One line to carry with you: why Dylan’s lyrics are so important for so many people

By Tony Attwood

A short while ago I wrote an article in response to the accusation that some of us who like Bob Dylan’s music, were in fact obsessed by Bob Dylan.

I thought it was a rather personal reflection – not something that many would read or find interesting – but still a subject that I felt like exploring.  So I published it, and to my utter surprise, it has become the most read on this site since it was published.  And thus I began to think, where does this take us, in our attempts to understand not just Bob Dylan, but the impact Bob Dylan has had?

We know that in the early days Dylan had many imitators – that is of course always the case with anyone who suddenly appears and causes a sensation.   But because he has changed style so many times both in terms of lyrics and of music, no one else has followed him.  His output of around 500 songs is quite extraordinary – although far short of the 1500 Irving Berlin is thought to have written in total.  And indeed like Dylan, Berlin wrote songs that reach beyond time.  “White Christmas”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “There’s no business like show business”….

And indeed the list of truly inspirational and culture defining song writers could go on and on – Jerome Kerr, George Gershwin, Cole Porter…

But I think there are many other things to be said about Bob’s influence on the world since the start of the 1960s.

If we consider other popular cultural artists some have innovated musically;  one would include the Beatles in this, and continue through a whole plethora of different artists – Frank Zappa is an obvious one, Paul Simon.. and then so many others who have made a huge impact but whose fan base is much smaller.  I’d put David Byrne right at the top, and so many others … Bruce Hornsby… I could create a very long and indeed very boring list, not necessarily of favourites, but of major influencers.

However with Dylan there is something else.  The longevity of his career, of course.  The enormous number of people who go to his gigs.  The sheer volume of his creativity.  The multiplicity of styles…  all of that marks him out from the rest – except perhaps Irving Berlin – the only songwriter I can think of whose sheer scale of achievement in songwriting should be set alongside Dylan.

But still there is more, in my view, and that is what I want to try (perhaps, I fear, rather painfully and slowly) and explore.  The impact Bob has had on the lives of individuals, on popular music, and indeed (without becoming too hopelessly pompous) western civilisation.

So I have to start somewhere and let me try this: the way individual songs and indeed individual lines from Bob Dylan, have each come to signify something enormously important in many individual people’s lives.

In what follows I would not dream of citing how other people react to Dylan’s words, but I would say I have noted across the years and decades that other people like me have lines from Dylan that they carry with them.   Lines like

“Someone’s got it in for me…”

It is not that I am paranoid – at least I don’t think I am – but that line has lived with me from the first moment I heard it.  Yes, of course, I was taken by “Idiot Wind” – a masterful composition if ever there was one, but today that line is all I need.  It is as if I can hear that line in my head, and in that self-same instance I hear the whole song.  Indeed part of the utter brilliance of that song is that opening line that encapsulates all that comes after it.

My experience in life has been that if one puts one’s head over the parapet (which in my life has meant writing contentious articles and books or of late writing experimental articles on my Facebook page, of a type I’ve not seen anyone else try) one gets criticism.  Often quite virulent criticism.  Criticism by and large for trying something different.

And yep, occasionally I get to think, “Someone’s got it in for me”.  But the fact Bob experienced it first and put it in a song, makes me think, well, he got it far worse than me so I am sure I can shrug it off.

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?”

The same again – that line gives me the whole song – and something else in this case.  A visual image of the room.   At the same time I am taken back to when I first heard the song.

Now, of course, many of us relate songs to specifics in our lives – the song that becomes “our song” for a couple as they fall in love, and so on.  But “Ain’t it just like the night” is not that – it manages to be symbolic of my whole life at the time I first hear it.  Living in a really run down room, being poor, desperately wanting to be a writer but having no idea how to make the breakthrough, and slipping in and out of affairs and relationships which I don’t think made any sense at the time, and certainly make a lot less sense now as I try and remember what actually was going on.

In other words “Ain’t it just like the night” and “Someone’s got it in for me” have become shorthand for a whole raft of emotions, and situations that I have experienced.

