Forever Young: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood, updated 12 October 2017

This is one of two reviews of this song on the site.  There is a link to the second review at the end of this piece.


 

This is another Dylan song which he has suggested was written in a short time – but there are occasions when he seems to suggest it took him some time to get it as he wanted.

The song was, by Dylan’s admission written for Jesse Dylan (born 1966), but the problem with the piece was that Dylan couldn’t work out whether it was a folksy number, a fast rock number or a slow more gentle piece.

My view, for what it is worth, is that even when he recorded the famous slow number he still wasn’t quite sure, and for that reason (very much in my opinion as a musician, not because I have any special insight) he got the chorus wrong, turning it into a big dramatic moment, when it would have been much more effective as a gentle refrain, almost singing the young lad to sleep.

Because of that problem (for me) it is a song that sounds much better in my head than it seems to on the recordings I have.  In coming to write this one Wednesday evening at home, I started playing the version on The Essential Bob Dylan, which is the version that starts really well, but just seems to get carried away with itself after the first two verses.

I then tried the other copies I have – one on Biograph which is the folksy 1973 demo version, and then the At Budokan version which has the problem of the Essential version, only a lot more so.

And I suppose because I tend to think about poets like Keats at the drop of a hat, I did think of Keats listening to these three versions over and over as I came to write this.  In particular

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter

It comes from the poem which continues with the lines…

More happy love, more happy, happy love! Forever warm and still to be enjoyed, forever panting and for ever young.

In this poem Keats is expressing a love that will last forever unlike mortal love that eventually fades and vanishes, which pretty much seems to me where Dylan is coming from.

One oddity I did notice was how Dylan has performed the song in two different keys – which is quite unusual.  The version most of us know, the one that I am calling the “Essential” version is in D, making it very easy for everyone to play.  For some reason the other two versions are in F sharp.  I really can’t quite see why.

And, while we are on oddities, here is another.  Dylan is reported to have said that at the time of writing Forever Young he was looking for a response to Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” – a song which some said sounded more like Dylan than Dylan and which Dylan didn’t like.

I can sympathise with Dylan not liking it, although generally I am a great Neil Young fan. But really was “Forever Young” a response?  Was the use of the word “Young” a gentle bit of fun with Neil Young’s name?  Maybe, but if it were, it is hardly profound.

Anyway, here is what Dylan said,

‘The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was “Heart of Gold.” I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to “Heart of Gold.” I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, “Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me”.’

Maybe that was just one of Bob’s little jokes.

As for the music, this is another one of those songs where Dylan makes perfect, perfect use of the descending bass. Listen to the song afresh, and just try and hear what the bass does.  It is exactly how it should be…

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you –

The singing of these opening four lines and the accompaniment are absolutely spot on in every regard – I could listen to this all night.  But we only get a few moments of it, because when we get to “May you build a ladder to the stars” the organist takes the word “stars” as a trigger for all sorts of twinkling sounds which really are far too obvious and ultimately for me extremely frustrating.  I don’t need any silly musical games.  Like I said, it sounds better in my head with no organ.

And then we get to the chorus, and Bob lets go, which is a shame.  All the previous delicacy, already undermined by the organ’s twinkles, is now completely lost.

Dylan recovers for the start of verse two

May you grow up to be righteous 
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth

But then as we get to the “lights surrounding you” so everyone wants to do a fill in, following the organ’s lead in the earlier verse, and all delicacy is thrown overboard.

There is a story that a young woman came into the studio and heard this slow version felt Bob was turning into an old man and told him so.

Heylin reports this with the comment to Bob that he should always “ignore the opinionated outsider!”   On reading it I couldn’t help but feel that such a comment could be made of much that Heylin says.  But yes, here he does have a point.

Forever Young, I think most people agree, is a beautiful, beautiful simple song with an elegant melody and delightful words from a father to his son.  I don’t think the arrangements we have do it justice, but of course with Bob you take what you get.

I guess I’m lucky.  I can sit down and play it on the piano, singing along, and try and get close to the version that I can hear in my head.  No one else hears me, no one else knows.

It works for me.

You’ll find the second review of the song here

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.

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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13 Responses to Forever Young: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Avi says:

    I think the songs inspiration is from the Friday night Blessing of the Children ( Birkat HaBanim ).
    A traditional prayer attributed to Jacob.
    Especially when you consider Dylan’s mention of Jacobs Ladder

  2. you know how picking ones teeth to get that piece of whatever out in bleeding gums—well your screwing w/ forever young and what it means and which version is the right one,etc, results,if you keep at it long enough,has my gums gushing metaphorically speakink–
    and am not arguing about whether none of dylan deserves de and reconstuctive analysis—many’s the hour as a stoned twenty something was joyfully spent debating dylan—
    but this one musical/poem of his needs no explanation—-everyone,whatever age,musical preference.love or dislike of dylan simply says yes to this one–
    i am 80 and going to my aunt’s 100th birthday party in dec,2016, and all surved attendees,ranging from teens to my age all agreed the”blessing,recognition of my aunt’s good life,etc expressed in forever young should be sung out loud–
    anyway—not lppking for debate —-usually find what critics say interesting—just felt sometimes it ain’t broke,don’t fix iy–

  3. Paul says:

    The first time I heard this song was on The Last Waltz and to me that is easily the best version.

  4. Paul says:

    There’s a magic to Last Waltz version that doesn’t come across in the other ones I’ve heard. Robbie’s guitar is fantastic and Bob’s polka dot shirt is pretty great too 🙂

  5. Paul says:

    Did you know that there are two versions of Forever Young (a fast one and a slow version) on the Dylan’s Planet Waves album? Very much worth a listen.

  6. Nicholas says:

    This is a ridiculous “review.” In your opinion, Bob Dylan messed up in his own song and only you know how it is supposed to sound. Haha

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Nicholas as I am sure you know, this site has around 400 articles on it, and I don’t think anywhere they say “only I know”. Indeed I can’t quite see how it is possible to reach such a conclusion. But never mind Each to his own.

  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    Jakob Dylan, sitting with Petty’s two daughters, thinks to himself, ‘Geez, your dad is Tom Petty.”

  9. Simon Norton says:

    I’m always astonished at the popularity of Forever Young. The melody is weak and uninspired, while the whole wretched thing plods along predictably at a turgid pace. All that makes you focus on the words, which is unfortunate given their poor quality. Cliche follows cliche like a particularly tacky greetings card. I’m not against simple Dylan songs – nobody would accuse Lay Lady Lay or Knocking On Heaven’s Door of being complex and I love both of these – but Forever Young is a dud. Perhaps it’s the ultimate Dylan song for people who don’t get Dylan!

  10. TonyAttwood says:

    Simon – never underestimate the simple appeal of emotions to parents about their childen

  11. Mr.Jones says:

    Do you know the version of aged Pete Seeger singing the fast version with a children’s choir? That’s exactly matching the story from above: turning into an old man.

  12. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan references Rudyard Kipling:

    We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung
    And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth
    God help us, for we knew the worst too young
    (Kipling: Gentlemen-Rankers)

  13. Vera-Jane says:

    Yes Avi you are spot on

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