If Dogs Run Free: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

In essence “If Dogs Run Free” is a 12-bar blues played in a moderately free jazz style, with the piano and guitar free to extemporise around the standard three chords of the 12 bar format.  This sort of extemporisation is what we tend to get when musicians with a soft jazz inclination have a jam session.  Everyone knows the structure and is then free to play with it.  (I remember once sitting down with Soft Machine and playing a 12 bar variation for about 15 minutes; mind you I thought it all sounded great but they didn’t fancy having me in the band so that suggests my analysis might be somewhat faulty here) .

Here the scat singing of Maeretha Stewart weaves around what Al Kooper is doing on the piano.  Put another way there is a three way conversation going on between piano, scat singer and guitar in which each musician has to make his/her unique contribution while being totally cognisant of what the others are doing.

It’s an art – you have to be reticent and forward at the same time – controlling your urge to make your part be heard while never overstepping what a fellow musician does.  And you have to be totally at ease.

In one sense the opening verse says all this.  The title line expresses the freedom that many jazz forms have – a much greater freedom than pop-rock often allows.   So the opening

If dogs run free, then why not we
Across the swooping plain?

could well be saying, “why must our music be so restrictive and formulaic – let’s explore some other dimensions.”

Of course as an enormous admirer of Dylan (and why else would I be writing these reviews, but for that reason?), I am not for a moment suggesting that Dylan is formulaic but I am saying that sometimes to me, personally, it feels that he exists a little too firmly in the rigours of the old 12 bar tradition.

When he breaks free, as for example with Highway 61 Revisited (the song that is) he is remarkable both in lyrics and music, but sometimes (Down Along the Cove would be an example I would cite as one such) the formula of the 12 bar tradition seems to hold him back.

Following this logic, the interweaving of the instruments and two voices is like

a symphony
Of two mules, trains and rain

When improvising in this way, the musicians often keep going because they feel the music is going somewhere.  In a practice session and left to their own devices rock blues and jazz musicians can just keep playing for half an hour or more, feeding off each other…

The best is always yet to come
That’s what they explain to me
Just do your thing, you’ll be king
If dogs run free

Of course I’ve no straight connection to Bob’s world, so I don’t know for sure, but that explanation works for me.

My mind weaves a symphony
And tapestry of rhyme

And that to me is a perfect summary of his creative world.

Of course it could be any other aspect of the creative process.  Talk with people whose entire lives are built not around office work or the factory, or a service industry, but rather the creative process in arts, technology, design, scientific thinking, and you will find that their world is quite different on every level from that of people who work in what one might call the more mainstream areas of employment.

Quite often the “symphony” goes wrong, the sounds disintegrate, but the struggle is to bring them back into the desired form or style.  But the point is that “it’s all unknown.”

In a very small way, I’m engaging in a creative process here.  I know each song before I start, of course, but much of the time I’m not sure where the writing of the review will take me, and the published version is often very different from the first draft.

Oh, winds which rush my tale to thee
So it may flow and be
To each his own, it’s all unknown
If dogs run free

In short, the creative artist is following his/her own journey during the creative process, and the audience can do their own thing too, in response.

Of course the final verse of the song is about love and not the creative act and I’ve wondered if the whole piece isn’t about “true love”.  Maybe it is, but I just find the phraseology of the earlier verses quite compelling when considered from the point of view of what the musicians are doing on the recording.  Obviously, everyone can decide, and as quite often, that is the beauty of Dylan.  We are left to decide.

True love can make a blade of grass
Stand up straight and tall
In harmony with the cosmic sea
True love needs no company
It can cure the soul, it can make it whole
If dogs run free

If you’ve been lucky enough to be utterly, totally, deeply in love, then you’ll see exactly what this verse means from that point of view.  But many a musician, dancer and writer I have worked with has been as in love with his art as he ever has been with a woman.  One only has to spend time with an artist who simply cannot stop working on his/her creation, to know this is true.

The publication of the book of the same name illustrated by Scott Campbell  does, I think, add something to the notion that this is primarily about creativity, as it is surely about experimentation and exploration.

