When the ship comes in

Amidst all the moral relativism of Dylan, all the references to the fact that “you are right on your side, and I’m all right on mine”, all the comments about not following leaders, and the commentary that says that everyone is just a pawn in everyone else’s game, suddenly like a beacon of certainty there is When the Ship Comes In.


Never has Dylan been more certain than here that there is an answer, that you are wrong and these guys (whoever they are) are right.   There is a truth, and I am part of it.


The image of the ship itself takes us back to earlier days – to the time when the British explored the new world.  Wealthy men paid for the ships to sail to the Americas, and if one ever returned then even greater wealth and fortune was yours.  Your ship came in, and you really were made for ever more.


Dylan retains the nautical imagery through the opening verse and a half, and its all a jolly caper of exploration, until we suddenly have


And the words that are used for to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.

The song is now so familiar to us after all these years it is hard to remember what a jolt those lines brought on first hearing.  Words getting the ship confused?   What is all this about?   Every reference until then has been to the nautical adventure.


Then he is back to talking about the ship literally, until  it is the final verse where Dylan suddenly develops this alternative theme, and takes us into a realisation that the ship is a metaphor for change.  We are the new army.  We are the revolution.  Stand aside, for we are the future.  Times they are a changing.  We are David, you are Goliath.


The trouble is we have no idea who or what we are – at least not from this song.  Are we the Jews entering the promised land?  Or the young throwing aside the President of the United States?  Are we overthrowing capitalism, or are we saying no to war and bringing in the world of peace and love.


We don’t know.  In the end it is the sheer vigour and vitality of the song and the guitar playing that carries us through so that after a couple of listens we really don’t care.   It is enough to know that somewhere there is an answer.


The classical structure of the song (every chord is one taken from the major scale – no flattened sevenths or thirds here), emphasises the straightness of the song – this is the positive side of folk singing (a total contrast to North Country Blues.)


We can join in the celebration – and indeed we should.  Because the whole wide world is watching.  Who cares if we don’t know why.  Let’s just enjoy it while we can.


This entry was posted in Bootleg Series volume 3, No Direction Home, The Songs, Times they are a changing. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to When the ship comes in

  1. Done Leat says:

    I always took the lines

    “The words that are used for to get the ship confused
    Shall not be understood as they’re spoken”

    To be another way of talking about sailor slang, like portside or starboard, or words that have different or no meaning to other people.

  2. Joe Judge says:

    In an interview with Joan Baez she says Dylan wrote this song when they were traveling together and they had trouble getting a motel room because the owner didn’t like the way they looked. Apparently this experience of IN-hospitality inspired a song with a theme of magnanimous hospitality, a great welcoming.

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    Bob Dylan still has his roots fused in Transcendental Romantisim, it’s not dark yet though it’s getting there:
    “Time held me green and dying/
    Though I sang in my chains like the sea”.
    (Fern Hill: Dylan Thomas)

    <For the chains of the sea/
    Will have busted in the night/
    And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean".

  4. Jay says:

    when the ship comes in / when Christ returns to call his sheep/ the world will be watching.

  5. Babette says:

    This is a retelling of one of greatest stories from the Bible, when Moses divided the seas with a little help from the Lord.

    Or almost correct retelling . I dont remember anything about this.

    “Oh the fishes will laugh
    As they swim out of the path
    And the seagulls they’ll be smiling”

    Let me see if I can find it.

    No it is not there. :-))

  6. Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/740/When-the-Ship-Comes-In Come and join us inside to listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.

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