The Lonesome Organ Grinder: Why do people work to understand Dylan’s lyrics?

Or to put it another way, “Is there a secret code within Bob Dylan’s songs, and if so what does it tell us?”

By Tony Attwood

One day, I guess when I was around 14 or 15, the thought struck me (or perhaps I simply read it in a book) that if I was a God and wanted the lesser mortals on planet Earth to follow my rules for a good life, and then maybe as a sideline, do a bit of worshipping of my almighty and immortal self, I’d set those rules for living out in a pretty damn clear way, so everyone could understand them.

So if I didn’t want people to kill each other I’d say “Thou shall not kill other people.”  If on the other hand I thought it was ok to kill fascists, I’d say “Thou shall not kill other people except fascists.”   And then I’d define a fascist in a pretty exact manner.

And so on.

I think at the time that I had this thought of what I’d do if I were a god (as I mentioned, it was but a passing flicker in the mind, in those troublesome mid-teenage years) I tried to write my God-like diktats down in a notebook.  But I was a teenager and so soon got bored – what with not actually being a Supreme Being and there being the regular night’s homework to complete and a rather nifty play about to begin on TV.

It was also around this time that I discovered the blues of Robert Johnson, and a little after that the music of Bob Dylan.  And in retrospect I rather think the order of discovery was important, because by the time I got to hearing “Blowing in the Wind” I was already well versed in puzzling out meanings for myself, having moved on from seeking to understand

You sprinkled hot foot powder, mmm
Mmm, around my door, all around my door
It keep me with ramblin' mind, rider
Every old place I go, every old place I go

to trying to work out (without academic assistance either from the Head of Music or the Head of English at the boys grammar school I attended in rural England) quite what “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” actually meant.  (What with the phrase “hound dog” not actually being part of the English language spoken in Dorset).

So by the time “The answer my friends is blowing in the wind,” came along, I was something of an old hand at solving the meanings of lyrics on my own (not least because at that moment I didn’t have a girlfriend, TV in my part of the UK only offered three channels, and the internet for some impenitrable reason had not yet been invented, so I had quite a bit of time on my hands).

Thus I puzzled, and in the end I took Dylan’s line to mean that we didn’t and indeed couldn’t know anything much about anything unless we go looking.   Life is just out there. Our lives and our experiences make the meanings, they are not handed down from on high, they are not naturally there.  We create the world through our interactions with it.

Or something like that.

And that led to the inevitable conclusion that since we were all individuals, each person’s understanding of the world was going to be individual, because, as English folk singer Roy Harper later put it, “everything’s just everything because everything just is”

 

I suppose the view that there was stuff out there but that it was unknowable except through personal interpretation, was enhanced by the opening of the other side of Freewheelin’.  “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why babe if you don’t know by now”.   That seemed to me to carry the message – the world is unknowable unless you look at it and take note and work it out yourself.  And even then you only know it in your own terms.

Since I was on my own with no one to debate these issues (at least until I passed my driving test and was allowed to drive my mum’s car to the nearest town which by chance had a folk club where to my amazement other people knew the music of Dylan) I left it at that.  Everything’s just everything because the answer is blowing in the wind.  Fair enough.

Except that when I did get to that folk club and found other people who knew about Dylan and liked Dylan and sang his songs, they didn’t talk about the meanings behind the songs.  They sort of nodded and occasionally sang along, just like they did when someone performed a 18th century Irish / Scottish ballad like “The Parting Glass”.

So in rural Dorset (which is the opposite end of the country from Scotland) it was just me trying to puzzle it all out, and that was still the case when “Times they are a changin” emerged.  But by now it was different for this time I tried to use the techniques I’d been taught in A Level English Literature to comprehend Blake, Byron, Shakespeare and Elliot  Thus I listened to Dylan and thought “hang on a minute, this is not about creating a revolution” it is about a revolution that happens just because it happens.  Time and events following their natural path.  No fighting the old order on the streets.  It’s just the natural order of things.  Stuff happens, times pass, times change.  Everything’s just everything.

