Bob Dylan and Life: those significant lines that can stay with us forever

By Tony Attwood

All great writers seem to have the ability to come up with comments that are both simple in their execution but profound in their deeper meaning.   Lines, the meaning of which are so much deeper than their own surface meaning or even their immediate context.  Lines which can therefore become a shorthand for something else – that something else being what we choose.  And as such they can be lines that will thus stay with us forever.

Such lines might not seem to everyone to be the most profound of statements.  And indeed taken out of context they might seem to mean little – and probably not mean what they meant within the context of the book, the poem, the song…  Indeed taken out of context they might not mean anything at all.   But nonetheless such lines have a power which means they can stay with some people for much of their lives.

It is possible to think of thousands of these “magic lines” and I suspect (although I have never done a survey to prove my point) that I am far from being the only Dylan fan to carry around such lines in his head.

Indeed the line, “To live outside the law you must be honest” from Absolutely Sweet Marie is so often quoted that it has, I suspect, taken on a life of its own.  It has a meaning of course, but the rate at which it is quoted suggests other meanings have been attached that goes far beyond the obvious interpretation.

In terms of its implied (although often unspecified) significance that one seems to be right up there along with TS Eliot’s famous lines from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.

Shakespeare offered goodness knows how many thousands of such phrases, some of which like “To be or not to be that is the question” are repeated so often and so universally known that it is hard now to get back to the deeper meaning. “All the world’s a stage” is probably as universally well known, and yet remains the most powerful metaphor of all time, if we have time to ponder its full meaning, or go back to the play and take in the context.

Other lines which exist outside of their context, however, although popular, are ones that I don’t expect even my friends with whom I exchange thoughts on literature and life, to know.   Thomas Pynchon’s ““If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers,” is with me every day as I have for many years held the view that because the news media both chooses what is the news and then chooses how to comment upon it, that point is of prime importance in reminding us that just because something is in a headline, it doesn’t mean it is important, relevant or even true.

My one example from Dylan that I want to give here is like those examples above, a line that is always there with me, a shorthand route into my perception of how the world works.  I don’t go round saying it to people (that would be a sure way to reduce the number of friends I like to think I have) but it is there in my head, and can be summoned up at any moment.  Like an app on the phone – a quick and simple way into an extremely complex world.

It runs…

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

And I deliberately take that line on its own, without any more of Mississippi, although I am sure you’ll know what follows…

Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t
Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t
I need somethin’ strong to distract my mind
I’m gonna look at you ’til my eyes go blind

They are all vibrant and telling lines, each memorable in its own way, although I am never quite sure of the exact way in which they hang together.  But I only need the first of those lines to give me my entry into a way of seeing the world.  Indeed…

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

… seems to me to be a perfect expression of the way of the world in just ten words.  There are indeed people who will genuinely go out of their way to help, while there are so many others who might seem to be friends but on whom you can’t rely.   They might claim always to be there for you, but so often their protestations belie the fact that this is mere make-believe in their own heads.  They are there for themselves, not primarily for those supposedly closest to them.

Sadly (in my experience – and maybe this is just a reflection on the people I know, rather than people in general) most people seem to be too self-centred genuinely to be there when they are really needed.

Of course they don’t admit to it – there is always the excuse that they are too busy; they have concerns of their own to look after.   But sometimes a bluntness slips out with the shout, “What’s it got to do with me?” or less aggressively, “I’d love to help you but…”

Obviously the importance of “Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t” to me reveals as much about my view of the world as it tells us about Bob, but given the context of the song, I think it does give an insight into one of Dylan’s concerns about the world.

Yet whether it does or not, in one sense that hardly matters.   What I’m really trying to get at is the fact that Bob has managed through his career to write lines which on their own resonate with me, and become a shorthand route into my way of signifying the complex issues that I contemplate from time to time as I ramble my way through life.

And that’s why the line becomes memorable and significant to me.  It is not that Bob Dylan convinced me that the issue of being there for your friends is a fundamental part of being a good guy, but that he has given me a simple hook to hang a complex notion upon.

Which leads to a secondary point: I’m not a guy who simply believes that my way of seeing the world is the only way of looking upon reality – indeed for me it is patently obvious that this is not so.   For many other people however I really do get the feeling that they inhabit a world in which they feel their perception of reality is the only sensible, common sense perception that there is.  If you don’t see the world the way they see the world you are, self-evidently, an idiot.

So in that one simple line, Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t, Dylan reminds me of that observation in general, and a specific element of it in particular.  A complex issue all tied up in just ten words.

To have the ability to create such a line is a rare gift – one reserved for our greatest poets, playwrights and novelists, and it is a gift Dylan has used on multiple occasions.  Not just for me, I think, but for many, many tens of thousands of us, who quite enjoy his music.

Perhaps if there is an interest I might explore one or two other such short significant lines that Bob Dylan has, on occasion, thrown our way.

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


  1. Nice article. Mississippi has many great lines about relationships and one’s life experiences. One of his finest of the decade for me.

    I’ve always referenced this line from Marvell:
    Had we but world enough and time, this coyness, lady were no crime.

    And of course this by Thoreau:
    The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

    I tend to think of myself as one who offers the hand.


  2. Great article. I have 100 Dylan lines in my head and every time I hear them they send a jolt down my spine. From Mississippi I love the verse that ends “you can always come back, but you cant come back all the way” – so bleak but so piercing.

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