Has Bob Dylan now stopped writing songs for good?

by Tony Attwood

Ever since 1968 we’ve had the idea that Bob can and will stop composing from time to time, either because he wants a break or because he has run out of ideas.  But we’ve also had the clear view that after such a pause he’ll be back in full writing mode, and ultimately a new album of original songs will emerge.

So, for example, in 1968, after an incredibly productive run of seven solid years of composing, he wrote one song.  It was a hell of a song (Lay Lady Lay) – but still it was just one song – and it was delivered too late for the movie it was supposed to be in.

Now that particular dead stop was a bit of a shock given the productivity Bob had shown in the previous years – between 15 and 21 songs in each of the years from 1962 onwards, plus that massive outpouring of over 70 more or less completed songs in the Basement Tape year of 1967.

And indeed Dylan then got back to composing regularly with his country songs and the rural idyll that was “New Morning.”   But in 1971/2 he had another slow down, writing four songs and some background music for Billy the Kid over a two year period.  It was our first hint that occasional cessations of the creative flow could be expected.

In 1976 there was another pause and again just one song came forth – while in all the years in between one pause and the next we got the regular output of anything between seven and 18 songs a year.

Through the 1980s and into 1990 it was generally full steam ahead for Bob the Songwriter, but then in 1991/5 it was another stop period.  (There are some songs that are occasionally credited to this era, but as I explain in the chronology files these songs were co-written ventures, with Dylan’s contribution having been written some years before).

Then he was off again until the next slow down which came in 1998-2000 we got just one song.  It was a great song, (Things have changed) but it was just the one.

Of course we have to be realistic here: for anyone else “Things have changed” would be a masterpiece to base one’s entire reputation on, but Bob Dylan the songwriter is not anyone else.  He is that rarity – the person who can write incredibly popular music through almost every decade of this life.

2002/5 was another lean period with just three songs, but then the writing picked up again until 2010, when we had another dead stop.  The final collection of Dylan originals we know about were written in 2011/12, and since then nothing.

Of course we don’t know what’s he’s writing at home or in the hotel room these days, so maybe something more is about to emerge, but four years without any new material is the longest spell there has been with absolutely nothing new emerging.   (Although let me add here, I might have missed a film song or two – if you know of anything written since the Tempest songs of 2012, please do let me have the details.  And if it is totally obvious and I really should have known, be gentle with me in pointing out my ignorance).

But there’s another factor to put into the mix – from 2005, a number of Dylan’s compositions have been highly derivative, taking as their source anything from old blues numbers to romantic Bing Crosby songs.   Of course not all are like this, but there are a few.

So the last album of original material was Together Through Life and it is said that when Bob was asked why he recorded this album at this time when perhaps another album was not really expected he said, “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.”

Of course Bob is notorious for not telling us the whole truth or even any of the truth, but combined with the lack of subsequent releases of new material, this growing time span since the last album of originals, and the persistence of his record company in releasing albums of concert recordings from days long past, and the bootleg series, I think this was a telling phrase.

To me, “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it,” is as clear an indication as we have ever had that not too much is on the horizon.

Thus unless Bob is working in utter secrecy on a new set of songs we are living in the longest period of non-productivity we’ve ever had in a songwriting career that has stretched back around 56 years – and that is not counting those early years before he came to New York.

But I think we have to admit there is no reason why Bob should write any more.  He’s given us all more than enough to be going on with, and just within this little venture we’ve still got around 50 songs from the Basement Tapes era to review, along with four songs from the 2008/2012 era.  And surely for a genius like Bob Dylan it is better to finish on a high rather than bring out an album of songs written by Bob but which are generally thought to be not of his best.

Indeed Bob needn’t worry about Untold Dylan and our venture to review all of his songs because even when we’ve reviewed the remaining four 21st century songs and the rest of the Basement Tapes materials, even then we won’t have finished, because there are those recordings of very early songs around, some of which Bob maybe composed – and I need to check that everything from those CDs and ensure everything from the original Bootleg triple album has been covered.

Plus I think we have to say, for a man who has given us so much pleasure through his creative work, when I write negatively of “a period of writing some songs based around other people’s lyrics and melodies plus a period of nothing much at all, makes it seem like things are running down a bit” – that is just me being greedy.  I’d love there to be more original work, but that is just me, and the excitement I can feel each time a new Dylan CD arrives through the post.

