Master Harpist Postscript: Tangled up in Harmonicas: Part 1

Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

[Advice to the reader. Please check out Tony Atwood’s probing account of Tangled Up in Blue here. My comments are incidental, and mostly directed to evolving performances of the song. Also note that this is a postscript to a five part series, Bob Dylan Master Harpist, and readers should catch up with those posts first. For readers of the series, note that two of the performances included are repeats.  Please also see other links to Tangled up in Blue, and to this series of articles at the end of the article]

When I told a friend that I was working on an article tracing the development of Dylan’s harmonica playing over a dozen or so performances of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ he shook his head in pity.

‘You Dylan freaks are a race apart,’ he said.

‘How many times have you played that bloody ABBA record?’ I wanted to know.

‘But ABBA songs are catchy,’ he said.

‘So’s Tangled Up in Blue. Maybe the catchiest song ever written.’

I guess you do have to be a particular kind of crazy to want to listen to variations of one song over and over. But if we’re crazy, what about Dylan himself, who has now performed the song some two thousand times? Something about the song that won’t let go. Dylan keeps coming back to it just like we do. Perhaps it is the perfect example of the unfinished song; a song that can never be finalized because of its very nature, the forever shifting sands of memory. Experience itself is never finalized; language is never at rest. Its perpetually unrealized nature makes it inexhaustible.

The verses are a garden of forking paths, and so is the song itself, its history.

There seem to be two kinds of Dylan songs. Most are unchangeable songs such as ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ and ‘Times are a Changing’. Times may change but the lyrics don’t. Some songs from Blood on the Tracks don’t work like that, in particular ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ and ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. The latter song, in all its variations, could be used to chart the ups and downs of the Never Ending Tour itself, the ever changing nature of that tour. If the NET is a creative journey, so is the song. The song is not only about journeying, but has its own journey, one that to some extent we can chart.

I can only tune into parts of that larger history here, as my focus is on the development of Dylan’s harmonica playing. There are lots of performances that don’t use the harmonica. That instrument really only came to the fore in the 1990’s.

A full history would show how this gentle, ballad-like and reflective song from the 1974 New York recordings became the rousing, sometimes raucous, upbeat crowd pleaser we find in the 90’s, and a showcase for some fancy guitar and harmonica work in the rock/blues tradition.

Dylan’s ‘peppering’ harmonica technique, in which many notes are played fast seemingly at random, marked the album version of the song, bouncy but not special, as was the famous 1976 performance you have doubtless watched on You Tube (it’s had over 20 million hits). Dylan came up with a slow, ballad like version for the 1978 tour, with no harp, and the song faded away during the gospel period.

The first performance of interest to us, and harbinger of things to come, is in this rough-house 1984 version. The lyrics are completely transformed, and have a much harsher edge, as does the performance:

‘And when it all came crashing down
I was already south
I didn’t know if the world was flat or round
I had the worst taste in my mouth
That I ever knew
Tangled up in blue…

Sounds like a hangover, I thought when I first heard the song. To get the rawness, Dylan has reverted to a purely acoustic sound, but nothing like those lulling chords from the New York recording, or the upbeat swing of the album version. The journey sure does take its toll; ten years on from the writing of it, and nothing has grown any easier, it seems. The harsher edge of experience is expressed in the screeching edge of the harp. Not really a sound you’d want to hear with a hangover, but one which captures the song’s more desperate side.

It is still based on the peppering technique, but note how he insists on the high, screaming notes, sliding back and forward between them.

The song took a back seat during the Tom Petty years from 1985 – 87, but began to appear in fast, rousing versions in the early years of the NET. The song can be a celebration of experience although full of separations and distances, distances not just in time and geographic space, but between people. A robust ‘keep on keeping on’ spirit vies with the ever-present possibility of regret, the pervasive sense of paradise lost:

….split up on a dark sad night
somewhere in the wilderness

Re-creating it as a foot-stomper meant amping the celebratory aspect of the song, turning it into an ecstatic experience rather than the meditative reflection we found in the 1974 New York recordings. Early attempts to do this, but not quite pulling it off, can be heard in 1989 and 1990. The template is there, the drive, but the conception is not fully realized. The openings for the harp breaks are there, but Dylan doesn’t seem too sure quite how to fill them. Here is one of the more promising early NET performances, from 1990.


Around 1990 something happened to Dylan’ voice. It became scratchy and timberless, and he seemed unwilling to tackle the higher notes. His deliveries tended to flatten out. Various explanations have been put forward for this, ranging from the effects of the break up of Dylan’s second marriage to the overindulgence in certain voice damaging substances with those bad lads in the Travelling Wilburies. His voice didn’t come back fully until 1994/95, and you can hear him in this 1992 performance struggling to recover his range. He struggles also to lift the harp solo into something exciting, and seems to give up before the end of last chorus.


1992 is a key year in the evolution of the NET. Dylan scrapped the ‘garage band’ sound created by guitarist GE Smith, and brought in the slide guitar or dobro, which remains to this day a part of his line up. This softened the sound of the band, and opened up the possibility of a more integrated acoustic/electric effect. This sound was to work well with the evolving TUIB.

By 1993, a remarkable year for the NET, this new sound had found its feet, even if Dylan’s voice had not. The following performance is not just a stepping-stone on the way to greater things; it has arrived. And how! This, jazzy, blistering attack on the song is arguably one of the greatest ever, especially if you’re looking for Dylan playing the electric guitar rather than amplified acoustic. The song has fully come into its own as a stadium rock epic, clocking in at over 11 minutes.