And the list goes on

“My love she speaks like silence” does not talk to me of a lover I have had the honour of knowing, but my image of a woman I would like to know, or have known.  The perfect companion.  Independent, free thinking, but for some reason (which I have never quite been able to fathom) wanting to spend time with me.

And this one is a particularly interesting phrase, because in my discussions with friends as I have been building up to writing this article, this is the line that kept coming up.  That one line seems to reverberate perhaps more than almost any other in the Dylan lexicon.

And if at this point we pause for a moment and ask, “who else writes lines like this?” I am really not too sure.   There are a few lines from other artists, of course.   Sitting here writing this article suddenly, “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings” comes to mind, and I have oft quoted the Talking Heads album title “Stop Making Sense” in my writing.

But these are occasionals.  I am not sure that anyone has done so many lines that within themselves incorporate such a fundamental ability to attach themselves to one’s life, as Dylan.

I’ll offer another

“The river whispers in my ear, I’ve hardly a penny to my name”

In my conversations that opening to Tell Ol Bill has surprised people as one that I pick, and yet it encapsulates the whole issue of having had a life, having had all these incredible experiences, and now having nothing, just looking back and trying to make sense of it all.  That’s not my experience; I’ve done OK.  But it allows me to understand that experience in an incredibly intense way.

And here I want to re-iterate a point.  I am not building a list of lines from Dylan that I like, but rather quotations from Dylan that within themselves encapsulate a whole raft of feelings, emotions, experiences, visions… they are lines which have become part of the way in which I can open doors into my past, and consider what I was, what happened to me, what I did, what I felt, and how I dealt with it all – as well as experiencing other emotional situations that I have never experienced.

So yes, often totally introspective – but there is nothing wrong with that as long as it is balanced by an outward looking daily life.  As long as one lives in the future (in terms of planning and hope) and present (by understanding where one is) then reworking the past is no bad thing.

Indeed I recall reading some years ago the psychological theory that posits the notion that none of us has immediate access to all our memories – we are highly selective in the memories that we regularly access.  Happy people, it is argued, are people who have taken their memories and woven them together into view of their past that they are very happy with.

In simple terms a billionaire might be miserable because he recalls a set of deals in which he felt he was cheated.  He doesn’t focus on the pleasure the money has given him, but on the times when he didn’t come out on top.  It is not how successful you have been, but the bits that you choose to focus on.

Thus in this theory it is not the past that creates our happiness or sadness, but the way we blend bits of our past together to make our present view of ourselves and our worlds.

I think there is a lot to be said for this approach (and I am very annoyed with myself by not being able to recall the book in which I read this, nor the author), but the lines

The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on

have come to signify part of this approach to my life, and so once again I have a complete short cut to a mode of feelings, a very complex set of ideas, and indeed an incredibly complex song, just by remembering two lines.  I know some of my past was difficult and troubling, but most of the time I did indeed know how to keep on keeping on.

As for Dylan’s lines that are part of my life, there are so many others.   Sometimes it is not just the lyrics, but the way the line is delivered.  If I think of

If you want me to, Yes!

I actually think not of the album version but the way Isis was sung on the Rolling Thunder tour (at least I think it was the Rolling Thunder tour – I am sure I will be quickly corrected if I am wrong) – and it is the shout on “Yes!” – the absolute affirmation of life within that word and that line, that I carry with me.

So the simple lines can mean a lot – even if their meanings at one level are trite

Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t

is self evidently true.  But that’s not the point – the point is also that we are still in charge of our own emotions and reactions.

As a person who writes a couple of blogs that (rather pleasingly for me) get fair sized audiences, I’m used to getting abuse.  Not so much here (but it does happen) but particularly on my football (soccer) blog. Indeed like other bloggers occasionally I get extreme abuse and threats – so strong that I have needed to call the police.  (The law on such matters may differ in different countries but in England if something is an offence if said face to face then it is an offence if said at a distance via the internet.  So as it is an offence to say to a person that you are going to kill that person and do horrific things to his family, face to face, so it is an offence in English law to pour out that bile as a comment on a blog).

