Positively 4th Street (1965): the meaning of the music and the lyrics of Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood.  This review revised September 2014

Two lines of music – just eight bars long – repeated over and over and over.

And yet it is brilliant, a song one never tires of because the record is so perfect in its delivery.

Maybe because it is so viscous in its lyrics that the repetition of the eight bars over and over again without variation just brings home that feeling of unresolved hatred. “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend…”

It is the absolute and complete song of disdain.

When has there been another piece with such a strong opening? It is a wall of disgust that pours out from Dylan, attacking the woman (at least we presume it is a woman he is after) while the music continues unchanging, as the emotion is unchanging too.

And even if we have never faced someone with such feelings of hatred, we can all empathize with the notion that “You just want to be on the side that’s winning.” How many people like that do we know?

The musical format – unrelenting strophic – was used by Dylan a lot in his earlier works – verse, verse, verse until he has said all he has to say. It was only later that he moved to ternary form with its “middle 8” section. But nowhere else is it used with such anger, but with such straightness of delivery.

As for the musical chords they just beat it out:

D Em G D

D A G Bm A

No surprises there it just uses the chords we would expect in a song like this.  Over and over.

The message is exquisitely simple: there is a morality in friendship and in love affairs.  You stand by your friends and have time for your friends and do all you possibly can for your friends.  If you don’t you are not a friend.  If you have a lover you don’t just wander around creating heartache and heart breaks.

How many people have turned on supposed friends and said these lines to those who did not stand by them?  And yet that is what people do, time and again?  They want to be on the side that’s winning.   We live in the era of “me me me”.

I didn’t quite get all this when I first heard the song as a schoolkid, but boy have I learned this over the years.   And twice in this long and active life I have experienced the most extraordinarily dramatic moment of all in which two quite separate people, individuals who don’t know each other, have each, quite separately and sincerely and at very different times, said to me, “You saved my life”.   Not in the sense of stopping the on-rushing lorry or pulling the person out of the pond, but in terms of being there when needed – and doing what seemed to me to be right, when all other help seemed to have withered away.

I think I got that sense of morality – that vision that friendship and love means standing by this person no matter what, and being there when needed no matter what – out of this song which I played on the record player, and then endlessly on the piano and guitar, as I sang along to it.

This song, in part, gave me the little bits of good stuff within me, by showing me just what the bad stuff is like.

There’s no variation in tone, melody, chord structure, volume… It just hits you like a rolling wave from which there is never an escape and never will be an escape – and that is how it should be.

Index to all the songs on this site

 

 

There’s no variation in tone, melody, chord structure, volume… It just hits you like a rolling wave from which there is never an escape and never will be an escape.

 

 

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4 Responses to Positively 4th Street (1965): the meaning of the music and the lyrics of Dylan’s song

  1. denis o donovan says:

    well put .Tony

  2. Jim says:

    All I know is that when this song comes on I always stop and listen to the incredible lyrics. Like most of you I have heard the song countless times, but never get tired of hearing it. He is/was a genius, is it any wonder Duluth MN named a street after him.

  3. Bob Dylan fans do you now know the meanings behind this classic song? Well listen to the original and all the great versions inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/498/Positively-4th-Street Come inside and join us.

  4. Tony says:

    This is actually a nasty song, full of hate and resentment towards (maybe) either Irwin Silber or Izzy Young, towards whom Dylan is rumoured to have felt bitter, and both of whom felt that the song was utterly unfair if indeed it was directed at them. Nevertheless it’s very catchy, with as usual with Dylan, good poetic feeling that I don’t think Dylan even really understood that he possessed – he who was just exploiting a market in his own view.

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