Obviously Five Believers; understanding the music and lyrics of the Dylan song

There is a quote that Heylin uses and which turns up in lots of other places saying, that the band, at the recording session, made a number of false starts, and Dylan then admonished them saying it was a very easy song.

What no one seems to have picked up on is the fact that it isn’t.  It is downright odd, and if the musicians had not rehearsed it until Dylan’s attempted takes yes it was bound to fall apart.   The morale of the story is, never take Dylan at his word, he could be having you on.

If we were coming to this third side of Blonde on Blonde for the first time we would have noticed that tracks one to four are all marked out by their unusual chord changes.  But here Dylan tricks us again, and instead gives us the chords of the classic 12 bar blues.  It is not the chords that change – it is the whole “12 bar” thing.

The trick to understanding this song is to compare it musically the Muddy Waters “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” on which Five Believers is based.  (You can also use Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”)    The Muddy Waters song itself doesn’t fit properly into the 12 bar structure, but Dylan goes further for what we get with “Five Believers” is a ten bar 12 bar blues.  There are eight bars of singing and two bars of instrumental at the end.  No wonder the musicians kept falling over it.

1: Early in the mornin’
2: Early in the mornin’
3: I’m callin’ you to
4 I’m callin’ you to
5: Please come home [6 – instrumental]
7: Yes, I guess I could make it without you
8: If I just didn’t feel so all alone

[9/10] instrumental

Who knows what it means.  Quite honestly, it probably means nothing other than the fact that he wants the woman.  You can go much further than that, but it is all guesswork.

The verse that gives the song its title is the oddest of them all.

Fifteen jugglers
Fifteen jugglers
Five believers
Five believers
All dressed like men
Tell yo’ mama not to worry because
They’re just my friends

The notion has been put that this verse tells us that this is a song about uncertainty, and I will go along with that, not least because I am uncertain about it.  My guess is he just liked the sound of the words, but if you want to take it as fifteen music critics trying to work out the meanings and five fans believing that every song has a secret message, then fine.

Certainly, as we have seen with those who interpret every song as having a Christian message, you can make the meanings work any way you want, if you try hard enough.

Here’s the opening of the “schoolgirl”

Good mornin’ little schoolgirl
Can I go home with you
Tell your mama and your daddy
That I’m a little school boy too

Finally as we can see from the lyrics, the Chauffeur song is closer to Dylan’s approach

Won’t you be my chauffeur?
Won’t you be my chauffeur?
I wants him to drive me
I wants him to drive me downtown
Yes, he drives so easy
I can’t turn him down

But I don’t want him
But I don’t want him
To be ridin’ these girls
To be ridin’ these girls around
So I’m gonna steal me a pistol
Shoot my chauffeur down

Well, I must buy him
Well, I must buy him
A brand new V8
A brand new V8 Ford
Then he won’t need no passengers
I will be his load

Going to let my chauffeur
Going to let my chauffeur
Drive me around the
Drive me around the world
Then he can be my little boy
Yes, I’ll be his girl

Index to all the songs on the site

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6 Responses to Obviously Five Believers; understanding the music and lyrics of the Dylan song

  1. Oh! I had no idea that Dylan’s song is so closely related to “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl!”
    Great comments, but one small error. You counted the song wrong; it’s 20 bars long, not 10. I’d analyze Dylan’s song as a 16-bar blues plus a 4-measure instrumental tag.

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Charley, it just depends on how you hear it – whether it is a slow 4/4 pulse or a fast 4/4 pulse. Since Dylan never writes his music out we’ll never know – it is just interpretation.

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan concerns himself a lot with the issue of faith and works in the search for mercy. There are five gold stars awaiting five believers:

    1)Blessed is the man who endureth temptation; for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life (James 1:12)

    2)And when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receivethe crown of glory that fadeth not away (Peter I, 5:4)

    3)For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?(Thessalonians I, 2:19)

    4)Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown;
    but we an incorruptible(Corinthians I, 9:25)

    5)Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give at
    that day(Timothy II, 4:8)

    Dylan wonders what in hell does all that mean.

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    *a crown of righteousness, which…

  5. Care Moolb says:

    Oy…..Corinthians!??!?!? It’s a [Dylanesque] straight-shootin ‘ Chicago-style blues rave-up. The main riff which leads into every verse, made genius by Buttrey and McCoy (the bass and drums that would carry John Wesley Harding along the cove), is delicious, and, although a subjective process lyric interpretaion is, I have always seen the five believers as those insane, lovable maniacs who joined him to traipse around the globe and back him in his mercurial quest to inject R&R with some Mesabi iron range electricity! As for three times the jugglers, we might have an homage to a world-tour road crew. Al in all can only fall, with a crashing but FAR from meaningless blow!!!!

  6. Nate maxson says:

    A really mind blowing connection is that the instrumentation on the song bears a striking resemblance to “In The Mood” by Glenn Miller. Play them back to back, it’s really weird.

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