Such things can be very upsetting, of course, but then if one is a blogger dealing with a topic that can engage passions and emotions, that can happen.  One needs to be able to cope without getting into a set of exchanges that makes things worse.   “Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t” is a nifty way of remembering that.

Now all this is not to say that I spend my life defining reality in Bob Dylan lines, but rather to say that they are occasionally there as ways of dealing with life.  So are many other lines of poetry, words of advice from close friends, and so on.

Let me end with just a couple more.

Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

is something I have spent my life waiting for an opportunity to say to a lady, but never quite found the moment.  But I’m still hopeful!

A friend suggested to me that in real life we never get to that point until we get to our death bed – but then being an atheist that doesn’t work for me either.  But I can imagine the moment.  Just like I can imagine Lord Montague Street without having the slightest notion of where it is and what it is and why (or if) it is significant.  I don’t want to go – I know it would spoil the image.

And of course, the line I chose for the key phrase of this blog.

I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours

In a sense that is what this little piece is all about.  Helping myself make sense of a personal life which has seen so many twists and turns, while living through one of the great revolutions of mankind (the introduction of the internet), something which I think in the future will be seen as the third revolution after the agrarian revolution of the 18th century, and the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Dylan doesn’t give me phrases that replace real experience or send me into a dreamworld – he has offered me phrases that give me a shorthand access to emotions, feelings, events, issues, concepts etc that have cropped up in a life lived in what can be a challenging profession – earning a living as a writer, while extolling to anyone who cares to listen, the benefits to both individuals and society at large, of being creative in all one does.

Now it may well be that there are many, many poets, songwriters, novelists, playwrights etc whom others have found offer them the same service in their lives as Dylan has given me.  Of course.  But I haven’t found them, nor have I found people writing about them.  Dylan in this regard is, I think, unique.

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,

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.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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 (which is not complete) 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.


  1. What about?
    “When I paint my masterpiece”

    I find a lot of his poems rather amusing.

    ” Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
    Dodging lions and wastin’ time
    Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see ’em
    Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb
    Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory
    When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese
    Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
    When I paint my masterpiece

    Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola
    Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola”

    You have to have reached a certain age to find it amusing.
    I find it very amusing.

  2. “The masters make the rules for the wise men and the fools.” I don’t know how Bob had such a deep understanding, at such a young age, of the dark side of business, politics, and the other institutions that are so damaged by this truth.

  3. As a man who is often cynical about human civilization and sometimes accused of misanthropy these lines from Mississippi perfectly represent my plea for understanding.

    Well the ship’s been split to splinters, it’s sinking fast,
    We’re drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past,
    But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free,
    I got nothing but affection for those who sail with me.

  4. “People disagreeing everywhere ya look
    Makes ya wanna stop and read a book
    Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street that was really shook
    This old river keeps a rolling though, no matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
    And I’ll just sit here so contentedly and watch the river flow.

    That’s the one that I relate most to.

  5. “In the courtyard of the golden sun
    You stand and fight or you break and run
    You went and lost your lovely head
    For a drink of wine and a crust of bread”

  6. “If you cannot bring good news then don’t bring any”.

    The Wicked Messenger, every line is brilliant, probably his best put down, since Positive fourth street, we all knew people like that, much to our detriment.

  7. I may help you with “Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
    Things should start to get interesting right about now” .
    I think this line is typical of a Dylan line which does not look like transcendent poetry, but reflects deeply on many situations in our lives.
    I use this line many times -In the beginning of what my wife calls- “ yours favorite “depressing” and/or “boring” shows” (theater, movie, exhibition), and when there is a significant physical effort associated reaching some goal –standing 3 hours in line to get tickets to a Broadway show.
    Another excellent line which comes to mind in many situations is: “we are idiots babe, It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

  8. “The lessons of life can’t be learned in a day.”

    That’s one that sticks with me as I wander lost in this perilous period of my life. No details, but things are really tough for me right now.

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