Countering all this I have read the comment on one Dylan site that “Experiments are fine, but at a certain point you have to stick the tunes in there… Kudos to Bob for trying, though.”

In the days when all I had was the albums, short of endlessly lifting the stylus off and playing my favourite tracks over and over (which I was not averse to doing) I had to listen to whatever Bob gave us on the album in order.  That made some of the experimental work harder to take, mostly because they were not the experiments I particularly wanted at that moment.

But now we can pick and choose what we hear and what order we hear it in, and that perhaps gives us time for an extra consideration of pieces like this.  It is certainly worth doing.


  1. Yet another insightful analysis from Tony, and do I appreciate it! Sure, one could denigrate this piece as mindless pap, or worse. I enjoyed it at first because it was Dylan performing swing- jazz. It was something of a novelty at the time and the fun of this piece should not be glossed over. ” Rainy Day Women” was also fun music. In an interview with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, it was mentioned that Dylan wrote “bad material” just to get people to stop bothering him. “When dogs run free”, might seam to be one of those tunes. But so what? It’s still good fun and campy swing jazz at that. Thanks Bob, and Hip Hip Hooray for Tony!

  2. As for the lyrics, the influence of Transcendentalist poet ie revealed:

    “True love can make a blade if grass/
    Stand up straight and fall in harmony
    With the cosmic sea”(If Dogs Run Free)

    Echoing: ” I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass” (Walt Whitman: Song of Myself)

  3. Echoing too :
    It’s found we see.
    What? – Eternity.
    It’s the sun, free
    To flow with the sea.

    Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), Eternity

  4. Dylan:free/see and Rimbaud: free/ sea/see -the Dylanesque rhyme twist, or conincidence?

  5. A more likely influence might be Laurence Ferlinghetti’s famous beat poem “Dog”

    The dog trots freely in the street
    and sees reality
    and the things he sees
    are bigger than himself
    and the things he sees
    are his reality
    Drunks in doorways
    Moons on trees
    The dog trots freely thru the street
    and the things he sees
    are smaller than himself
    Fish on newsprint
    Ants in holes
    Chickens in Chinatown windows
    their heads a block away
    The dog trots freely in the street
    and the things he smells
    smell something like himself
    The dog trots freely in the street
    past puddles and babies
    cats and cigars
    poolrooms and policemen
    He doesn’t hate cops
    He merely has no use for them
    and he goes past them
    and past the dead cows hung up whole
    in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
    He would rather eat a tender cow
    than a tough policeman
    though either might do
    And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
    and past Coit’s Tower
    and past Congressman Doyle
    He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
    but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
    although what he hears is very discouraging
    very depressing
    very absurd
    to a sad young dog like himself
    to a serious dog like himself
    But he has his own free world to live in
    His own fleas to eat
    He will not be muzzled
    Congressman Doyle is just another
    fire hydrant
    to him
    The dog trots freely in the street
    and has his own dog’s life to live
    and to think about
    and to reflect upon
    touching and tasting and testing everything
    investigating everything
    without benefit of perjury
    a real realist
    with a real tale to tell
    and a real tail to tell it with
    a real live
    democratic dog
    engaged in real
    free enterprise
    with something to say
    about ontology
    something to say
    about reality
    and how to see it
    and how to hear it
    with his head cocked sideways
    at street corners
    as if he is just about to have
    his picture taken
    for Victor Records
    listening for
    His Master’s Voice
    and looking
    like a living question mark
    into the
    great gramophone
    of puzzling existence
    with its wondrous hollow horn
    which always seems
    just about to spout forth
    some Victorious answer
    to everything

  6. What is a dog that runs free?
    It is dog without a MASTER.
    Who is the MASTER for Bob Dylan.
    He might be GOD.

    I think the poem is about Bob Dylans relationship to God or religion.
    If dogs run free, then what must be
    Must be, and that is all
    True love can make a blade of grass
    Stand up straight and tall
    In harmony with the cosmic sea
    True love needs no company
    It can cure the soul, it can make it whole
    If dogs run free

    It could be interesting to let Larry Fyffe write about it . We had a discussion about Spinozas understanding of GOD and Bob Dylan

Leave a Reply

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