Positively 4th Street: the meaning and the music with an interesting variant

Updated September 2020 with studio outtake

By Tony Attwood.  This review revised September 2014 and April 2018 with two videos added.

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.  (And indeed, although I didn’t realise it when I wrote the original copy of this review, I’m agreeing with Heylin who called it, “one of his greatest ever vocal performances in a studio setting”.

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.  (Although I must admit, coming back to the song some ten years after I wrote the first version of this review, perhaps it is also about everyone who protested about his use of electric guitars).

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 really, really needed – and doing what seemed to me to be right, no matter how long it took and how much effort it took, when all other help seemed to have withered away.

I think I got that sense of morality – that vision that friendship 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.  Because when you’re in this mood there is no escape.  You have to step outside it to start being fully human again.

There are a lot of other people who have performed this song, but few of them (for me at least) have actually managed to do anything which adds to the performance of the song.   

But the nearest I have got to in terms of a version that actually does say something new is this by Simply Red.

Maybe the core of the problem is that the piece is so dominated by the ever repeating melody that there is nothing that can be done with it.


What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about 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 all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

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, links back to our reviews



  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. I understood it was referencing his feelings about Albert Grossman , his manager before some events previous to this song .

  4. Don’t forget the wonderful musical accompaniment. It’s a great piece of music even if you don’t try to make meanings out of the words, and just let their sound, their wonderful delivery, be part of the musical experience. I think far too much mental energy, by far too many people, is spent trying to make meanings out of Bob’s words. As though the meaning of the words is the important part. And that goes for all his songs. For me, the sound of his words as an integral part of the music is their relevance.

  5. “Enmity and envy are the strongest incentives of backbiting”, equals, “I know the reason that you talk behind my back”.

    “Avoid spying, spying fuels the trading of secrets and misinformation and it creates a climate of mistrust”, equals, “if you cannot bring good news then don’t bring any”.

  6. The song is played by Dylan in a Dropped D tuning capoed at the fourth fret and play in F#.

  7. I have loved this music for 50 years now. One comment I would make to the writer is this: I have always assumed Dylan was addressing a man in “Positively 4th Street”. Feels like a rival to me, a professional one, or someone in the recording industry, could be anyone. The level of aggression and the perfect aim he takes at this guy imply to me that they are meeting on level ground, same weight class, so to speak. I don’t feel any polarity in it. Men and women don’t blast each other in quite that way, although it also happens between woman and woman, especially if they are sisters.

    I don’t know who was included when you wrote “we assume” it’s a woman, I sense it came from a bitter place. I’m familiar with it, and I’m a woman.

    Thanks, enjoyed reading.

  8. L. S.

    I have the following problem with the last verse:

    * * * * *
    I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
    and just for that one moment I could be you,
    yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes:
    You’d know what a drag it is to see you
    * * * * *

    This is the problem:

    If the “I” could be “you” at the same moment, they stand in each others’ shoes, isn’t it.
    Well than: if “you” gets to know what a drag it is to see the “you” standing in his, or her, or its shoes, it would seem that “you” knows what a drag it is to see the “I”, wouldn’t it.

    So what’s the pivot here, or what do I overlook?

    All the best from Amsterdam, Netherlands

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