A classification of Dylan’s songs

A classification of Dylan’s songs

Below you’ll find my initial thoughts on how Dylan’s songs might be classified into types, with a number of very helpful comments below.

In 2016 having reviewed what seem to me to be most of the important Dylan songs from the 1960s I started to apply what I had learned from this exercise to the songs I had reviewed.

Seeing how this worked in chronological order is really interesting (to me, if no one else!) and I’m hoping now to pull all this together.

The Chronological Index is here.   Below is the earlier discussion.

The classic classification of rock and blues music’ lyrics was established by Professor Keith Swanwick of London University Institute of Education (who was my tutor for my research degree – a man to whom I am eternally grateful and whose memory I always honour), when he wrote that the styles consisted mainly of songs about love, lost love and dance.

Bob Dylan however has rarely written about lost love or dance in the traditional blues and rock style of “My Baby Left Me” (Elvis Presley) or “No Regrets” (Walker Brothers) – to take two extremes of the genre.  We have “Where were you last night?” on the Wilburys album, but not that many others.

Instead it is my contention that Dylan has gone way beyond this, including a completely new variation on the Lost Love theme: Songs of Disdain.  I was at first tempted to call these the “songs of hatred” but that is too strong – but they are songs of lost love, lost friendship and something approaching pure dislike – and disdain is the only word I can find which fits properly.

To establish the contrast here, consider such works as It ain’t me babe    and  One too many mornings which are “I’m walking away” lost love songs – there is, in the matter of fact statement that the affair is over, just a touch of sadness about the end of the affair, but it is definitely the singer who is left, not the singer bewailing that his girlfriend has gone.

I would stress that at this time I am still (after two years on it) re-considering this thesis, but it does seem to me to push against the thought that Dylan can be a misogynist.  Elvis Presley singing “My Baby Left Me” is the song of the misogynist.  The woman leaves because she is untrustworthy and “fly-by-night”.  She “never said a word”.  No explanation, typical woman (that’s the song’s story, not my view!)

This is typical of much early rock and roll and the blues – the woman can’t be trusted, and just gets up and leaves for another man.  Dylan has nothing to do with this genre.

What Dylan thus generally eschews is the whole classic lost love song, in which the lady who leaves the male singer.  When he describes the break up, he leaves.  But when he goes further and expresses his annoyance and anger about the person within the song, then we have the songs of disdain.

In effect then Dylan created at least two new categories.  There may well be more groups – I’m still working on this.  And in doing so I recognise that there may be many who claim that Dylan’s songs cannot be classified, or should not be classified, but I think if we want to understand Dylan’s art, and consider all that he has given to the world of contemporary music, we should try to see if the songs do fall naturally into groups.

1.  Songs of my leaving, (which say, that is just how it has to be), for example

Tambourine Man is a leaving song, but not of leaving a woman, but of leaving this world, rather like the pied piper.

2. Songs of disdain (which say I certainly don’t want to be associated with you, even if I once was).

Looking at some of the songs reviewed on this site we can find, as examples of the songs in category two (the songs of disdain) with such works as:

It was with the above thoughts that I started to consider if there were other classifications into which Dylan’s songs could fit.  Thus far I have added

3.  The political/protest songs.  Times they are a changing, and Hard Rain are examples, although Hard Rain is also a song of despair.

4.  The religious songs

This is not the same as saying “The Christian songs” but rather noting that Dylan often deals with spiritual and religious matters.

It is argued that Pay in Blood is a religious song, but I don’t see that at all – and of course this adds to the problems with the classification – we can’t always decide what we are classifying.

5.  Songs of Despair.   The world gone wrong.  Here the singer’s world – perhaps the whole world – has collapsed or at the very least is uncertain and hazy.  Desolation Row is the perfect example of the collapsed world.  Another perfect example is “Just like Tom Thumbs Blues”  which contrasts with Honest with Me – a lost love song.

But the ultimate despair is not a political despair, although  Masters of War gets close to that – rather it is Not Dark Yet, the ultimate drift away from such an imperfect world.

There is a different type of despair on Million Miles, and Tell ol Bill.

Blind Willie McTell which recounts the world of slavery must come into this section

6.  The songs of the mist.  Visions of Johanna takes us into the misty uncertain world which is not really covered by any of the other categories.

