Spanish Harlem Incident: The meanings behind Bob Dylan’s extraordinary song

By Tony Attwood

This is one of Dylan’s unsung masterpieces – an extraordinary piece of music to the accompaniment of lyrics about a visit to a fortune teller / possible lover.   (She’s one or the other, or both, possibly at the same time). 

The guitar playing takes us into unknown structures – we can resolve what Dylan plays in the original into recognizable chords, but that’s not what Dylan plays.  The melody likewise flows in a most unDylan-like manner.  The way the second half of the melody in each of the three verses changes so dramatically from the first half is unexpected – almost shocking, certainly surprising – especially because he is so demonstrative.  There is no uncertainty here.

This is the hobo out on the streets, saying “here I am babe looking for direction” in terms of the fortune teller’s palm reading.  It’s hardly unusual in terms of the history of songwriting but there are such unexpected lines that we are forced to sit up and take notice.  Where else is Dylan saying things such as

“I am homeless, come and take me to the reach of your rattling drums.”


“The night is pitch black, come an’ make my pale face fit into place, oh, please!”


“You have slayed me, you have made me, I got to laugh halfways off my heels.
I got to know, babe, will you surround me?  So I can tell if I’m really real.”

What is so remarkable is the context – for this comes from the album that starts with “All I really want to do,” and ends with “It Ain’t Me Babe” – two songs that define Dylan’s obsession with not being trapped by a woman who wants to wrap him up and define his being.   It is an obsession which starts on Freewheeling and continues way into the rock era – and yet here in Spanish Harlem he is proclaiming that this woman can take him and make him into a person – through her he can discover who is really is.

It is this utter reversal of a constant Dylan theme – the laughter and sneering at those around who are defined by others rather than who define themselves, and yet here he is asking the fortune telling lover to do exactly that: to define him, make him, create him.

The fact that the defining words come in the second half of each verse, where the music itself comes alive in such an extraordinary lyrical and chordal fashion shouts out that this is a unique moment in Dylan’s songwriting.  It is a moment to cherish.

What else is on the site?

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

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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.




  1. Amazing song. Just listened to it today. Only he could take a visit to fortune teller and turn it into such a rich masterpiece.

  2. This my favorite Dylan song. Wonderful use of words.dont we all want to know if we are really real?

  3. This has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs. I think it is one of the purest songs ever written about desire. You can almost feel how much he wants this woman as the song builds. Taken in that context, maybe he’s saying that this is the one way he will allow a woman to control him….just a guess.

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