Restless Farewell: the meaning and the music of Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

Restless Farewell is a singularly brilliant song of confession and moving on, a song saying this is me, I’ve done my best, and that’s all I can do for that’s how I am.  It is about the singer being “On the road again” as Dylan commented elsewhere.

But it is a song with a tailpiece – the anger at the “false clock”.

Indeed the story is that the song was written and recorded quickly with Dylan seething with anger in response to an interview which Dylan curtailed, and which when it appeared contained a number of what to him were hurtful untruths (although what today we might just consider run of the mill journalist commentary).  I’ll come back to this element within the song in a moment.

It was the last song written for “Times they are a changing” and appears last on the album.  In many ways it strengthens the curious feelings I have about the album, as I expressed in the review of Hollis Brown, for its emotions have nothing at all to do with the title track.  As Hollis Brown is a song about people with a traditional lifestyle seeking desperately to hold it together, so this is a song of constancy and continuation, not of change.   The traveller keeps travelling, he never stops, no matter what happiness and good companionship he is forced to leave behind when he moves on.  It is about the constancy of one’s chosen life, not of social and political change.

Interestingly this theme of constancy and travel is as strong a theme of traditional folk music as it is of the blues – particularly folk music in the Irish tradition (or so it seems to me – but I am not an expert), and it is one that Dylan has picked up on readily throughout his career.  It is “Times they are a changing” that stands apart from the tradition of folk and blues music that Dylan’s work comes from, and songs like Restless Farewell that pay tribute to the tradition.

Restless Farewell is based on the Irish ballad “The Parting Glass” and a comparison of the opening verses of the Dylan’s song and the original shows us just how strong an influence The Parting Glass was on Restless Farewell.

The original (which of course exists in many versions) starts…

Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all
So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
And gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

And Dylan gives us

Oh all the money that in my whole life I did spend
Be it mine right or wrongfully
I let it slip gladly past the hands of my friends
To tie up the time most forcefully
But the bottles are done
And we’ve killed every one
And the table’s full and overflowed
And the corner sign
Says it’s closing time
So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road

The Parting Glass is a song of good memories but is also a song of desperate utter sadness – at least that is how it always gets me.  The traveller in the song is trapped, forever doomed to travel – rather like the traditional concept of the Wandering Jew of mediaeval literature (referred to for example in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale).  No matter what happiness he finds and gives, he has to move on.

There is a difference of course – God has forced the Wandering Jew to wander (as it is in some versions of the tale) to do penance for the sins of his religion.  Thus fate has him trapped.  In the ballads of the folk tradition there is no origin for the cause of the wandering – it is just there.

“But since it fell unto my lot, that I should rise and you should not”, as the folk ballad says, and this is a perfect example of “Song of My Leaving,” in my still far from unfinished classification of Dylan’s songs (I really must get that part of this site together).

The link with the Parting Glass of course is clear in the opening verse  as Dylan sings, “the bottles are done, and we’ve killed every one and the table’s full and overflowed, and the corner sign says it’s closing time” – it is the perfect simple expression of the end of a reflective evening drinking with friends before the traveller gets up and goes on his way, even though his friends and maybe lover are saying “Oh, come on, stay the night…”)  But the traveller cannot.  He is forced onwards, ever onwards.

The Parting Glass concludes

Of all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it fell unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

Fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
And gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

Indeed if one didn’t know Restless Farewell’s lyrics particularly well one could read the first eight lines above and hear them as part of Dylan’s song.

Dylan’s musical structure is a straightforward use of the chords of the folk tradition – the major chords with the minor sixth added as a passing chord.  This is exactly the folk tradition, there is no variation, no movement into the blues, anywhere in sight.  We are in the world of the traditional travelling man.

So on this basis this is a beautiful song and one worthy of a strong positive mention when discussing Dylan. But what gives it an extra strength and interest is that it was re-recorded in 1995 as part of the celebration of Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday, and I would strongly recommend you take a look and listen to this recording.

Which brings us back now to the other factor that we must note is the ending; the attack on the journalist.

The article that upset Dylan, we are told by Heylin and others, was one that appeared in Newsweek, on 4 November  1963.   The article suggested Dylan was not in touch with his parents, when (Heylin and others say) there was no split, and they were in fact in New York to see him play at Carnegie Hall.

