The 50% of his songs that Bob Dylan refuses to sing

by Tony Attwood

There are something around 300 songs that Dylan has written and/or recorded which, according to the official web site, he has never played on stage.   They range from the mysterious “Unknown instrumental” to some Christmas classics as well as some monsterworks such as “Tempest”.

For many we can guess the reason – some are obscure pieces played just the once in the Basement or in the days when the maestro was struggling to get enough works together to make the next album.  Others really are too big to be played in the context of a gig; Tempest itself is 1000 words and 14 minutes long – and that is a lot of the concert to take up with a song not necessarily rated that highly in the genre by all and sundry.

But others are perhaps more surprising.   Maybe Bob wasn’t satisfied with “No time to think” but it is such an interesting exploration of songwriting in itself, it seems strange to leave it on the shelf forever more.

We might guess that having passed “Farewell Angelina” over to Joan to sing, Bob felt that song was done and dusted, but has he never thought of the excitement there would be in the audience to hear him perform it for the first time?

Neighbourhood Bully is one of the most commented upon songs reviewed on this site, but that too has never had an outing – and there again neither has “Property of Jesus”.

What strikes me is that there seems to be no logic to the list.  I can understand Bob not bothering to go back to “Motorcycle Nightmare,” “Ballad in Plain D”, “I shall be free number 10″ and Black Crow Blues” from “Another Side”, but I was surprised to see he has never once attempted “Sad eyed lady” in public.   It is a big piece, but even so…

And how about this for something a little strange…. He called the album “John Wesley Harding” but has never once performed the title track on stage.  While another song from the album (you will of course know which) has been performed by Bob more than any other song during the Never Ending.   And that’s one which proves (so he says) that the original is not always best.

Looking at the list from an album point of view the New Morning collection hasn’t done well.  Dylan surprised us (well he surprised me) by giving “If Dogs Run Free” over a 100 runs out with several different arrangements, but has never ventured forth with “One more weekend”, “Winterlude,” “Went to See the Gypsy”, “Sign on the Window,” “Three Angels” or “Time Passes Slowly”.  And several more.   OK not absolute peaks of his writing I would agree, but the last of those surely is worth a meander through with a new arrangement on at least one tour.

As for songs Bob has recorded but did not write, many – perhaps most – of these also have been missed from the concert.  I personally loved his versions of “Alberta” and he obviously enjoyed it enough to put two on the album of odds and ends, but not enough to perform to the wide world.

Of course I have never expected my great favourite “Ballad for a Friend” ever to turn up – I suspect Bob has utterly forgotten about it, and if it did get played and I was there I’d probably pass out on the spot, but even allowing for the oddities of my personal taste and Bob’s prediliction for doing the opposite of what we might expect, it seems odd that he has left out certain songs completely.

Why, for example, of all the songs of that era, is “Temporary Like Achilles” the one that has never seen the light of the concert hall?

Actually the list gets even odder when we look at the songs Dylan has performed once, and then never taken to again.  Weirder because he went to the trouble of working out an arrangement, and then left it after one show.  “Caribbean Wind” stands out, but there is also “Black Diamond Bay”, “Meet me in the morning”, “Brownsville Girl,” “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “Spanish is the loving tongue”, and on and on.

In fact about half of the songs listed on the official Dylan site have either never been played in a concert, or have only been played the once.  Which means that when it comes to performance, Dylan has abandoned and ignored about half of the songs he has written and/or recorded.  Of course he has written so much, but even so…

At the other end of the list you’ll know what’s coming… there are nine songs that have been performed over 1000 times, with “Things have changed” moving up all the time and undoubtedly soon to join the 1000 club.

Anyway, just for the record (as it were – and I am sure one day the record company will put out an album of the most often performed concert songs), here are those top nine in descending order (as of mid September 2019)

  1. All Along the Watchtower
  2. Like a Rolling Stone
  3. Highway 61 Revisited
  4. Tangled Up In Blue
  5. Blowin’ in the Wind
  6. Ballad of a Thin Man
  7. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
  8. It Ain’t Me, Babe
  9. Maggie’s Farm

“Things have changed” has 33 to go to get to the magic 1000.

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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The 50% of his songs that Bob Dylan refuses to sing

  1. David Lewis says:

    Nice article, thanks.

    Long songs are just harder to perform I think, especially in one’s later years. Desolation Row notwithstanding. But then again Highlands had a few – excellent – outings as a late career long song.

    Was Black Diamond Bay really performed once live? That I didn’t know. When?

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    It was 25 May 1976 – so wherever Bob was performing on that day.

Leave a Reply

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