Under the red sky: the meaning behind the music and lyrics of Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

It really is quite hard to work out what I think about this song.  Certainly I must admit it is not a song I’d ever choose to put on the record player, or the CD player; it doesn’t do anything for me.  But that doesn’t mean anything – that of course is just personal taste.

What we do know is that Don Was said that Dylan told him it was about his home town, and one can certainly see that at least in parts this fits.  But then again as Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2006 – that is 16 years later – the studio sessions were something of a muddle, and lacked a clear focus, what with Bob also popping in and out of the Travelling Wilburys at the same time.  So maybe it was about his home town – up to a point.  Maybe it’s about his childhood in his home town.

I think that for me, the problem with the song is that to make lyrics like this work one either needs a form of musical accompaniment that creates a world of its own, so that the lyrics don’t matter, or a melody that is so memorable, that the lyrics just seem to fit no matter what they say.

Dylan has also suggested that at this time he had returned to reading the poetry of William Blake,  but whereas before Dylan was able to find inspiration in such Blake lines as

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

and one can imagine poems such as “Love’s Secret” having an impact

Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly

it is hard to find any Blake antecedent for Under the Red Sky.

What Bob gives us back is, for me, in both the musical form and in the lyrics, uninspiring and owes nothing to William Blake.  Nothing much makes me want to enquire as to what is going on, at least until we get to

This is the key to the kingdom and this is the town
This is the blind horse that leads you around

And with this couplet I change direction because the “blind horse” immediately makes me think not of Blake but of Dylan Thomas’ poem “Because the pleasure bird whistles” where Dylan Thomas writes of the appalling blinding of song birds in the bizarre belief that it will make their singing all the sweeter.

Dylan Thomas’ message however is a clear condemnation of a world that would countenance such activity.

Because the pleasure bird whistles after the hot wires
Shall the blind horse sing sweeter
Convenient bird and beast lie lodged to suffer
The supper and knives of a mood

Bob Dylan starts off in the same direction, but somehow can’t quite find where it all should go…

Let the bird sing, let the bird fly
One day the man in the moon went home and the river went dry
Let the bird sing, let the bird fly
The man in the moon went home and the river went dry

Musically we rock along between E and A but them in the third line bump into a sudden change of atmosphere with C#m, G#m, F#m7, B.   It all seems a bit of a rush, and put there almost to distract us from the fact that he’s just repeating the lines.

The middle 8 does give us a moment of musical interest as it jumps suddenly to G (an unrelated chord) and then B and back to E, as if we’ve taken a journey but got nowhere.   Then the G comes again, but this time sinks back to F#m7 and B – as if to say, no we were not going anywhere at all.

And maybe that’s it.  Bob’s home town really isn’t going anywhere, for there is nowhere for it to go and is symbolic of appalling acts of cruelty to wildlife.  But maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about it at all.  Maybe it is just lines from a song.

I wondered for a while if the picture on the front of the album and CD might give us an idea as to what Bob Dylan was talking about here, and that perhaps the picture was actually a view of Hibbing (not having a clue what Hibbing looked like in earlier times).

The website searchingforagem.com however says

… it was thought the front photograph was taken in Israel, but it was actually in the Mojave Desert in California. The rear photograph shows Bob on a front porch somewhere in the USA, with a US flag in one of the flower urns. Both photographs are copyrighted by Bob himself, but credited to Camouflage Photo, which doesn’t actually exist!

So not Hibbing there.  Maybe not anywhere, maybe not going anywhere.

Maybe it just is.

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

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  1. It’s off to the literary woodshed for Mr. Attwood on this one.

    A great influence on Dylan Thomas, preRomantic
    poet William Blake envisions children losing a kinship with Nature as they journey from the world of childhood innocence into the adult world of experience:

    “Besides, in the sky little birds fly
    And the hills are covered with sheep”
    (Nurse’s Song: Songs Of Innocence: Blake)

    Bob Dylan implores: “Let the bird sing, let the bird fly” (Under The Red Sky).
    He too wants children to enjoy their time of innocence that all-too-soon disappears in experiences on Desolation Row.

    Dylan’s themes remain consistent when his work is considered as a whole. Perspecive changes, of course, as one ages and acquires an adult point of view.

    A characteristic of Dylan’s writing style, as I point out in ‘Spinning Reels Of Ryme’, often varies the original end-rhymes when he makes a tribule to a poet he admires:

    “Kill the beast and feed the swine
    Scale the wall and smoke that vine”
    (Dylan: Unbelievable)

    The optimism of the Romantic, Dylan retains as possible given the circumstances of modern day life. Trying to subdue the beast that reveals itself within mankind, and oneself, (Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?), a very Blakean theme.

    “He turns the devils into swine
    That he might tempt the Jews to dine”
    (The Everlasting Gospel: Blake)

    Dylan compresses his lyrics into hard images,
    but spirits, both good and bad, lie within them.
    Many of so-called ‘expert’ critics on Dylan fail to see them, but I can. It just takes time.

  2. Reels of Rhyme:

    “No, no, let us play for it is yet day
    And we cannot go to sleep
    Besides in the sky, the little birds fly
    And the hills are all covered with sheep”

    Blake rhymes ‘sleep’ with ‘sheep’ while Dylan
    rhymes ‘fly’ with ‘dry’:

    “Let the bird sing, let the bird fly
    The man in the moon went home, and the river went dry.”

  3. Lord Protect My Child: Bob Dylan

    “Just to see him at play makes me smile
    Lord protect my child”

    Blakean, for sure.

  4. About two adults who have become children again because they are extremely fond of each other.

    I hear similarities in melody with ‘Born in Time’.

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