By Tony Attwood
I’m not really too sure why people make a fair bit of fuss about this song; it is very much the format that came about when country met rock met blues in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” is mentioned as a source, and although Dylan’s song is certainly not a direct copy it is very much in the style and feel of Domino.
And if it wasn’t Fats Domino that Bob had been listening to that day, then it was someone like him, for although parts of the verse sound like Blueberry, the bridge section comes from somewhere else although annoyingly (for me, probably not for you) I can’t quite place it at the moment. But I have heard it on an earlier song.
As to what it is all about – well, that’s anyone’s guess, if it is about anything at all. And indeed I rather think that along with a number of Basement Tapes song it was indeed about nothing particular and so is about everything. The failure of the political elite to deliver equality, deal with the starving farmers, solve the problems of the miners when their pit was shut, deliver an end to racial intolerance… Or the church to deliver true redemption. Or maybe just everything.
Actually that last one is the one I like best (although that is not to say I have any evidence for it). The failure of all political, social and religious promises. Given the borrowed nature of the music that really does work for me. It makes the song a sort of “It’s all right ma” rockabilly blues. And why not?
Music critic Robert Shelton came up with the notion that “nothing” “echoes the artists dilemma: death versus life, vacuum versus harvest, isolation versus people, silence versus sound, the void versus life-impulse”. I’m not sure that Dylan was thinking that deeply at this point, but it’s a great fun theory when listening to the song again.
For some critics the lyrics are angry for other sad. Who knows – and really I don’t think Bob did. He wrote it in case anyone wanted to record it – one of the collection that was circulated to find takers with the guarantee that Bob would not record the song himself.
The Byrds recorded the song in March 1968 for Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and that version got a substantial amount of praise, and if you don’t know this version I would strongly recommend a listen – the band turns it into a totally different piece. It also has the unusual approach of having a totally different feel for the bridge (the “middle 8”). The whole thing is in conventional 4/4 time – it is what they do in each section that makes it feel so different.
Allmusic describes this version as “pure magic.”
Coming back to the song all these years later what strikes me now is that when I first heard the song all those decades ago I took the chorus as a piece of philosophy, and for me that became the central message.
Nothing is better, nothing is best
Take heed of this and get plenty of rest
In essence saying, there are no valid value judgements to be made. Just accept the world as it is and live in it. A sort of Zen message in fact. So in this regard everyone who tells you what to think, how to behave, what to do, who to be, is just making it up. Instead one should just try to be part of the world.
I’m not trying to say that is right. It just was how I head it in my youth. I found it a helpful tool in my attempts to calm my brain and not endlessly be rushing around trying to do, well, sort of, everything.
In that regards that simple chorus worked for me, but all these years later it all seems a bit… well, obvious. Maybe I’ve become too cynical. Maybe I’ve just grown up.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 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.
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.