And of course I also found the work of Dylan Thomas, and my increasingly bemused parents gave me, at my request, a volume of his collected poems for Christmas. And so I read Dylan Thomas’ injuction, ”Never be lucid, never state, if you would be regarded great,” which I rather liked.   The notion that being vague and unclear was actually a place one could quite reasonably be.  And why not?  Screw clarity, long live vagueness.    “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.”

I read an article about Dylan Thomas recently that said he “was a seismic event in English-language poetry.”  As indeed has been Bob Dylan.   And indeed where Dylan Thomas wrote “Light breaks where no sun shines,” Bob wrote

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child's balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

And ever since then I have wondered at people who have wanted to put a meaning on each and every Dylan song, and wanted to say to them, which bit of “There is not sense in trying” do you not get?

Louis MacNeice wrote of Dylan Thomas that his writing, “went back to the oldest of our roots – roots which had long been ignored, written off or simply forgotten.”  If I had such an ability to understand and turn my understanding into prose I would probably have ended up with the same expression about Bob Dylan.   His work is not about meaning, it is as often as not about going back to the oldest of our roots and reminding us of them while playing games with words, exactly as our ancestors did until we got confused by printing, TV and the internet.

And that was the clue that I needed, because roots are roots, they are not about meaning.  Yes if a song moves you, or reminds you of where you came from or where you might want to go, or indeed actually go, that’s fine.  But that doesn’t mean that’s what it is about.

So both with Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas and most of the other poets whose work I have admired through my life, I don’t have to know what a song or a poem means.   And I think (if I may be so bold as to suggest that I know what Bob thinks) that when Bob Dylan said, in his Nobel Prize speech, “When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either – what it all means,” he was not only right about Melville, he was clarifying his own work.

Elsewhere Bob said, “I’m not just up there re-creating old blues tunes or trying to invent some surrealistic rhapsody…. it’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They— they— punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose. And all the ideas for my songs, all the influences, all come out of that. All the influences, all the feelings, all the ideas come from that. I’m not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don’t care about those things.”

That was Bob in an interview in 1977, and really, I don’t see how much clearer Bob can get although in one way it might lead us to the question, “So where does Dylan get his ideas from?”

It was when I first read Jochen’s review of “I Pity the Poor Immigrent ” that I started stumbling along this meandering path that this article is, for there Bob says that he just finds the words in his head and adds for clarity, “To tell you the truth, I have no idea how it comes into my mind.”

I can emphasise with that – not in any way to compare my abilities as an amateur song writer, and professional scribbler of books and adverts, with the Nobel Prize winner, but the fact is most of my work comes entirely in that way.  I just find a line in my head and see where it goes.  Same with the characters.  I invent someone and see what she or he does.

Mix in the fact that there are some songs that have a message and others that tell stories, and others that do neither and there you have it.  Much of the time there is no deeper meaning, and even when we think there is, there isn’t.  As with, “Times they are a changing” which is about times changing, not about people changing the world around them.  Ever since it was written people have been happily ignoring the words in order to explain the song.  How odd is that!

Yet there was one period where Bob really did give us a set of clear meanings, and that was of course in his religious period, and there, rather curiously he actually spent time at some of his gigs giving us poor saps in the audience a lecture on how Jesus came to offer salvation to the world.

Not too many writers have discussed the irony of this but it is there screaming in our faces: the one time when all the meaning of Dylan’s songs was as clear as daylight, he felt the need to lecture us on what his songs meant.   Yet the rest of the time when the meaning is shrowded in shadows, he doesn’t give us a clue.

Certainly for me this is the clicher.   When the songs were all about salvation and belief, the lyrics were clear and he gave us a lecture.  The rest of the time they are brilliant, beautiful and confusing collections of thoughts and images, which is what makes them so enduring – and he tells us nothing.  That tells me most of what I want to know.