Also in the article is the “revelation” that Dylan had paid a school student $1000 for the rights to “Blowin in the Wind.”   This story circulated for a long time, although many sources now say that the student admitted later he had made the story up.  He had heard the folk music original “No More Auction Block” just as Dylan had.

The fact is that as in Restless Farewell, Dylan has often extensively borrowed from the folk and blues traditions of the past, and claimed the songs as his own when he has recorded his variant versions.  That is a fact that we may have our own views on, but this particular article seems to have annoyed Dylan greatly even though several commentators have subsequently pointed out it that is was not especially nasty.  If you are in the public eye, you can expect stuff like this.  (Indeed even this very modest web site gets abusive comments sent in about my commentaries and I just have to ignore them and delete them.  If a correspondent wants to argue a point that’s great but writing in to say that I’m an idiot, that the site is useless and that reading a specific review was an appalling waste of time, seems to me pointless.  If you don’t like it, don’t read it).

So, Newsweek caught Dylan on a bad day or hit a particular nerve (perhaps in relation to his parents) and he reacted to it.

Thus at the end the restlessness of the traveller goes, the apology to the women he’s hurt passes by, and it is his lifestyle that is justified by the claim that this is just the way he is.

But to stay as friends
And make amends
You got to have the time and stay behind
And since my feet are fast
And point from the past
I’ll bid farewell and be down the line

So the song continues until this final verse – a verse that has nothing much to do with the rest of the song, and nothing at all to do with the original folk ballad that Dylan has used as his source.  It is seemingly all about one journalist writing one article in one magazine.

Well a false clock tries to tick out my time

is a fairly strong and dramatic start to this final verse, and Dylan starts putting the pins into the picture stuck on the wall…

To disgrace, distract, and bother me
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face
And the dust of rumours covers me
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick
So I’ll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn

In short he moves from saying, “well this is just how I am – “just gotta keep moving” as Robert Johnson classically said to hitting back at the journalist.

But there is a problem, if one is going to be pedantic (and I say this just to cover all angles academically – I have never really felt there to be a problem when I listen to the song).

Not giving a damn is not what the song is about, either in its original form, or here.  The traveller says, “that is how I am” but he does give a damn.  He is sorry, but acknowledges he can’t change.  Not giving a damn is all about not caring who you hurt and not caring about what others say about you.   Not giving a damn is what Dylan does in many of his Songs of My Leaving.

Dylan was indeed entering the “not give a damn” world, has he continued to go his own way, recording what he wanted to record, not listening to the demands of critics, commentators or fans as he moved in the electric rock, country music, “Self Portrait”, becoming a Christian, moving on from there, and everything else he ventured into.

He wanted to be, and indeed became, the artist with the sketchbook, sketching everything and anything, take it or leave it, not caring about the results.

There is of course one link with all that has gone before… and this comes from the fact that in his “not give a damn” phase he is standing alone, just as the Irish traveller does.  The break in the link is that there is no sadness or regret in Dylan’s last verse.  The link is the fact that he has travelled the musical scenes and explored his own world, meeting his fans at the concerts, and moving on.

It is even possible to see here the announcement of the never ending tour.

So I’ll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn

Each concert done his way, as the traveller moves on, always restless.


I’m just on the road, heading for another joint…  as he said in Tangled up in Blue.

Anyway, you will of course make up your own mind, but in doing so, take a moment to listen to a totally different version of this song.  The accompaniment runs at double speed while the melody is the same.  Even after hearing it twenty times I struggle to understand both why and how he did it.

Back to the index of songs

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Restless Farewell: the meaning and the music of Dylan’s song

  1. Sam Chianello says:

    The insight and wisdom offered here amazes me each time I read it. Now his world wide tour has ended, I wonder if Dylan himself will contribute to ‘Untold Dylan’? Wouldn’t that be something?!

  2. Jason says:

    Great work… Don’t listen to any one who writes you’re an idiot

  3. Joana Isabel says:

    Beautiful song and beautiful music…As a member of Amnesty Interntional , once I ordered CHIMES OF FREEDOM . THE SONGS OF BOB DYLAN…They are full of beautiful meaning to me…

  4. Shawn says:

    Nice article. Hadn’t thought about the last verse being such a cutoff previously. I think he speeded up the song for TV. Maybe just a time issue or because faster might catch the attention more of a new audience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *