“If you belonged to me” the meaning of the music and lyrics of the Wilburys song

By Tony Attwood

This is one of the Wilbury Volume 3 songs that is very obviously a Dylan piece from beginning to end, a sort of reversal of “She to Belongs to Me.”   But I must admit that both these titles have always made me feel somewhat awkward in terms of their possessiveness.  However maybe I was just brought up differently from Dylan when it comes to the question of “owning” a woman.  It’s just not something I would want to say or sing about.

A woman – just like any man – might be making bad choices, and of course the duty of friends is to offer support and help, and indeed to offer an alternative future, but in the end we all make our own worlds.  Or at least that is how it seems to me.   Traditional rock ‘n’ roll has it otherwise though.  That’s always been its problem.

But perhaps my problem with the song is that it is just too trite, and too obvious.  Except of course where we do get the occasional amusing line such as, “You say let’s go to the rodeo to see some cowboy fall.”

The trouble with such fun and games as that though, is that we then get hit by,

The guy your with is a ruthless pimp
Everybody knows
Every cent he takes from you
Goes straight up his nose.

It doesn’t quite fit with the rodeo comment.  In fact the song is more like a set of disconnected snapshots, rather than a coherent story, and somehow comes across to me as a song written very much in a hurry.

The other link we find here

You’re saying that you’re all washed up
Got nothing else to give.
Seems like you would’ve figured out
How long you have to live

is a sort of mirror image of Positively 4th Street

You say you lost your faith
But that’s not where it’s at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

except that in “Belonged to me” the singer wants her, although he is berating her behaviour.  In “4th Street” he’s showing total disdain, and the disdain is so much more powerful, the song so much more focused than in this later effort.

My unhappiness about “If you belonged to me” thus comes from the feeling (and it is nothing more than that, just a feeling) that Dylan was coming up with some good lines and then rushing in with the rest of the lyrics to complete the song, adding lyrics whether they particularly fit or not.  For example with

Waltzing round the room tonight
In someone else’s clothes.
You’re always coming out of things
Smelling like a rose.

the last two line neither follow from the first two, nor have the power of the image of the first two.  “Smelling like a rose” has all the sign of being quickly thrown in to make the rhyme.  Which is a shame, because within the context of pop and rock, I can’t think of anything else that has the image of waltzing in someone else’s clothes.  It deserved a better second couplet than it got, in my view.

In the end

Waltzing round the room tonight
In someone else’s clothes.

and

You say let’s go to the rodeo
And see some cowboy fall.

are the stand out couplets, and the rest of the song seems rather ordinary – a reflection I am sure of the short amount of time Bob had to write the song while a) no one else in the Wilburys seemed to have very many ideas at all and b) he was also producing “Under the Red Sky”, and c) getting ready to go on tour.

Here’s a link to the song, in case you don’t have the album.

What is on the site

1: Over 360 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.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

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 please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

 

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3 Responses to “If you belonged to me” the meaning of the music and lyrics of the Wilburys song

  1. Rob Geurtsen says:

    There is another Dylan performance song to think of in this case is, ‘You Belong To Me’. I know it from the soundtrack of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The collection on Spotify puts on display a rich sound palette, with music and lyrics worth analyzing.

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Many thanks for that Rob. I didn’t know that recording.

  3. Hello Tony, thanks for posting this interesting analysis. Join us insode Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/291/If-You-Belonged-to-Me and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.

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