Jelly Bean: an insight into the workings of Bob Dylan’s musical mind

By Tony Attwood

The opening of “Jelly Bean” – the second track from disc six of the Complete Basement Tapes (the collection put together on one disc as they have inferior recording quality) has an opening to the melody line that has a strong feel of “Summertime Blues” although slower and meaner.

The meanness stays with the song although the melody changes quite a bit and the piece does speed up as it goes along.   Rolling Stone calls it a half formed song and yes it is just a sketch of an idea – so what we have here are the very first moments of a composition – moments that are normally lost because the composer goes back and changes the work and then changes it again and again.  Indeed in Dylan’s case the changes often continue long after recording.

In an overview of the whole of the Basement Tapes, the website has run an article that asks. “Is Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes Too Revered?” and continues by adding, “There’s also several CDs worth of much less compelling stuff….”

The article then goes through a series of compositions the writer does not like and ends dismissively with “odd jams like Jelly Bean and Any Time.”

I think that is unfair and incomplete.  “Jelly Bean” is not a jam in the sense of one man playing a sequence and everyone joining in, but rather something that has some basics worked out, including an interesting style and approach, and on top of which Dylan is adding more and more possibilities.  “Odd jam” seems to me to be far to dismissive and derisive for this piece, and lacking in any sort of insight into the song.

That is not to say that I believe my thoughts on the song are right, but rather that it is all too easy to dismiss these songs because they are not finished.  For many of them do contain in their proto state far more opportunities for evolution than the vast majority of completed pop, rock and blues songs.  That is Dylan’s skill.

The basic riff is hypnotic and what it makes it interesting is that we are led to thinking this is going to be another 12 bar blues in B flat, but it turns into something else.   Half an hour of work by Dylan and this could be evolved into something really worthwhile.

By the third verse the riff has become

Bb / Eb / Bb / Eb / Bb repeat

Eb / F….. Eb   F

With a descending melody line at the  Eb to F.  It is interesting and promising.

My point here is that Bob has taken Summertime Blues as a starting point, slowed it right down, and changed the accompaniment, and by the third verse turned it into something quite different.

A little more work, and then a few hours on the lyrics and we’d have a good song – but in fact it was just left never to be touched again.

And this really is the point of the Complete Basement Tapes.  Not for us to put on the dsc and sit down and consider as examples of fine music well recorded, but rather to appreciate the early sketches that led to the songs, and appreciate just how many potentially highly worthwhile works could have been produced from this sketch.

The tragedy of the Basement Tapes is indeed that it is repeatedly considered as if it is a complete work of art.  It is not.  It is a sketchbook of tantalisingly incomplete ideas, of huge value to anyone who wants to understand Dylan’s art at the time.  The tragedy of the Bootleg series is not that it was released but rather than we do not have sketches in this sort of depth for every single album and all the way through Bob’s life.

Maybe if he had cut ten days out of his touring each year and spent them just doing what he did on the Basement Tapes, we’d have dozens more gems.

We do of course have quite a few bits and pieces of songs left behind by Bob,  but it is these initial sketches without words that lead us into the workings of Dylan’s musical mind.

I can’t attempt the lyrics of this song, but here’s the Haiku

One in the morning
And Bob’s baby’s upside down,
And Bob is crying.

Haiku 61

There is also on the internet a video of “Dylan and Jelly Bean” but it is a film of a dog swimming in a swimming pool.  I rather suspect the owner of the dog must be rather bemused at the number of hits the You Tube video is getting.

What else is on the site?

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains links to reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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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