Chimes of Freedom, the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony attwood

Part of the enormous power of Chimes of Freedom is that even 50 years after first hearing it some of the lines can still hit me right in the heart and take me back to my school days when I had was trying (very unsuccessfully) to start my career in the arts – unsure whether I was a great poet, a great songwriter, a great playwright, a great rock n roll pianist, a great novelist or something else. But whatever it was going to be I was going to be great.

And when you are 16 and living in a rural county which still thinks it is 1935, attending a very academic all-boys school and not doing very well academically, lines like

And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

can really have an impact.  He might be someone I’d never get near, living in another continent, sometimes using Americanisms I didn’t understand and singing lyrics that I couldn’t always quite get, but Bob understood.  He was talking to me.

So I’ve lived my life with the song, but still it has this incredible power.  Indeed I feel it is one of the most powerful of all the Dylan songs, perhaps it is the most powerful of them all.

It was written in 1964 and was released on Another Side, and is said to be influenced by Dylan’s interest symbolism or (for Heylin and one or two others), the assassination of Kennedy.

Now Heylin plays a trick quite regularly in his books of acknowledging Dylan’s rejection of a viewpoint, and then telling us that Dylan is wrong and he (Heylin) knows best.

Chimes of Freedom is a typical piece of this nature – as Heylin examines every scrap of paper to produce his point which reaches its climax with the Dylan comment “The whole thing about my reactions to the assassination is overplayed,” before Heylin dismisses this with the line “Pages and pages of poems on the subject in the Margolis and Moss manuscripts belie this assertion.”

The problem is that Heylin, as he reveals repeatedly through his work, knows nothing of music per se, nor anything about the expressive process.  His works are primarily reportage, pulling together facts and detail, not expressing in depth in miniatures (which is what songs in essence are).

Of course I don’t know how Dylan works, beyond what I’ve read, but as a person who has written some 70 odd books and maybe a couple of thousand texts of adverts (the two arenas where my desire for greatness led me in the end), and as a person who has inevitably met and chatted with other minor writers, I know that most of us play with words, change things around and around, start writing about x and end up writing about y.  That’s how it goes.

As the artist sketches his drawings so the writer and composer sketches phrases, endlessly playing with words and ideas.  Indeed this little review has a whole section chopped because it seemed to go round in a circle as I tried to deal with Dylan, Rimbaud, symbolism, Bohemianism and a feeling for the underdog.

But Heylin sees himself as Sherlock Holmes I think, able to look at the evidence and unravel the truth no matter how complex the reality might be.  Unfortunately Holmes was a fiction – no one can really see what another person is thinking and what their motivations were or are, and very very few people who have not earned their living from a specific creative process.   (Conan Doyle was careful to keep Sherlock Holmes well away from highly creative artists most of the time).

Certainly the central element of the song is symbolism representing via the images the raising of the humble and the ordinary to a height above the idealised world of beauty and great thinking.  Everyone can potentially see the beauty of the universe in a grain of sand – we just need to be lifted up and shown how.

Dylan speaks out for the ordinary, the regular people doing regular things and being down-trodden as a reward for not being rich and powerful.   Whether it is true that Dylan was also looking to follow the world of the wild 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud and the other poets of the symbolist era, who can say.  Certainly his life was taking off in all directions, and in the music that followed Dylan’s move into rock there is a strong sense of surrealism (just think of where he had got to by the time of singing, “The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse.”)

So symbolism is dominant in the song, speaking about the ordinary world, and here not a life moving into the wildness of that of Rimbaud and thought patterns moving into the world of surrealism… that was to come later.

The image of the Chimes of Freedom is powerful enough, the fact they are flashing gives us an extra dimension which when combined with the certainty of some of the other lines that we have hope that yes, things can change.  We are, most of us, just ordinary regular folk, but we can aspire to a glimpse of heaven in the flashes of the chimes.  Indeed when seen in that light the symbolism is almost Taoist in nature.

So Dylan stands in the doorway, waiting for the storm to pass.  The symbolism makes him almost a poet of the Norsemen feeling that Thor, the god of thunder, is expressing his feeling for the oppressed.  (As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds is very Thor like, although I don’t think Thor actually cared too much about the weak.)

In a sense Chimes of Freedom is a bridge between the vision of the future in the song The Times They Are A Changing, and the visions of the present that pervade much of the rest of that album as it considers lives in which times are very much not a-changing.  In Chimes of Freedom Dylan offers hope to Hollis Brown and his fellows that times might be able to change.  That things can change.

