Beyond the Horizon: the sources and meanings within Bob Dylan’s song

by Tony Attwood

To my mind, Beyond the Horizon really doesn’t belong on “Modern Times” but rather on Love and Theft, because it is something of a lifted song – in this case it being a reworking of “Red Sails in the Sunset”.  I offer two different versions here in case you are interested of where Bob got it from…

and a totally different version from Fast Domino.

I love Fats, but really you need to hear Bing to see what the song was really about.   Simplifying the chords and rhythm back to “Blueberry Hill” doesn’t do justice to the composition in my view.

The opening lyrics are…

Red sails in the sunset way out on the sea
Oh carry my loved one home safely to me
He sailed at the dawning, all day I’ve been blue
Red sails in the sunset, I’m trusting in you

Swift wings you must borrow, make straight for the shore
We marry tomorrow and he goes sailing no more
Red sails in the sunset way out on the sea
Oh carry my loved one home safely to me

From which Bob Dylan built

Beyond the horizon, behind the sun
At the end of the rainbow life has only begun
In the long hours of twilight ‘neath the stardust above
Beyond the horizon it is easy to love

My wretched heart’s pounding
I felt an angel’s kiss
My memories are drowning
In mortal bliss

Maybe Bob is saying more than the lyrics via implied meanings and references, but I am not sure it is that much more.  There are nice lines and nice word combinations, and here’s something I missed until Heylin helpfully pointed it out – Bob mentions a Bing film “The Bells of St Mary.”   But beyond that?

What we also have is a set of chords very un-Dylan like but very similar to the original.  And as the Fats Domino version points out, not actually necessary if you want to pound out the melody as if it had been written in 1955 and not twenty years earlier.

Even if chord sequences mean nothing to you, you will I am sure recognise that this is an extraordinarily complex structure for a piece of popular music, and not what we normally associate with a Dylan song…

Here’s Red Sails

D, Dm7, D7, G, Gm7, D, Cdim,  A;

Bm7,  A,  Em7,  A,  Em7,  D,  E7,  A7.

And Bob gives us

D,  D6,  Dmaj7,  Dmaj7/6,  C9/6,   D,  D6,  D,  D6

A7,   Adim,  D7,   D6,  D6,   Dmaj7,  A

Not the same, but the effect is similar and the constant changes of the chords gives the same feel.

One interesting review I have found on line says,

“Beyond The Horizon is a song about transcending the fear of death. It seems to contain all those romantic, corny songs which tell us about a love which will ‘last forever’, and to stretch their sentiments to the logical extreme. It manipulates cliché to go beyond cliché.”

And the review makes the point that Bob has done this as far back as 1969 with Nashville Skyline.

Thus it is argued that “In Beyond The Horizon he assembles a whole song out of clichés,” and ends up looking “into the face of death with a sly shrug and a playful wink.”

And so Beyond the Horizon is another world, a better world, a world after death perhaps, whose image is given to us by using “cliché to go beyond cliché.”

I am however not convinced and I find myself asking, do I really want to see the next world, the promised land, the eternal paradise, through a bunch of phrases that could have been written into many other songs by modestly decent writers, without actually telling us anything.

There are, for me, three problems.   First, too many lines that just don’t quite work.  Second, no overall message or idea that makes one think, “ah that’s interesting”.  Third, the melody is so close to “Red Sails” (which surely everyone with an interest in popular song throughout the years knows inside out) that we’re endlessly reminded of the source.

Let me quote lines from the official web site – the lines on the album and in some of the on stage versions, did change.

I’m touched with desire
What don’t I do?
I’ll throw the logs on the fire
I’ll build my world around you

Now I don’t mean to say that I expect Dylan to make every line a gem – in a song you need some connecting lines to make the whole thing take shape.  But here we are speaking of desire – of overwhelming emotion which takes over the body and soul and demands that nothing else can get in the way.   The person of whom one thinks morning, noon and night, and who can never be set aside.

And we get, “I’ll throw logs on the fire”.

I’ve thought about this a lot to try and make sense of what Bob is doing here.  Is this a contrast of the mundane with the overwhelming love?  Is the fire symbolic of the burning up of all rationality when faced with total love that swamps everything?   Or is it just… a line?

When I first heard this song I wanted it to mean something particular, something special, not so much for itself, because it was written by Bob, and as far as I can tell is what he wrote just before “Nettie Moore”, which is a completely different type of work.  And it was of “Nettie Moore” that Dylan was speaking when he said it was “not just a bunch of random verses”.

In fact I think the use of that phrase does tell us about this song.  I think it is just a bunch of random verses.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, because as Bob has shown, it is possible to create intriguing images and thoughts out of just that.  But here, no, it doesn’t work for me.

So my problem with “Beyond the Horizon” is that I do hear it as a bunch of random verses.  That is not to say that this is what the song is, but that is how it seems to me.  And not for the first time my appreciation of the song is intercepted by knowing the original.

“Red Sails” was written about looking out to sea from Portstewart in Northern Ireland, which now holds the Red Sails Festival each year in honour of the song written about the resort.  There is an image there, a highly romantic image which anyone who has ever been affected by the romanticism of the waves hitting the shore and the boats out at sea will know instantly.  And I don’t think Bob does this image justice.

Sometimes, reworking an old song doesn’t leave me caught between the new and the old, but that is invariably when the new song has something powerful to say.   For myself I can’t find any power in this song’s lyrics, nor merit in reworking such a beautiful tune from 60+ years before.

But then, when it comes to the album, whenever I have heard this song I have always known, next is Nettie Moore, which kind of makes it ok.

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

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.

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7 Responses to Beyond the Horizon: the sources and meanings within Bob Dylan’s song

  1. I didn’t know that! Never heard “Red Sails” and you are right. Dylan should have put it on “Love and Theft” with all the other little gems he nicked from here and there. But other than that I believe the two songs have very little to do with one and other. Red Sails is about an anxious young woman waiting on the shore for her lover to come back from sea and marry her.
    Beyond the horizon is about places we will never reach, things we will never own, no matter how hard we try. And think of the perspective: If my lover sails away, she will be beyond the horizon, and I will not. And when we’re together again, there will be new horizons. This mystical song is worthy of further study.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Beyond the horizon, at the end of the game
    Every step you take, I’m walking just the same

    Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
    Walkin’ ‘Till I’m clean out of sight
    Ain’t Talkin

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    Don’t belong on the same album?….Who among them can think he could outguess you?

  4. Babette says:

    What a beautiful song with Bing Crosby.
    Yes I must admit – Bob Dylan is on the wrong side in the split between common sense and sensibility.

  5. Glenn Cooper says:

    There is one other possible source for this song, or parts of this song. A 1961 book by Grace Rosher called “Beyond the Horizon.” The book deals with the case of a woman whose husband dies and who then begins receiving “correspondences” from him, in the form of automatic writing. The writing was examined by experts and found to be a more less exact replica of the deceased man’s writing. Certain lines in Dylan’s song seem to hint at this “bridging the gap” between this world and the next:

    “At the end of the rainbow life has only begun”

    “Beyond the horizon, across the divide”

    “Around about midnight, we’ll be on the same side” (The woman used to receive her messages late at night.)

    It’s a fairly obscure book and it would be amazing if Dylan had read it, but I can’t help but wonder.

  6. Mark T says:

    The album contains a portrait of Hell – “Ain’t Talkin’ ” – and a portrait of Heaven – “Beyond The Horizon” – It’s fitting they would be on the same record. THIS record.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    And everybody’s shouting
    ‘Which side are you on?’

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