“Bob Dylan’s songs leave me clueless” Does Dylan have an underlying message?

By Tony Attwood

On our Facebook page I recently linked to a review of the Rolling Thunder movie, a review which had the headline “Scorceses Bob Dylan documentary leaves you clueless.” It included this comment:

“At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I must confess I’ve never understood what Bob Dylan sings. Except for the track Blowing In The Wind.  I am yet to decode what ‘Upon four-legged forest clouds the cowboy angel rides’ and ‘He just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette’ means.”

And immediately two trains of thought came into my mind.  First, art is not always full of clear and overt meanings.  And second, Dylan is himself confusing because his songs are sometimes overtly meaningful – but often not.  Which can lead to the temptation to think that because some are clearly meaningful (“Masters of War” serves well if you want one example) they should all be – if only we can find the key to unlock the meanings.

And to give another area of clarity, “Positively 4th Street” and the other songs of disdain really do hit the listener in the face – what is not to understand about “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” as an opening line?

Likewise, many of the love songs are clear (consider, “To make you feel my love”) as well as the lost-love songs (for example “Girl from the north country”).  And as you would expect most of the religious pieces are also fairly clear such as “When He Returns”.

Indeed, as I have mentioned in passing before, it has always struck me as odd that the one time Dylan gave his audience a lecture (and it really was a lecture) on the meaning of songs, was when he performed religious songs throughout his concerts; the one time he didn’t need to tell us – it was all there for us to hear.

But like all masters of their art, and as the arrival and departure of the religious era shows, Dylan doesn’t always work in the same way.  His art is ever varied – and like so many great artists he likes to play games, and he likes to deal in impressions, as much as he wants to give a clear message.

Take “Times they are a changin’,” recognised by many of one of the seminal works of the era and one of Dylan’s great early pieces.  A true monument of the protest movement.

Except when you come to the lyrics, it isn’t a protest song at all.  It actually says that things are moving on, pretty much of their own accord.  There is no reference to protesting, challenging the political norms, none of the anarchism of “Don’t follow leaders.”  No, it is a song that just says, quite clearly and overtly, things are changing and there is nothing any of us can do about it.

As for the rest of the Times They Are a Changing album, as I have oft pointed out, it is all about things standing still, and nothing changing.  When things are bad people just pick up their belongings and keep on moving on or give up the uneven struggle.

Now if I wanted to draw a conclusion from this, I’d say the key element of Dylan’s work at this point was not to promote social and political form, but rather to paint a series of pictures of American society as he saw it.

But of course Dylan can also be obscure, and “Gates of Eden” is a perfect early example.  Obscurity piles on obscurity as the writer quoted at the start of this piece suggests.  And it is to songs like this that the analysts are drawn – and yes I admit I’ve done my own bit of trying to sort out meanings from some of Dylan’s lines.

But such analyses can lead us down strange paths, which perhaps the composer never intended.   To see an example, it is suggested on the “Song Meanings” site that

“At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams

is reference to Paradise Lost, where Eve tells Adam of the dream about the forbidden fruit, and off we go into a detailed examination of what Genesis is about.

And maybe some of the discussions that can be found in a thousand books and a billion web pages can lead to an understanding of what Dylan was thinking when he wrote those words.  But my question is twofold.  One, does that help us appreciate the song?  And two, does that help us at all, since most of the time we won’t have a clue if we are really right, because Dylan isn’t saying.

Of course in one sense the answer can be “yes it does help” – the more we can get inside the head of the artist (whatever the art form) the deeper our understanding.  But we should also remember that phrases and ideas in Dylan songs can be lifted from the Bible, from a movie, from an obscure Japanese book or anywhere else, not because they represent some almighty truth that the composer wishes to express, but because they sound good when sung, and Bob rather fancied them.

And I would argue there is absolutely nothing wrong with using a phrase in a song, just because it sounds good.  There is no rule that says songs actually have to mean anything at all.

Thus just as a painter of abstract art might choose a particular shade of pink because she or he likes that particular shade of pink, not for any deeper meaning, so a songwriter might use a line “He not busy being born is busy dying” not because it is singularly profound, but because it is in essence pretty meaningless but SOUNDS profound.

Now mentioning pink (not for any reason, it just happened to come into my head) I was reminded of this comment I read on a web site while researching this article about one of my favourite novels. (I got distracted – it is a very common failing for me – but it is also a technique many artists use, picking up often disconnected ideas and thoughts from life around them).