In some ways this current situation is not all bad; what I don’t think any of us want is for Bob to release a collection of songs newly written, but which really are not at his normal level.  For anyone who has ploughed through the whole collection of reives mentioned on this site must surely have noted that aside from the works of genius there are a few songs which leave one wondering why the sketch on the back of a napkin scribbled in a hotel bar actually turned into a recording.

Of course one might hope that someone close to Bob might one day persuade him to listen again to the recording of “To Fall in Love with You”.  Maybe they can slip him a note that says that in the past year on this site the review of that song is the second most accessed article on the entire site.  Only “Hard Rain” has had more page views in the 12 months to 18 August 2017.

And as a side issue, in case you are interested, here is the list of the most read song reviews in the past 12 months – and I would add that there is a huge gap in readership between the top two and the rest.  “To Fall in Love with You” has had twice as many reads as “Tangled.”

  • Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
  • To fall in love with you
  • Tangled up in blue.
  • The times they are a changin
  • Make you feel my love
  • Jokerman
  • Visions of Johanna
  • I shall be released
  • Farewell Angelina

So maybe Bob could go back to “To fall in love with you” and complete the lyrics – it would be a sure fire hit.  (And of course then I could claim that he’d read the notion here and that would keep us going for a bit longer, arguing that one through.

But looking at the gap this time around between today and the last time Bob released an album of his original compositions, and looking at how things have worked in the past, I have a feeling matters have indeed come to an end.

However I can’t be 100% sure, and if we are to get one or more new Dylan songs in the months or years ahead I think this is most likely to happen in one of these ways:

1: Bob does some more taking of ideas from novels, film scripts and other people’s songs, weaving the ideas into something new – although with the danger that Bob himself has highlighted of just coming up with a set of random lines.

2: Another film request comes along which Bob finds interesting.  After all, films have produced some remarkable Dylan work over the years, not least “Things have changed” and “Tell Ol Bill”.

3: Bob finds another song writer he can work with and the power and energy to write more songs comes from the two co-writers each keeping the other on track.

It has to be one or more of those three I suspect.  If not, I really do think the list of Bob Dylan compositions that we have is most likely to be more or less complete.

You can see the list of Dylan compositions in the order in which they were written through these five indexes:

What else 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
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20 Responses to Has Bob Dylan now stopped writing songs for good?

  1. Sweet Lord, you’re somber, Tony. The short version of your article is: we don’t know. I am the optimist here and believe he is going to sweep us off our feet again.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Joost: I notice that the damn autocorrector again over-rode your intented spelling, and replaced ‘sober’ with ‘somber’!

    Sorry….please, forgive me….the Devil made me do it…I tried to stop myself from posting this….but I just couldn’t help myself.

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    ‘intended’ it over-rode also…..well, maybe not.

  4. Kieran says:

    There was 7 years between Under the Red Sky and Time Out Of Mind. Fact is, Bob writes songs, and we have nothing that tells us he’s stopped writing songs. He may even have a bunch of songs recorded, nobody knows, except those on the inside, who would know…

  5. mike says:

    there’s more songs coming,,just wait and see

  6. Rob Davenport says:

    I’m sure Bob will have something he wants to say – in song. It must ne nigh on impossible to stop jotting down notes, when you’ve been doing it all your life. I believe Bob had had enough of the crooners and got them out of the way in one go with Triplicate.

  7. Joe says:

    a comment to: “So the last album of original material was Together Through Life” – well, beyond here lies nothin is “All Your Love I Miss Lovin'” by Otis Rush, My Wife’s Hometown is “Just Wanna Make Love to You” by Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon, Shake Shake Mama is defninitely based on some Charlie Patton song, Jolene is based on some Chuck Berry/Little Richard stuff, Forgetful Heart is a slow version of “The Thrill is Gone” or any other Minor Blues.

    And you can go back and look at any other Dylan album and you will find the songs that inspired his songs, like “Good Morning School Girl” inspired “Obviously 5 Believers” oder “It Hurts Me Too” “Pledging my Time”. That leads to the question: Did Bob ever write an original song? Sure he did, all of them!!

