Alberta 1 and 2. The meaning and significance of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

I mentioned in reviewing the “All the tired horses” track from Self Portrait that I had forgotten all about that song until a request was sent in to review it.

My LP Self Portrait has long since gone, but I suspect if it still lives somewhere in some second hand record shop and it were to be played there would be endless scratches at the start of the second track, because what I used to do was play Alberta over and over, by-passing the first track.  Not because I didn’t like “All the Tired Horses” but because I loved Alberta so much.

While the commentaries of the “What is this shit?” variety proliferated by commentators unable to see beyond the end of their typewriters, there were some of us who saw it differently.

Dylan had had one major change of direction from acoustic to “play it fucking loud”, and been roundly condemned.  Now he was at it again, doing his own thing, looking back to the songs that influenced all of us who played in bands at the time and who sought to explore where our music had come from and where it might go.

The point here was that everyone wanted to own Dylan, to control him to tell him what he was and what he was allowed to be.  In fact to make pompous critics and their reviews more important than the man they were reviewing.

It seems incredible these days that such thoughts exist, although in reviewing Dylan’s post-divorce activities with No Time to Think I noted that the promoter of the Japanese tour sent over a list of what songs he wanted to hear, and what he did not want.

This is what Dylan has fought against.  While visual artists, authors, playwrights, dancers – and in fact the whole community of artists can do their thing and have the freedom of time and space to explore their genre, genius rock musicians always find others trying to control their art.  Everyone’s an expert, everyone knows better than Bob.

Like hell they do.

Now I have said on this site many times that I don’t consider myself an artist of high esteem – clearly not – but I have earned my living as a musician and a writer, and in my own way I have my own artistic integrity.  Yes I have often written for other people to their requirements, but there are limits beyond which I don’t go.

So if I can make a few decisions about my own work. Dylan, being the supreme popular musical artist of a generation can certainly decide for himself.  Indeed we may ask, who the hell are these people who seek to tell him what to do?  Just how self-important does a person have to be to be to think he/she can suggest that Dylan is right to do this and wrong to do that.

The two Alberta tracks on Self Portrait are my absolute favourites – they were then and they are now.  They are sung with such care and devotion, arranged with such sympathy for the songs that they are, and they say, “I’m a singer, these songs mean something to me, listen if you wish, but don’t you dare tell me what to do, what to believe, what to say…”

Alberta 1 and 2 are different songs – number 1 is that slow poignant style that Dylan perfected for songs of sadness and goodbye, while number 2 has that characteristic bounce.  I have read that one of the two is in triple time – I can’t see that.  You can make an argument for No 2 being in 2/4 rather than 4/4 but that’s it.  Certainly No 1 is solid 4/4 – you can’t feel it any other way.

The song itself goes back to the 1930s if not earlier.  LeadBelly recorded “Alberta” several times in the 1930s and 40s and Mary Wheeler has it in her 1944 collection with the note that it was collected from Gabriel Hester with the lyrics that we know today.

It might well be a steam boat song – it might not – but either way it has always been incredibly popular – and as people started to value American folk music all over again, rather than discard it (often with the most awful racial overtones in their criticisms) as primitive, so this song as always been a favourite.

Dylan starts with a minor chord – unusual for him (Em) and resolves to D and then to the tonic chord of G.  It is a perfect chordal arrangements in both versions.

Alberta let your hair hang low
Alberta let your hair hang low
I’ll give you more gold
Than your apron can hold
If you’d only let your hair hang low

What Dylan is doing, I believe, is not just recording a song that he loves, and indeed a song that all of us who developed musically through the growth in awareness of where our popular music came from, he is also using the song to talk to his critics – the people who worry about him, while he is far from worrying about himself.  The fools who tell him what to think and what to do.

Alberta what’s on your mind
Alberta what’s on your mind
You keep me worried and bothered
All of the time
Alberta what’s on your mind

These people are getting at him, saying, “We want another Desolation Row, we want another 4th Street” but Dylan is saying, no, I’ve done that, I’ve made my protest, I’ve hit out at people I dislike, and that was just a phase.  I don’t want to criticise like I did in “Rolling Stone”, I don’t want to walk away like “One to many mornings”, I just want to reflect and think, and look at the world afresh.

Alberta don’t you treat me unkind
Alberta don’t you treat me unkind
Oh my heart is so sad
Cause I want you so bad
Alberta don’t you treat me unkind

There is a significance in both versions – just go back to the first version (the second track on the album) and listen to those rotating guitar chords at the very start, before the singing starts.  What does it say to you?

To me it says,

And I ride on a mail train, baby, can’t buy no thrill
Yes, I’ve been up all night, baby, leanin’ on the window sill
Yeah, but if I die on top of the hill
And if I don’t make it, you know my baby will

When everyone is getting at you, it takes a lot to laugh.  So Alberta don’t you treat me unkind.

Genius dismissed as shit.  Wasn’t it ever thus?

Index to all the songs



  1. Rather than focusing on lyrics or the music, it’s a brave fellow who ventures to connect a songwriter/singer’s work to personal aspects of his life unless the work makes the connection rather obvious.
    The problem faced is that the such a reader or listener either accepts at face value what, if any thing, the artist says about the piece or, more dubiously, imputes motives to him/her.

    In the final analysis, ‘Self-Portrait’ is just a damn good album.

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