Trouble: The meaning of the music and the lyrics in the Dylan song

If you want to hear the end of the journey that started with “Serve Somebody” you need to listen to “Trouble”.

If you want to understand what turmoil Dylan went through in his mind during the years of the three “religious” albums listen to those two songs, one after the other.

If you ever want an example of just how far removed Clinton Heylin is from understanding the music about which he writes, just read his review of “Trouble” from Shot of Love

He says,

“One supposes a song like this came easily enough – after all, it has no tune, doggerel for the lyric and the most basic blues structure.  How hard can it have been?”

And here we have all the misunderstandings of Dylan, his emotions, his journey and his music all wrapped up in one dismissive paragraph.

Dylan’s musical roots come from two arenas – the blues and folk, and Dylan has paid tribute to the blues on almost every album that he has recorded.  The blues is a specific style and approach to musical expression which allows variations but within set formats.  Yes to some non-musical outsiders the blues just sounds like a very boring repetitive style – but then we have to ask, why do so many musicians return to the blues over and over again?  Why do so many rock musicians love to play the blues?

It is because within the limited structures it offers infinite variation and subtlety.   Indeed through his statement Heylin shows that he not only doesn’t get the blues, he doesn’t understand the whole concept of the holistic nature of piece of music.  It is the lyrics, it is the music, but it is also the overall sound which generates an emotional response which moves beyond the music in the same way that a brilliant novel or a stunning TV drama goes way beyond the words spoken or the action of the participants.  It is the way in which a great work of abstract art goes beyond the colours and shapes into something so profound it can’t be expressed through any direct representation of the world we see.

The sort of dismissive analysis that Heylin brings tells us nothing about anything apart from his prejudice and lack of grasp of music as a totality.    Listen to “Make you feel my love” on Time out of Mind, and you can analyse it through lyrics and chords and melody, but sweeping across that is the power of the emotion in the song.  That emotional content is as important as anything else in Dylan.  If it were not we might as well just do painting by numbers and playing scales, and have done with it.

In fact, vis a vis “Trouble,” Heylin is wrong on every one of his three counts of dismissal.   Of course there is a tune – there is as much of a tune here as blues classics like “Dust my broom” or “Smokestack Lightning” have.

As for, “The most basic blues structure” that is a comment that is wrong on every level.  The most basic blues structure is the 12 bar blues based around a line of song against one chord, the line repeated but against a chord four notes higher up the scale returning to the first chord, and an answering line which descends through the fifth of the scale, the fourth of the scale and back to the tonic – the chord we started with.

To put it another way, the most common approach is

  • Line 1: E major
  • Line 2: A major, E major
  • Line 3: B major 7, A major, E major.

“Trouble” has none of this.  In fact the chords are deliberately hidden behind a sequence of four notes (not chords) F, A flat, B flat, D flat.

What really makes this approach interesting is that this turns the piece to being one in a minor key – which is unusual in rock.  Not unique to Dylan, but a million miles from, “The most basic blues structure.”

To play this you need musicians who really know the blues – musicians who can get away from the dependence on chords, and instead think of melody from a blues perspective.  And that is what Dylan got for this recorded version of “Trouble”

As for the lyric, Dylan has endlessly played with lyrics throughout his songwriting career, from nonsense, to surrealism, to love, to lost love, to disdain…  Dylan also creates great tunes and non-tunes (a perfect example of the non-tune would be “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – the verse is on one note).

Here Dylan sings about fate – that when fate is against you, there is nothing you can do.  Just as when love enters your heart it takes you over and you lose control.  But now he goes further – because now he says, “Fate is always against you, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing you can do.”

Trouble in the city, trouble in the farm
You got your rabbit’s foot, you got your good-luck charm
But they can’t help you none when there’s trouble

Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin’ but trouble

The repetition of the word in the chorus works, because it symbolises the way that when life is against you, one disaster falls on top of another, and for the downtrodden man with no job there is nothing.

Trouble in the water, trouble in the air
Go all the way to the other side of the world, you’ll find trouble there
Revolution even ain’t no solution for trouble

The song is the perfect blues concept – that trouble is just how it is.  It is the essence of mankind.  But it not the Christian concept of man falling from grace by turning his back on God.  It is in fact something far darker than that because mankind always causes trouble but there is no salvation here; there is no way out through serving somebody.

Drought and starvation, packaging of the soul
Persecution, execution, governments out of control
You can see the writing on the wall inviting trouble

Put your ear to the train tracks, put your ear to the ground
You ever feel like you’re never alone even when there’s nobody else around?
Since the beginning of the universe man’s been cursed by trouble

And there we have the end of Dylan the Christian.  Not “since the fall in the garden man’s been cursed by trouble” but from the very start – from the Big Bang.  And even religion (the “packaging of the soul”) is no way out. In this version of reality, even God is trouble.  And just in case you didn’t get that, Dylan stresses it from the other perspective.

Look into infinity, all you see is trouble

What this is, is one of Dylan’s most important pieces.  The fact that he has said that “trouble” is nothing to do with God’s punishment on us for turning away from the worship of God is dramatic in itself, but he is doing it with a walking blues line in a minor key – the ultimate rock music way of expressing that the world has not just gone wrong but is always wrong.

There is no salvation, there’s no pearly gates into Heaven, there is no New Jerusalem, no horsemen of the apocalypse.  There is no hope, it is always like this, on forever into futility and infinity.

This is the most extraordinary statement by Dylan – especially when you compare with “You’ve gotta serve somebody” with its all-encompassing vision that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you have to choose the Devil or the Lord.  Two albums after that Dylan is saying exactly the opposite – it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s all bad news.  It was at the start and it goes on to the end.

So it is not just that Heylin misunderstands the music of the piece and dismisses the words, he also utterly fails to recognise the symbolic importance of what is a very powerful piece of music.  Dylan stands up and says, “there is no future, there is no past, only trouble”.  And if you are going to say that, what format could you ever use other than a walking blues?

If you want an extraordinary experience listen to “Serve somebody” from May 1979 and “Trouble” from May 1981.   Two years it took to make that extraordinary emotional and religious journey, and it was recorded all along the way.

If you ever want to hear an artist working out his beliefs and views as they change, via his art, you can do it here.

List of songs reviewed



  1. Your reading has the virtue of attending to the words, which are bleak. The interpretation seems doubtful to me, given the context of the other songs on the album, notably “Every Grain of Sand,” which closes it, and given that the Bible, which Dylan had been studying so much, has something of a parallel offering, the book of Ecclesiastes.

  2. A very perceptive review and one which provides a good example of how many of Dylan’s apparently ‘simple’ songs are not listened to very carefully, even by the ‘professional’ critics.

  3. ‘Trouble, oh we got trouble/
    Right here in River City/
    With a capital T/
    That rhymes with P/
    And that stands for pool/
    We’re surely got trouble/
    ….trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble’
    (Robert Preston: Ya Got Trouble)

  4. That is, Dylan is presenting a song in high burlesque while Preston’s in low burlesque, but both mock religions’ attempts to explain why things are the way they are, and how getting religious can get out of trouble, even death.
    Whether Dylan was ever seriously ‘reborn’ in the
    in the religious sense is indeed an interesting and seldom asked question.

Leave a Reply

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