  8. Chris says:

    He’s in a valley creatively, for ten years. Together Through Life was maybe not a throwaway, but definitely Dylan-Lite. He should never work with other songwriters they bring him down. Tempest was a mixed bag at best and not at the level of Time Out Mind, LoveTheft, Modern Times. Christmas in the Heart and now 5! albums worth of standards are all footnotes and not really necessary. I feel greedy wanting more from him too. I do think there will be new material of course, I just hope it’s really good. I’d like to see him work with Lanois again. Pushes him to best material.

  9. daleden says:

    Speaking of not getting the whole story, how about ‘Champaign, Illinois’ (recording released by Carl Perkins n 1969). Was it written earlier by Dylan alone, perhaps the germ of what later became ‘Wanted Man’, or was it something more collaborative that came out Dylan’s Nashville days ? Perkin’s own account was that Dylan played an incomplete version of the song as the two of them sat in Dylan’s dressing room during taping of the first episode of the Johnny Cash television special which was broadcast on Jun 7, 1969. Perkins expressed enthusiasm for the song, but Dylan said he hadn’t come up with anything beyond the first verse, telling Perkins, “Your song. Take it. Finish it.” By that account there was very little direct interaction between the the two credited songwriters (Dylan and Perkins) and Dylan’s contribution is something he could have had in his pocket since 1968 or earlier.

  10. bah…Dillie has songs up his sleeves until next century. when he made Tempest he was going for a certain type of record but says he could not get it and the songs took over…so that would indicate that the record he had in mind is brewing in his cranium of steel! the man has to get his house in order in many areas and records are probably one of the easiest…and bah, a second time because he has been derivative since LP Number One and early years of recorded songs were most taken from reworked standards and especially the type of Celtic ballads which inspired bluegrass. how long did it take for Forever Young to get to am LP? to imagine that what he releases is the sum total of his output is not being realistic in the least, if one knows writing.

  11. Richard Ettinger says:

    Dylan’s made his set of three records celebrating the musical tradition he and others so dramatically disrupted in the 60’s and 70’s. What he does next is up to him.

  12. ben jellen says:

    what about tempest? and the analogy to shakespeare’s “the tempest” being his last work? of course, bob said they’re two different things……along the lines of shakespeare’s having “the” in the title, and his omitting that word.

    you have to believe that an artist creates art….always. no matter if he wanted to step away, it’s not his decision to make. something drives him, uses him as a vessel. i’m sure he’s still writing. whether he chooses to share it or not is up to him

  13. Harry Wilson says:

    Dylan reads too damn much. I’ve heard of artists who overcome their writer’s block by ceasing all reading — except for weather forecasts and grocery lists. Dylan’s on again/off again heroin habit and legendary alcohol abuse don’t help. If I were a friend of his, I’d nag him to try out those sensory deprivation flotation tanks. A few sessions in one might help him access the treasures in his unconscious mind — i.e., the back of the fish truck that loads.

  14. Bob Allison says:

    By my account, he has recorded 8 excellent songs in the past 16 years.

    1) Ain’t Talkin’
    2) Beyond Here Lies Nothing
    3) Soon After Midnight
    4) Long and Wasted Years
    5) Early Roman Kings
    6) Roll on John
    7) Things Have Changed
    8) That Lucky Old Son

  15. Don says:

    He has stopped writing songs for good, but not for evil. People paint parenthood as altruistic, but it’s the most narcissistic thing you can do. When Dylan became a father, the Muse deemed his spirit impure and it stopped channeling visionary songs through his hands and mouth. His reading and quoting the Bible was just another crutch to keep him from slipping in his wicked shadow. Up until 1966, he was an outlaw. But you can’t outdraw or outride metaphysical entities. I’ve learned that myself the hard way.

  16. Kiwipoet says:

    does anybody know exactly how many songs Dylan has composed so far? I’ve heard its over a thousand…

  17. TonyAttwood says:

    On this site if you look in the chronology files you will find it is closer to 500. There is an index also under Every Dylan song

  18. how can you say ‘Times Have Changed” was the catalyst to his new work when it came out in year 2000 and he got the Grammy for best rock vocal for his 1997 LP, Time Out Of Mind…

    expert textpert choking smokers…

  19. Larry Fyffe says:

    I’ve heard that Bob is just taking some time off from writing to restart his used car business.

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