It says, “In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, we find our heroes in a stolen spaceship, on a course to crash into a local star as a special effect for the band Disaster Area. This is of course a reference to Pink Floyd, and their song “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”.

Of course?  I mean “OF COURSE”????

Now it is possible that Douglas Adams in writing “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” was listening to that Pink Floyd track and it gave him the idea.  But I am not sure he ever said that was the case, even if he did, does it matter?   What is funny in the book is that in the far distant future there are two restaurants, one at the start of the universe (“The Big Bang Burger Bar”) and one at the end.  And the title “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” is just inherently funny because of the juxtaposition of the end of all things and going out for a meal.

But I suspect many critics travel down the well-worn paths of connecting the not necessarily connected, not particularly to illuminate our understanding of a work of art, but simply to show off, or because the idea just popped into view at the time of writing, and like the idea in the book or the song, felt like a good idea at the time.  And perhaps they feel moved by their idea because they have not got hold of the idea that maybe a song, like a painting, like a work of modern dance, or like a Beethoven piano concerto, might not be about anything, but simply is.   And through simply being, some people can get a huge amount out of it simply by looking and listening.

To my mind, Dylan is a great artist, worthy of the Nobel prize, because he has taken an art form (popular music) which is often very constricted in terms of what it can say, and how it can be said, and given that art form new dimensions which allow it to say anything – sometimes with meaning, sometimes in abstract terms.  In short he’s moved us from “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine” (a song which we may note only has one other line – “They said you were high class, but that was just a lie”) and given us songs in which overt meanings, obscure meanings, quite possibly no meanings, complex constructions, simple constructions, original lines and copied lines, collide together and get mixed up to give meanings and no meanings.   Songs which may have a meaning in places, but then which quite often don’t.

Just think of Visions of Johanna.  It is a vision; but a vision that is not clear, a vision that can be re-interpreted.  Compare Dylan’s various versions of it with Old Crow Medicine Show.  We might think we have a grip on the meanings behind Dylan’s versions of the song either on the album or live on stage, but now the meaning changes as fast as we try to get hold of it.

And so I would argue that although art can be about meaning and messages, most of the time great art isn’t just about meaning, and indeed quite often great art isn’t about meaning at all.  A novel can carry a moral tale, but it can also be entertainment (as in a detective story).  It can be untrue (as is all fiction) but can also be informative (as with historical fiction that keeps to the historical reality).  It can be about a vision with no start and no end (consider the novels of Thomas Pynchon, after “Lot 49”.  There is no limit to what you can do in a novel in the hands of a master.  Likewise, there is no limit to what a song can do in the hands of a master.

Likewise visual art.  It can be representational – a drawing of something that exists, or it can be a long way away from representing anything.  I have in my home prints of works by Jackson Pollock and Bridget Riley and I spend a fair bit of time at home looking at them.   But their meaning?  I am no closer to that than when I was given the pictures 10 years ago.   Likewise consider the theatre of the absurd or if you prefer Dali and the surrealists.  What does it mean?  Ah, now there’s a question.

And yet in the midst of all this I come across people who keep on insisting that art has to be either autobiographical or political.  Did anyone think Elvis was singing about a past love affair when he sang the three lines of Hound Dog?  Of course not.  And just because Robert Johnson quite possibly did feel like he had a Hell Hound on his trail, does that mean that Tom Petty really did see vampires walkin’ through the valley as he was writing “Free Fallin”?  I doubt it.

Thus I reach the conclusion that just because a person has an interest in religion that does not of itself make every work of art religious.  Just because a person creates a work of art on a religious theme that does not make that person a convert – nor all of her or his work religious.

And I reach this conclusion through two simple steps.  First art can be many things: entertainment, insight, questioning, political awareness, social commentary, commemoration of the past, passing the time of day.  And second, people change.

Of course in our society today people seek to understand Dylan’s meanings because western culture has for years been beguiled by the scientific notion that everything is understandable and therefore (with a bit of mental shuffling) everything has a meaning.  Even life itself has a meaning, at least as soon as we add a god to the mix.

But most of the time Dylan is not like this.  And worse, from the perspective of those who seek to understand him, he is an artist who changes.  Sometimes he is autobiographical, sometimes religious, sometimes political, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes surreal, sometimes funny, sometimes obscure, sometimes simply poetic.

Let me take an example: the song Tell Ol’ Bill.   I choose it not just because I like it, but also because it is one of Dylan’s less well known pieces and so there is a chance you might come to this afresh, and because it is a perfect example of how Dylan can combine meanings with suggestions to give us an overall “essence” but not a straight “this is about x”.

If we go through the lyrics below the song appears to be about an exile writing back to an ex girlfriend in his homeland.  We get the idea, maybe, that the singer is about to undertake one last act but what that act is, we don’t know.  Nor do we know why he needs to do this, nor why he is an exile.

In short we know very little.  Virtually nothing in fact.   And the tiny fragments we do know can be contradictory.    What, for example, within the context of the song, can we make of

Why must you come down off of your high hill?
Throw my fate to the clouds and wind

Who is the enemy at the gate, when the singing is singing to himself alone?  And above all why should the recipient of the message

Tell ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die

Or come to that how can be alone and not alone?

Of course answers can be found to the questions, but those answers are not clear – and I would argue that this is the intent.  They are not meant to be clear.

Clarity, can come from a myriad sources.  For example, one can create a work of art that looks or sounds obscure but is explained in a flash by its title.   Dylan chose not to do this, calling the song “Tell Ol Bill” which tells us nothing at all, because a lot of the detail that we need for an explanation is missing.  We’re getting snatches of the situation – like hearing a report on the phone which keeps cutting out.

As a result of this obscurity, art can just be itself: the art, rather than the expression of a meaning.  If it moves you, or gives you insights, or you simply likes the shapes, the colours, the patterns, the sounds, then fine.  Quite often that is all the artist wants to give you – enough to develop your appreciation and enjoyment but not an absolute statement.

So my point is that some art is about actual things, some is about nothing that we can express in language, and some is half way between the two.

To give an example of a work of art that is itself obscure but is explained by the title, we may consider “Guernica” the world famous masterpiece by Pablo Picasso is about something – the casual bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica during Spanish Civil War.  Here the knowledge of what it is about, via the title, gives us an understanding of the painting which I suspect most of us would never grasp, if we did not have the title.

Now let’s try another example.  “Visions of Johanna” by Bob Dylan is, like “Tell Ol’ Bill” obscure.  We get the idea, but we never know quite what the song is exactly about.  We have to work it out ourselves, find our own images, find our own meanings – or maybe not find meanings at all but just take the feelings that we get from the song.

We can also go digging in history to find out more.   We can look at Picasso’s political affiliations which give us further insight.   We can find that Tell Old Bill appeared in a compendium of American folk songs by Carl Sandburg’s compendium of American folksongs from 1927 which does indeed open with the line Tell Old Bill when he gets home.

And maybe that gives us a clear that Dylan really is simply picking up lines that he likes and reusing them to make a set of meanings that are not clear, and unlike Picasso’s work is never meant to be clear.

We might also note that Dylan takes a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s “To one in paradise” …

(Such language holds the solemn sea
To the sands upon the shore)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
Or the stricken eagle soar!
At which point we can of course get a bit worked up about the fact that Dylan nicked (or if you prefer borrowed) a line for Edgar Allen Poe.  However what I am trying to say is that although it is interesting to know that Dylan has used phrase from Poe, as it is indeed interesting to see all the sources of Dylan’s lines, we should not, in studying these origins, lose track of the overall impact of the work as a whole.  For that is what it is.  It is not a collection of individual lines – it is a complete piece of art which opens a window on another world.

My view is thus that it is interesting to analyse the lyrics in detail, just as we might look at a painting and analyse the use of individual colours or brush strokes, and that such detail can help us understand the artist’s work.  But we must also look at, or in Dylan’s case hear, the overall work.

For me, Dylan’s masterpieces (Johanna, Tell Ol Bill, Things have Changed, The Drifter’s Escape etc) are the absolute masterpieces because of the overall feeling they offer.  Or one might say, the overall “impression.”

And this is true both in songs where the meaning is clear as much as those where the meaning is obscure.  “Not Dark Yet” for example, has lyrics that make it clear what the song is about.   But beyond that, the simplicity of the opening line, “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day” itself paints a picture.   Add the music which Dylan has created around that line (technically the point is that he doesn’t start singing on the first beat of each bar) gives us a sense of the world falling apart and everything coming to an end.

In short, what we get is a total package of music and words – and it doesn’t matter whether you are able to appreciate where the bars in the music stop and start, any more than not knowing about paint and brush stroke technique inhibits one’s enjoyment of the visual artist’s work.

I don’t need to know what Old Bill was up to and why he is where he is, or indeed why Bob Dylan wrote the song.   What I get from these lines is a vision of a place, and of a man’s feelings, and in understanding and appreciating that, I am enhanced.  I have learned a little more about life.  And for that I am grateful.

Tell ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die

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3 Responses to “Bob Dylan’s songs leave me clueless” Does Dylan have an underlying message?

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Are we not all alone and not alone at the same time? …. Biologically-evolved carbon-based units with senses linking us to the outside world, as well as to other individuals by socializing language (including art) unique to human beings …. Separated, however, they be in different cultures and languages evolved from economic conditions, and the historically-evolved ‘values’ developed therefrom.

  2. Kev says:

    Thanks for the article. 🙂

    You make a lot of good points about Dylan’s clarity/lack thereof and the meaning/meaninglessness of his lyrics. For example, all of Highway 61 Revisited is a collection of songs that seem to have no correlation to each other, filled with verses and lines that are similarly disconnected or unrelated, even within the songs. That quality of his songwriting is what sets him apart from others, and is often what people passionately like or passionately dislike about his music.

    In a very real sense, he is a poet. If you tale a collection of Walt Whitman poems, for example, they vary tremendously within the poems and you’d be hard pressed to understand what they have to do with each other. But, Whitman doesn’t get dismissed as not having a message, or not having meaning. Those who analyze his poetry look for themes across the collections and within the poems themselves. Both and Dylan tell us things in their writing. Something or other is being communicated. It can be very abstract, but there is something to it. Consider this vervse from “Visions of Johanna:”

    And Madonna, she still has not showed
    We see this empty cage now corrode
    Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
    The fiddler, he now steps to the road
    He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
    On the back of the fish truck that loads
    While my conscience explodes
    The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
    And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

    There is quite a bit going on in this verse, and it would take a lot of writing to flesh it all out. For now, it is enough to say there is room for interpretation, but the lyrics are still using specific words, right? In the first two lines, in a song that is apparently about strong visions of a woman Dylan sings about madonna – an idealized, beautiful, or virtuous woman – who has not appeared yet. Although, it seems she may have been there before, because an empty cage corrodes on a stage where her cape once flowed. Was she an actress? A singer? Was she neither and just a person living in a caged in situation at one time that hasn’t held her for a while so is now corroding? What was she doing that was at the same time so good but so restricting? Was Dylan involved with her? Was she just an idea that could never possibly be realized? Even if one of these things is true, Dylan’s skill is in writing these things and pointing to bigger things. There is a sense of loss in this verse, a sense of reverence, a sense of longing, and when his conscience finally explodes in the third to last line, it’s like he’s overwhelmed with how intense it is, so he turns back to playing his harmonica in the rain, and thinking about Johanna.

    That’s one way of seeing it. The broader, more universal concepts are what ultimately propel Dylan into the stratosphere. He’s an artist more than a musician, if that makes sense or is even possible. Who hasn’t waited for something great to happen (madonna showing), who hasn’t been overwhelmed and turned away from the intensity? Who hasn’t felt caged in? To top it off, Dylan, the singer, is sensational. Timbre aside, the way he delivers the lines suggest multiple meanings in things. When he practically yells “the skeleton key’s in the rain,” the effect of almost yelling seems to mean something. Is he exasperated? Does he really want someone to hear where the skeleton key is? Also, isn’t a skeleton key a key that can unlock any door? If it is, and if it’s in the rain, does that suggest the “keys” to things are somewhere in the rain, the darkness, or deepest wounds?

    So, it’s all very deep, right? If expect Dylan to delight us the way Paul Simon does, or even Townes Van Zant, we’ll be disappointed. Those are great songwriter’s too, but there’s something broader, more expansive, more universal about Dylan. People seem to either like it a whole lot or not. Some people don’t want to think so much when they’re listening to music. Thankfully, lots of us do, and Dylan is the archetype of that type of songwriter.

  3. Babette says:

    I think “Vision of Johanna” refers to his first born child. His future wife Sarah was pregnant and he chose to change lifestyle. He had to say goodbye to Joan Baez (Louise) and to the rock scene The psychedelic drugs were killing people. (skeleton key). Johanna means gods gift. Children are Gods gift. Jesse also means gods gift. The psychedelic drug songs are fragmented thoughts without logical context. Maybe you should write more about the psychedelic music and art. Look it up in wikepedia. He came bach to the rock scene and psychedelic drugs 9 years later with “The rolling thunder revue” .

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