Dylan’s Stratocaster has a particular punky-plunky sound, almost sounding off-key. I can’t know this for sure, but I believe it is Dylan who plays that amazing, angular, off the wall guitar break 5.45 minutes into the song. The smoother, more lyrical John Jackson take over the lead, but you can hear Dylan bitching away at the melody as the two guitars duet. There’s no holding back on the harmonica either. (7.36 – 9.33 mins). Here we find Dylan’s peppering technique at it’s most compelling, playing around with only a few notes, jazzing it, holding the tension of the song before two guitars once more descend into Harlequin madness. Wild abandon in the circus halls of memory,


By 1994 Dylan’s voice had recovered its range, if not its full timbre. The rock epic is in full swing, full of high excitement, although without the guitar pyrotechnics. The harmonica sound is thinner and more acoustic, but hear the way he kind of leans into the melody, pushing it along, beginning to use those short sharp blasts I have called ‘tooting’.

1995, and we are back into those wonderful Prague concerts we explored a little in Master Harpist 2. Concerts that brought us the harmonica triumphs of ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’, and ‘Man In the Long Black Coat.’ Dylan’s voice is quite echoy, but a powerful and confident performance. The harmonica is classic Dyan of that period. High, wild, and with the hard edge, using repetition as each chorus heads for its climax to wrack up the audience. Ecstatic rock at it’s best. Dylan doesn’t play the guitar on this occasion.

In 1996 Dylan came up with a new approach that would characterize the performances for the next five years. Rather than hammer at it with his Stratocaster, he uses an acoustic guitar, mostly playing single notes, driving the song along with repetition and timing. After these wild, rhythmic choruses, the harmonica sounds a note of gentleness and restraint. Restraint followed by release, as the harp lets loose at the climax of the chorus. What is interesting about this particular performance is the overwhelming audience response to the song. Hear that roar when the harp is produced! Dylan may be driving the band, but it sounds as if the audience is driving Dylan. It makes for a pretty rowdy performance, but I wish I’d been there.


Arguably, 1997 was the year the celebratory, foot-stomping, guitar driven TUIB reached its peak. It is futile to expect to find a definitive performance of a Dylan song, especially this chameleon, although it is fun to try! However, some of these 1997 performances must come to close to that magic ‘greatest ever’ category, particularly if you’re thinking of acoustic performances. It was a great year for Dylan. Time out of Mind came out, astonishing admirers and detractors alike, and there is an energy and fire in his performances that is hard to match. As in the 1996 performance, Dylan drives the song along with his acoustic guitar, with a long, triumphant harmonica break to wrap it up.

We find here another of Dylan’s harp playing techniques, what I call ‘shimmering’. You can hear it in the quieter, early part of the harp break; one or two notes are held with varied, soft breathing, creating a sonic ‘shimmer.’ Hard to describe but wonderful to listen to, full of trembling restraint.


[The editor has asked me to break these post with lots of links into two, as the software gets a bit cranky when the posts get too full. I’ll be back with Part 2 of this Master Harpist Postscript. Kia Ora! See you soon!]

Please also note:

You can find the whole series of master harpist articles here  and other reviews of Tangled up in blue at 

What else is here?

An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here.  There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan.  The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.




  1. Wow! I know that this remarkable series has received so much praise but nothing like the credit it truly deserves. Can you imagine the work that goes into creating something on this level ? Thanks Mike for a milestone series…and there’s more to come!

  2. For many people this song is his greatest and these performances demonstrate the reasons it is considered so great. Dylan is able to perform the song in many different ways, including the wonderful 1984 version above with the magical word changes, and convey different aspects to the song. Again, this 1984 performance, for example, is different from other 1984 performances – same words, same chords but he changes the feel of the song. The harmonica changes from performance to performance…this is why we listen to multiple performances from the same tour. Sadly, most people want to hear the version they heard on the album…impossible.

  3. Thanks again Robert for your appreciation! Your comments have encouraged me in the writing.
    PC, I agree there is a different quality to this 1984 version, a different mood from the Real Live version, but I can’t quite pin it down. I paused when I wrote about it, trying to capture just what that nuance of mood was, and didn’t get there. Something to do with the voice echo? Not quite as gritty, but just as anguished? And the harp seems to be reaching for something, some ultimate scream… I really don’t know. I can hear it but can’t describe it very well! And yes, this is why we listen to multiple performances.

  4. ” Hear that roar when the harp is produced ! ” is an important observation. I cannot think of another musician who is able to achieve such a reaction and the anticipation from the audience is unique. The roar is in anticipation of a harp solo which many know from experience is going to be magical. Sometimes this enthusiasm knows no boundaries… I was at Wembley Arena in 1989 and before Dylan could begin his harp solo a fan above us began to play the harp !

  5. Just a footnote to this marvellous series. It would seem that the first recorded performance we have of Bob Dylan playing the harmonica is April 1961 on ‘Pastures of Plenty’ at the Gleason’s home ( ). The earliest recordings from 1956 to 1960 have him playing the piano and guitar. It is therefore more impressive how quickly he became so good on the harp and how swiftly he developed his own unique style. This is a measure of his greatness as a musician.

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