view Dylan was quite right never to play it in public nor to put it on a record.  I think it is just a sketch which happened to get recorded.

I’m not sure if Dylan had any control over what was put on the Bootleg album or whether the record company said, “Hey Bob how about we release some of your old recordings and call them the Bootleg series so you get some money from these songs instead of letting the kids rip you off with their own bootleg copies?” and Bob said, “Whatever,” or something like that.   Maybe he thought it was out there anyway, so it might as well be official – which is fair enough.

The fact that the song was written and tried out is no discredit to Dylan – as I have written many times here, all artists in all areas of the arts, have the equivalent to notebooks in which they try ideas out.  Great works don’t come fully formed.  The problem is that when something is put on a record is can imply that it was more than a sketch, and that the artist meant it to be heard and considered as worked through and finished.

The Discussion Group

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The Chronology Files

These files put Dylan’s work in the order written.  You can link to the files here


  1. “Tell Me Mama” (Manchester)was released in 1970, track 1, side 1 of vinyl bootleg album ‘Zimmerman Looking Back’, Trade Mark Of Quality/Zimmer.

  2. “Tell Me”, the other song, “does the fire still glow/
    Or has it died out” reminds of “One minute you love me, the other you don’t” of I Must Love You Too Much.”

    Perhaps, Dylan had in mind Dylan Thomas’ ‘I Have Longed To Move Away’: “Some life might explode…crackling into the air.”

  3. Tel Me Mama….hard to make sense of?….There’s something happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Attwood?

    Economic and sexual exploitation for one thing.
    There’s the fragmented, yet free-flowing, Surrealistic and Freudian imagery referencing John Henry whose hand-held ‘hammer’ got outdone by a steam-driven one: “steam drill/nine pound hammer”. Albert Grossman takes Dylan under his wing in 1962, and a well-known homosexual.

    John Lennon later uses similarly sexually suggestive imagery in his ‘Come Together”;
    The lyrics of the bootleg ‘Tell Me Mana” get revised to in the official version as “John, come and get me some candy”(drugs), apparently a disdainful swipe at the Beatle for taking advantage of such a young innocent clean-cut kid as Dylan. Like Grossman did.
    Grossman, rocknroll’s Citizen Kane, in the film there of loves his ‘Rose Bud’, but in the revised lyrics it’s not a sled:

    “But his painted sled/
    Instead it’s a bed.”
    (Bob Dylan: Tell Me, Mama)


  4. Other errors by the techopeaseant: omit misplaced ‘love’; misspelled : ‘Mama’

    Apparently, Dyla`n has some grudges against Ginsberg, Grossman, and Lennon, and viciously equates economic with sexual exploitation.
    That’s my two cents worth anyway; there’s no criticism intended as to other views.

  5. “Tell Me It Isn’t True”: Dylan, the prophet, sounds the alarm at the coming of disco, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the music industry:

    “They say you’ve been seen with some other man/
    That he’s tall dark and handsome, and you’re holding his hand/
    Darling, I countin’ on you/
    Tell me that it isn’t true.”

  6. Well, your points may be technically correct but the song still sings. Perhaps it’s the subdued and plain language, like a Dylan who was hit so hard that he didn’t put on his usual fancy word-clothes, that makes it so poignant. A back room Dylan, not as gussied up. One of my favorites of his. Plus the rumba or foxtrot rhythm incisively cataloguing as it mocks his despair. Exquisite.

  7. I’ve been a Dylan fanatic since 1962, yes, 1962, and ‘Tell Me’ is one of my favorite songs.
    Great lyrics such as ‘ever done the opposite of what the experts say…tell me’. An unheralded classic. Sorry, you missed the mark.

  8. Wow. I don’t think I could disagree with this any more. And I don’t mean this as an argument: your opinion is worth is much as mine is. But this song, from the first time I heard it, grabbed me as deep obvious truth. One of my favorites.

  9. I like this song and to me it has a completely different meaning. I think it’s about a woman he’s just met and had an attraction to. He’s trying to decide whether to follow up. Who are you? Are you worth my time? Am I worth yours?

    Also, you’re quoting the version played in E. There is another version played in D. The two versions have similar words, but in different orders. The melody is a little different. The D version sounds a little more complicated with some new phrases and some old phrases deleted.

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