Thus a significant part of the masterpiece of this work is the combination of sympathy and hope for the oppressed, and for those struggling to express themselves – to make their voices heard amid the tyranny of contemporary life, as with “the countless confused, accused, misused, strung out ones and worse.”

To say that everyday life is intolerable and impossible for some individuals had been a Dylan theme from the start.  But now he is saying it is intolerable and impossible for one hell of a load of people.   He’s saying this is a problem of our society – this is (as he would much later say) a world gone wrong.  We’ve given control of the world to the wrong people.

And worse, in the midst of this impossible society these people with power are now endlessly wanting to tell us what to do and what to think.   They are the “guardians and protectors of the mind.”  The Big Brother of 1984.  While Rimbaud might scream “my mind does not need a guardian” (he didn’t say it but it is easy to imagine him so doing), Dylan leaves the image hanging in the air.  He might almost have been talking to Heylin!

(Incidentally and in passing I should add that the “protectors of the mind” line is musically the one that Dylan took from “Chimes of Trinity” – the melody is identical at that point.)

As for the music – two things stand out.  One is that the song is in triple time with each strong pulse divided into three – very unusual in contemporary popular and folk music.  I think if writing the piece out in conventional notation it would have to be in 12/8 (meaning four groups of three quavers in each bar.)

Confusingly Dylan likes to start the song with a bit of guitar strumming in four beats in a bar, before moving into the singing.   We are told that when recording the classic version of the song Dylan had to take about half a dozen attempts to get it right.  Because Heylin is no musician, he doesn’t tell us what went wrong each time – but I suspect it was this shift from four beats in a bar to four groups of three beats in a bar.  It is hard to pull off.

But it is this pulsing in threes which gives a real emphasis to the words, and as there are so many images in the piece that this helps bring out specific words.  If we take the line about Dylan’s favourite character – the drifter who wanders from town to town

Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting

the power comes into this line by the emphasis provided by the triple beat.  This constitutes two bars – one of the four strong words, and one which ends the final word exists alone

Condemned to drift or else be kept from


The other musical point is the simplicity of the chord sequence.  This is

Far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toll  (G D G C)
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing (G  C D G)
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds  (G D G C)
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing  (G C D G)
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight   (D G)
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight  (C  G Am D)
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night   (G D G C)
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing   (G C D G)

This structure allows for an enormous power to be placed in the penultimate line.  Mostly this line is sung on one note, almost like a shout, and it works so powerfully because the previous line has uniquely in the song ended on the chord of D – requiring a resolution back to G.  The line ending on D is paused on the edge of the cliff, we feel ready to jump.  Dylan makes the leap for us.

It is a simple ploy, but masterfully done, and it allows Dylan to make this one line from the end to be the powerhouse of each verse.

Just consider them:

  • And for each and every underdog soldier in the night
  • And the poet and the painter behind beyond his rightful time
  • For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased and cheated by pursuit
  • And for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
  • And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

In the end I can do no more than leave you with the ending:

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

50 years on and I am still utterly moved.

Index to the songs

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Chimes of Freedom, the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Sam Chianello says:

    The piece sounds like a prayer done in silence. Dylan has not performed it in recent times. I wonder why. Chimes of Freedom Flashing shows huge capacity for empathy, and stops us in our tracks.

  2. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)
    (BTW, you have an incorrect link on your Dylan songs in chronological order for this song)

  3. Chicago to Florida says:

    I think Tony does a good job.
    By the way, the D chord, say, in his first line is really a C ninth, which has more tension.

    The Byrds give this song a less somber feel, but it’s still beautiful the way they do it.
    I’m a musician….I don’t see how we can feel this song without playing it and singing the lyrics simultaneously.
    Music is about emotion. Art is emotion. Life is emotion.
    I DO also love the impact of “condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting”. Whatever we try, we feel like it’s not allowed, like we’re slaves or impotent in an insane world.

    But there is a sane world: Tony’ world, Bob Dylan’s world, my world, probably your world if you’re reading this: THE ARTS! We can breathe there and be free. Our chimes of freedom with lightning all around are there for us……….at no cost, eh?

  4. For these lyrics, and the sentiments they convey, Dylan deserves his (however inadequate this may be) Nobel Prize, even if he tells them to go boil their collective arse.
    I’m 66 years old, and the song still carries the undiluted emotional punch it did when I first heard it as a teenager. I still play it to friends.
    A very important ripple in time, folgens mij.

Leave a Reply

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