I think Highlands might fit in this category too.  Pay in Blood could possibly be.  And I’m also wondering about Early Roman Kings in this regard which does create a scene out of a world that we can’t quite track down.  Others are, or might be

7.  Songs of Love

To be in this group I’m thinking that the song has to express real love, even if the relationship is over.  Love is the essence, not the departure.

8.  Songs of origins

Dylan does talk about his origins on Honest with Me – I’m trying to think if this is a one off or a group.

Bobby contributed these helpful additions

“Something There Is About You” and “Went to See the Gypsy” could fit in the origins songs. More broadly, maybe some of those Talkin’ blues songs or even stuff like “If You Ever Go to Houston.”

9  The blues

So fundamental in Dylan’s musical make up, he returns to it again and again.

10.  Songs of the legal process gone wrong…

I happened upon this idea by chance in reviewing songs like

11. Songs of the Darkness and nighttime.




11 Responses to A classification of Dylan’s songs

  1. “Something There Is About You” and “Went to See the Gypsy” could fit in the origins songs. More broadly, maybe some of those Talkin’ blues songs or even stuff like “If You Ever Go to Houston.”
    Thanks for the site.

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Thanks Robert, I’ll add them to the list

  3. lower weight says:

    Very good article. I’m going through many of these issues as well..

  4. Stephen Pate says:

    An interesting set of categories. I also like Christopher Rick’s seven deadly sins in Visions of Sin.

    When you write 600 plus songs based on folk/blues the themes have to be universal which is why Dylan has an audience. He connects.

  5. doug says:

    “Solid Rock” is definitely one of his “religious” songs.

  6. Paul Best. says:

    This is an excellent read of Dylan Songs,, thank You!

  7. Dylan Fan says:

    Here are some additions:

    Songs of Leaving: Farewell; Restless Farewell; Tomorrow Is a Long Time; Wheels of Fire; Boots of Spanish Leather (bit of disdain at the end), possibly Farewell Angelina; possibly It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (BTW, I don’t see why you put It Ain’t Me, Babe in this category); also, Songs of NOT Leaving: You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

    Political Protest: With God on Our Side, Only a Pawn in Their Game, Oxford Town, probably Blowing in the Wind, possibly Subterranean Homesick Blues (not really political protest, more outlaw paranoia), possibly The Times They Are a-Changin’ (not protest, more of a rallying cry)

    Songs of Justice Gone Wrong: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll; Hurricane (controversial)

    Songs of the Mist: I personally don’t see this as a category. I think “Visions of Johanna” could go in a category of Songs on a Drug Trip (where you can also add Mr Tambourine Man) and also in Songs of Despair (where you can also add Mr Tambourine Man).

    Songs of Love: Love Minus Zero/No Limit; Simple Twist of Fate; Girl from North Country perhaps?

    There are many many songs that don’t fit your category and many that fit multiple categories.

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    Dylan fan – thanks so much for your addition. Since starting this, and then going into more and more songs on the site, I’ve realised the classification leaves a lot to be desired. Shame, I thought it might work. But still maybe it is a basis for further work.

  9. Dylan Fan says:

    I understand–but I do like lists! And I think you could do something with categories if you list some songs twice and have a “miscellaneous.” You might want to change the Songs of My Leaving to “Songs of Parting”–that is the usual folk-song category term and could then include “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (it’s about parting in being about NOT parting; BTW I gather Dylan wrote it when laid up from the motorcycle accident); it could also include people leaving other than the singer. And you might change Songs of the Legal Process Gone Wrong to Songs of Crime and Punishment. That would include prison songs, another standard folk-song category, and one that could include “I Shall Be Released” (and possibly even “All Along the Watchtower.”

    BTW I was interested to see your Pied Piper interpretation of Mr. Tambourine Man. Of course it does get into that, but I think it’s basically a drug or alcohol) trip, and the accompanying languor. . . .

    Another love song to add: Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

  10. Steve Smith says:

    What a great site this is – but surely Sooner Or Later doesn’t belong in the same classification as Positively 4th Street?

  11. TonyAttwood says:

    Steve, the classification issue has proved the biggest problem of all, and it is full of inconsistencies. One day I will sit down and devote a whole weekend just to trying to sort it out. Consider it a work in progress, stalled.

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