Bob Dylan in 2000/1: an old approach to writing songs, and a new approach too.

By Tony Attwood

Song of the Year: Honest with Me 

Returning to composition in 1996 after a five year break, Dylan spread the writing of Time Out of Mind across late 1996 and early 1997, and then once again stopped composing.  Clearly the old approach of writing in hotel rooms had long since gone.

However in 1999, in response to a specific request, he wrote the majestic “Things have changed” but then again rested in terms of writing anything new until 2001 when he produced most of the “Love and Theft” songs.

Of course Bob already had Mississippi available and he could have looked to develop that side of his writing, to make a coherent album, but he didn’t.  Instead he started out with two songs that are musically quite simple – a 12 bar blues Summer Days  and a 12 bar blues variant Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.

And after that we had … another 12 bar blues: Honest with Me  a song I will come back to later, and then we had Lonesome Day Blues  which is as the name suggests, a 12 bar blues.

So Dylan wrote four 12 bar blues type songs in a row… and then…

And then suddenly Bob changed with the completely different feel of a song, which really has absolutely nothing to do with the blues at all: Bye and bye.   This was followed by a song with exactly the same feel as Bye and Bye: Floater (Too much to ask)

Now of course we don’t get this feel of blues blues blues and then a sudden change on the album, because the album includes Mississippi (which itself had a major impact) and the tracks are (as always) not included on the album in the order written.

But in terms of writing, next came Moonlight and that continues the same theme – it is almost as if Dylan had suddenly discovered the music of the 30s and decided to play some games by taking odd phrases and themes and exploring where they can go.

Po’ Boy goes down the same route and if one had been privy to Bob’s compositions as they appeared one would surely have wondered what next.  After all we had had four 12 bar blues followed by four songs that look back to the music of a totally different tradition.

More of the same?  Back to the 12 bars?

No, because this is Dylan and he never does what we expect.  What we got was  High Water (for Charley Patton); a pure masterpiece of painting a disturbing picture – a song that now, years on, I can still listen to with much interest and enthusiasm.

Cry a While written next takes us back to the blues – with the interesting bit of fun of the changing rhythm and styles within one song.

I don’t know if Bob thought of Sugar Baby as an album ender – but that is what it became and indeed it is perfect for this mixture of blues and other genres and it was the last of the album to be written – although not the last song of the year.

For Waitin’ for You was written after Sugar Baby, but of course was not on the album, it was written for a movie.  My review, (and yes I know it is terribly wrong to quote oneself, but what I said when writing the review still seems to me to be right) said “This is odd.  I mean, really odd.”

There’s no point my saying any more about this song, because I simply don’t get it.  There’s a link in the review so if you don’t know it you can hear it now.

The album is made up of good songs – far better than most pop, rock and blues composers can do but for me there are none here that I really want to come back to over and over.  Three stand out for me, but not as absolutely all time amazing Dylan songs.  And one of those Mississippi was written for the previous album, and is harmed in my view, through the choice of the wrong version.  But with Dylan it was ever thus.

Of course I know the review that says, “this is an album populated by rogues, con men, outcasts, gamblers, gunfighters and desperadoes, many of them with nothing to lose, some of them out of their minds, all of them quintessentially American.”  And that suggests the whole album should be incredibly exciting and interesting.  Like what an album by the amazing novelist Thomas Pynchon would sound like – if he made albums.

But… it never comes across to me like that – and as I have oft said before, I am sure this is my failing, not the failing of the music.  And in my defence I might say perhaps that my problem is that I am just too English.  Not so utterly English that I can’t get Thomas Pynchon, but too English to grasp the absolute Americaness of this album.

My review of “Honest with Me” has the subtitle “a missed work of genius” and to a degree that’s what I feel about quite a bit of this album.  I do like this song a lot, and would be delighted to be hear it at a Dylan concert – just as I was to come back to it while writing this article.  But I stick with the title of my little piece – and my view that this is Dylan reflecting too much on his understanding of America, and being an American, for it to have the universal impact that many of his songs can have.

And of course I don’t really have a relationship with the title even, which I now know comes from “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class”.  Yes, I know now what Blackface Minstrelsy was, and I’ve watched a TV programme on it, but at the time the album came out, no I would have been hard pressed to explain.

There are also all the “theft” bits – the music and lyrics nicked from elsewhere.  Again I got some of it straight off (I tried to explain this particularly in my long winded ramble about Lonesome Road), but by no means all of it.

Heylin makes the point that this album suffered from being recorded in just 12 days immediately after the band had come off the road and certainly Dylan’s voice sounds shot.  But it is not the voice that I don’t like that much, it is just the songs.  As I say, I am sure it is just me being not American enough.

For my song of the year I choose “High Water” because I just enjoy the whole effect.  As for the album itself, it was Mississippi that grabbed me and made me want to play it over and over and over.  But of course that wasn’t written this year.

But now I would like to add, if I may, a little postscript.

When I started writing this site I would, of course, look to see if Wikipedia had a review of the song in question, and if so, what they had to say.   Mostly I would find myself thinking, “ok but I am not sure that gets us very far” and then plod on with my own review.

Except that after a year or so, as I started to get an audience here, two or three times I added a note to a Wiki review saying something like, “An alternative view has been provided by the Untold Dylan site which argues…”

Obviously I only did this where I thought my review was making an alternative and valid point, and that I could add a new additional perspective to the review, but the Great Editorial Gang of Wikipedia didn’t like it.  Not because they disagreed with the points I made, but because I wasn’t famous enough – which to me seemed the wrong criteria to use.   Anyway took out my handful of extra notes and told me to shut up.  I was not considered a suitably qualified person to make a comment.

And so I learned – for Wiki it was not the originality or intellectual validity of a point that was made that allowed it to be quoted, but the fame of the person.  I thought that a shame, but dutifully shut up and just carried on building this site.  However today, on preparing this piece, I had a look at the Wiki review of the album, just to get another perspective, and found this comment tucked away therein:

In a critique, “A missed work of genius”, Tony Attwood compares the lyrics of “Honest With Me” with Dylan’s 1965 song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues“, concluding that the former song is “utter brilliance”[3]

So now it seems I am acceptable – at least to one Wiki editor.  Nice to know.

Anyway, I do think “Honest with me” along with “High Water” are the stand out songs written this year.  But I still suspect I am just not American enough to understand it all completely.

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.  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 and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines


One comment

  1. I think you have made an Impressive comprehensive scientific work on the subject of Bob Dylans music and poetry.

    I can´t give you the Nobel price – but I can give you

    Babettes Scientific Price: Understanding Art and Culture

    and of cause we will have a virtuel feast to celebrate your price.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *