Sara: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

One of the great problems for people who are not creative artists and who they try to interpret and critique artistic works (be they paintings, dance steps, poems or pieces of music) is that they don’t actually have the insight of knowing what it is like to create not just one work of art but another and another.

Ask the songwriter how he/she knows when the song is finished, and much of the time the answer will be a shrug of the shoulders.  It can’t be explained.

And most songwriters will admit that the creation process behind each song is different.  Some just fall from the lips as the piano plays itself, others need nurturing, others evolve over time, some need taking a hammer to, to try and sort them out.

And just as each song is created in a different way, so on completion the songwriter looks back with different feelings.  Sometimes he has set out to write a song about a certain subject and has done it, but sometimes he gets half way through and realises what it was all about – which wasn’t what it was all about at the start. Sometimes no one is clear, and those who claim to know are just making it up.

With the song Sara on Desire we can all be sure that Dylan was writing about his wife in general, since he says her name four times in each chorus, but whether he was writing about her in specifics is another matter. No one ever said songs have to be true, no one ever said every line has to be a truthful description of what actually happened.  No one ever said you can’t spin a tale.

Musically, the first thing to note about Sara is that its a waltz – the pulsing three beats in a bar run all the way through.  It’s not a waltz you’d want to dance, but its still a 3/4 waltz nevertheless.

The second thing we find is that in terms of Dylan’s music it is unique.  It is in a minor key modulating to the relative major in the chorus before returning to the minor in the last line.  Dylan uses minor keys rarely, and this sequence never again, before or after.

The chord structure, for anyone used to playing Dylan, is truly unexpected:

Em Am D Em (repeated) is the verse

G Bm Am D C Em (repeated) is the chorus.

So effectively the verse is in E minor and the chorus is in G major.  And it works perfectly.  Both the use of the triple time, and the use of the minor key are unusual for Dylan.   But together they give a strange backdrop to the lyrics – lyrics which talk of the background environment as well as Sara.

The point about love songs concerning particular people is that the format of a song is fairly rigid, so putting everything that is truthful and deeply felt into a song is very difficult – much easier to take the general idea and then let the imagination fly.

So is it about Sara Dylan?  Yes and no.  Maybe and perhaps.  Up to a point.   But really it doesn’t matter.  It is a beautiful reflective love song.  The fact that we have all heard that she took half the earnings from the songs written during the marriage is really not too important in the context of the song, unless Dylan wants to write a song about that.  Here he doesn’t; he wants to write a song about his love for Sara and what brought them together.

It won’t all be true, it doesn’t have to be true.  After all why would it?  Dylan is the ultimate storyteller.  He gets ideas from the real world and spins them into his tales – a perfectly reasonable and legitimate approach to songwriting. After all we don’t expect Isis to be true, so why should this.    Maybe he did drink white rum in a Portugal bar, but whether he did or not doesn’t actually affect the song.

Thus we can place Sara within this song, a Last Waltz perhaps, after the earlier songs reputed to be about her (Love Minus Zero, and Sad Eyed Lady, with possibly She Belongs to Me – who knows for sure?)

Certainly there are elements within Sara which are in Love Minus Zero. From “My love she speaks like silence” to “Scorpio Sphinx in a calico dress” is quite a journey but yes it sounds like the same woman.

What makes the song work as a song is the way that Dylan moves to the major key for the singing of “Sara Sara” each time but lets the chorus slip back to the minor for the end of the chorus to express his doubts, uncertainties and failings…

You must forgive me my unworthiness

It makes you wonder if she ever did.

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3 Responses to Sara: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Jake says:

    This song might be my favorite of his right now. A few disordered thoughts.

    I like hearing your explanation of the chord changes. Also that it’s a waltz, I didn’t realize it, but the rhythm is so distinctive, and it contributes a lot to the overall feel.

    You mentioned the environments around them, this seems to be a big part of it. As I was thinking about it just now, here is my thought- Sara, whoever she is, seems strangely absent.

    She is there, as the character’s love interest, object of devotion, etc, but we don’t learn much about her. She takes care of him, loves him, has children with him. Aside from that, Sara is more absence. This suggests a few things to me: the song is more about the singer’s feeling than the woman herself (which is fine, not necessarily bad). In this way, it’s about how intense love can become about the feeling more than the actual person out there. Self-absorbed, but in a beautiful way.

    Also, Sara is a “sweet virgin angel,” a “nymph” – she’s barely present, or absent, and a kind of mythical figure. This can be what happens when love turns into a kind of worship or devotion. Maybe the reason there’s so much heartbreak is that Dylan turned Sara from a person into something mystical, superhuman even (and this made her disappear). On the other hand, maybe some inability to deal with the realities of their situation/relationship led Dylan to idealize and make their love into a myth- it might have been an escape from relationship strife (and possibly the difficulties of raising children, and a drug problem the song suggests).

    In the end, I think the way I see the song now is as a kind of perfect enclosed world. The main character/Dylan creates a perfectly beautiful movie of heartbreak and pain and love. The creation of this world is the kind of thing a troubled artist would do, and the kind of troubled artist who would do this would probably also have trouble maintaining a healthy stable marriage. With that I’m tipping my hand that I think it’s about his marriage, but even if it’s not, it could be about other relationships or relationships in a more general way.

  2. Huw says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Tony & Jake. Keep up the good work.
    Btw. I came here because I couldn’t find Sara in the site’s listed songs of BD.

  3. Sarah says:

    Some of my favourite songs about girls are;

    Suzanne by Leonard Cohen

    Annie’s Song by John Denver (written on a cable car after a row)

    Lady Mary – think it might be traditional ? (Judith Durham (Seekers) version)

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