Make you feel my love: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” appears on Time Out of Mind (1997) and was initially released by Billy Joel, before Dylan’s version appeared on the album.  

Since then it has been picked up by many different artists, all of whom have found within it a remarkable balance of music and lyric, evolving around a simple yet perfectly placed musical device.

But this was by no means a song that grabbed public attention for a short while before vanishing.   Adele had a hit with the song in 2008, and quite extraordinarily (for a Dylan song) it turned up in the UK TV series The X Factor, and on the widely viewed UK annual event, Comic Relief.  It was also used as one of the Songs for the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan.  

Even then it was not all over in the UK for “Make you feel my love”, for another hugely popular UK TV series, Strictly Come Dancing featured it before the UK radio station Heart Radio made Adele’s recording of the song the UK’s number one song of all time in its Hall of Fame Top 500.

Indeed the song has appeared in endless TV series, and the video of Adele’s version of the song still appears regularly.

For me this is a beautiful, beautiful song – and all the hidden depths that exist within Dylan’s music (but which those unable to hear the songs without prejudice fail to find), are fully revealed here – if only one takes the moment to appreciate the totality of what is going on.

In keeping with the approach of this site, I’m going to focus on the Dylan recording in Time out of Mind, but that’s not to say I won’t come back to other versions later.

The make up of the Time out of Mind album itself has to be the subject of a separate article, when I finally get around to writing the “conceptual nature of each album” series of articles which has been noted on the site for a while now, but is still not constructed.

But in short, the album starts at a low point, “Love Sick” and then goes down and down into the depths of despair and old age to “Not Dark Yet” before starting an improbable journey up again.  “To Make You Feel My Love” is a fundamental on that journey upwards.

It is a simple love song in one sense – the message is plain, I love you now, I will always love you, if you ever need me, I will be there for you.  It has been said a million times before, but it is none the worse for that.

The metaphor / realism of the first two lines is striking for a popular song.  Who else has ever began a piece in this way?

When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case

Behind this is one of Dylan’s favourite descending bass lines, but here it is different – he’s not descending through the sort of scale that everyone getting formal training on an instrument is made to play over and over again, but rather he’s moving chromatically.  This means if you are playing on a piano you take each note (irrespective of whether it is a black or a white note) and play it in sequence..  To see how this sounds, just go to a piano, find C sharp, and then just go down: C, B, B flat, A, A flat, G and so on.

I’ve written the descending bass notes out with the lyrics below…

[C-sharp] When the rain is blowing [C] in your face
[B] And the whole world is [B flat] on your case
[A] I could offer you a [G sharp] warm embrace
To make you feel my [C sharp] love

To go with this most gentle descent from the metaphor of everything going wrong to the resolution of love there is the perfect accompaniment of piano, organ and bass.  No thudding guitars or drums  – for Dylan has long since learned that you don’t have to fill every song with a band, and most particularly you don’t need an electric guitar or lots of twiddly bits.   If the message is simple, keep the song simple.

But musically there is more.  First C sharp – the key in which the song is written – is a very unusual key for Dylan to work in, and when Dylan goes to a key that he uses rarely, then like all songwriters, he does so to find something unusual.   This he does in the middle 8 where twice he sings a note (on “mind up yet” and “never do you”) which is not in the chord that is being played in the music.

It is a most unusual touch, as are the two chords played at the very start of the piece.  Hearing the song one would expect it to open with the first chord (C sharp major) but listen closely to that opening second and you hear two chords one immediately after the other (G sharp major and C sharp major).  It is the sign that we are stepping up, making the journey back from the depths of Not Dark Yet.   It is a musical “here we go”, or “time to sort this”.

I don’t mean by this that Dylan thinks these devices through – he might have done but it is much more likely that he simply played it, felt it fitted and kept it.  All I’m doing here is seeking to explain why that one little extra introductory chord of G sharp does so much in setting the song up.

Overall to understand this piece you simply need to approach it with an open mind.

The love song and the love poem have a long and honourable place in the tradition of English literature and poetry, and this song deserves a place there, because of the simplicity of the words and the overpowering gentleness of the message.

Indeed there was a series of programmes on BBC Radio 4 in which individuals were asked what piece of music they would leave for their loved ones to find after they themselves have passed on, and one participant in the show chose this, and spoke on it so eloquently for around 10 minutes, and I can fully appreciate why she chose this piece.

It is, in short, a totally uncluttered beautiful song of devotion.

When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love

After that, what else could one possibly say?

Index to the songs

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2 Responses to Make you feel my love: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Sam Chianello says:

    Minutes ago, I heard this piece (for the first time)on YouTube. It’s heartfelt sentiment gave me an emotional experience. Indeed, it reminded me of the Ink Spots rendition of ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’ :
    I’d gladly move the earth for you
    To prove my love, dear, and its worth for you….
    I cried for you, I’d die for you
    I’d tear the stars down from the sky for you….

    Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” hits me the same way.

  2. john says:

    Love the lyrics;love the melody;love to hear Bob Dylan’s meaning and intent come through in his voice; and lastly appreciate the effort the author of this website has put in to explain this masterpiece. Thank you

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