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
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
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.