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.
As you are here you will also find
an interesting alternative perspective on this topic. But now, my original piece…
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
- One too many mornings
- It aint me babe
- Don’t think twice – perhaps the classic Dylan “song of leaving”. “Look out your window and I’ll be gone – you’re the reason I’m travelling on”
- Someday Baby is an interesting “I’m gonna leave you” blues song which contains all the essential ingredients of the blues.
- Most likely you go your way. A touch of disdain, but just a touch
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:
- Can you please crawl out your window?
- Idiot Wind
- Like a Rolling Stone
- Positively Fourth Street
- One of us must know
- It ain’t me babe
- Heart of Mine is an interesting variation because it is a song of self-disdain.
- Pay in Blood – some put down as a religious song, but I disagree.
- Rollin and Tumblin is a classic blues song of disdain, but curiously Dylan adds a new verse near the end which suggests the couple should make up and be happy.
- Where were you last night
- Ballad of a thin Man
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.
- When the ship comes in
- Every grain of Sand
- Gotta Serve Somebody
- I believe in you
- Trouble – which is Dylan’s anti-religious song.
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.
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
- All along the watch tower
- Black Diamond Bay
- Dark Eyes
- Tell ol Bill, although a song of despair is also a song of a strange land only half seen between the lines of the song
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.
- She Belongs to Me
- Shelter from the storm
- Tangled up in blue
- Where were you last night?
- I want you
- Honest with Me
- You angel you
- On a night like this
- Absolutely sweet Marie – which is a song of lost love, but unusually not a song of disdain.
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.