Consider, if you will, “There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief”.   I am sure everyone who has ploughed through this article and got to this point will be able to give a rendition of a meaning to that most famous of lines.   And that is it’s brilliance.   We can all get an image.  The line would be far less potent if it actually had a real live meaning that was clear to everyone.  “There must be some way out of here said David to Goliath.”  Well, maybe.   The fact that we have no idea who Dylan’s characters are, nor what their motives are, nor why Dylan is writing about them, neither at this point nor by the end of the song.  That is the point.

If for some reason you have been kind enough to wander through some of my own meanderings on Dylan’s work within this website, you might well have picked up the fact that there are two Dylan compositions that I utterly adore.   Both are moderately obscure when it comes to the considering the 558 Dylan songs that (thus far at least) we have logged and commented upon on this site.   And both are equally obscure in their meanings.

I refer to “The Drifter’s Escape” and “Tell Ol’Bill”.

Each song has a set of images that are incredibly powerful, interesting, and simulatenously completely obscure.   In each case it more or less impossible to work out exactly what is happening either to the drifter who is escaping (in the first song) or to the singer is in Tell Ol Bill who is seemingly far from escaping.

When Dylan sings “The rivers whispers in my ear” – it takes the listener with any scrap of imaginative feel to another land.  And the images hit us line after line.  “I’m stranded in this nameless place” indeed.  That is the essence of the song.

Which brings me inevitably to the masterpiece that seemingly not many other people see as being of much importance at all.   If you can work out a meaning in this, that is fine.  But quite honestly I think if you do that, you are missing the entire point.

And yes, ok, there is a meaning if you want to be pedantic: the meaning that there is no meaning.  But that’s as far as it goes.

“Oh, help me in my weakness”
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away
“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one
And my time it isn’t long
And I still do not know
What it was that I’ve done wrong”

Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
“You fail to understand,” he said
“Why must you even try?”
Outside, the crowd was stirring
You could hear it from the door
Inside, the judge was stepping down
While the jury cried for more

“Oh, stop that cursed jury”
Cried the attendant and the nurse
“The trial was bad enough
But this is ten times worse”
Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while ev’rybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

And to ram home the point and to spell it out even more clearly

Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
“You fail to understand,” he said
“Why must you even try?”

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.

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5 Responses to The Lonesome Organ Grinder: Why do people work to understand Dylan’s lyrics?

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Tony, you could say there’s meaning, but it’s double-edged for sure. He causes the listener to think about what the song’s meaning could be (if you are willing to try!) without being didactic about it.

    ie, Dylan writes and sings “Help me in my weakness”; not “Help me out of my weakness”.

  2. PC says:

    Well yes, Bob Dylan does write and perform many different types of songs ( such as “some songs that have a message and others that tell stories, and others that do neither ” ). Some Dylan fans ( and critics ) dislike the fact that some of his songs are not as poetic and complex as they think they should be. I take the view that many of his so called simple songs are the equal of his poetic epics and that these songs enhance his reputation. Tony seems to imply that because he does not understand a song then there is no ” meaning ” to the song. I have come across a few simple “message” song reviews on this blog where other people have pointed out a different meaning…’Property of Jesus’ has one of the best contributions you will find anywhere and ‘ With God on Our Side’ likewise, as someone suggests the song is nothing to do with nationalism or patriotism (and uses the word irony ). I believe that many Dylan songs, like words, have more than one meaning depending on the listener.

  3. Rajan Mahadevan says:

    People may be working to understand Dylan‘s lyrics for the same reason as perhaps Dylan himself – or even you, Tony – work on to keep on keeping on, each from one‘s own point of view ( as mentioned somewhere in „Tangled up in Blue“ ). On the whole it becomes as it seems to be the state of art today, that Dylan is just an average guy ( as mentioned in the first verse of „I shall be Free No.10“ ) and yet the most examined person among popular „stars“. In any event, there seems to be a catch-22 overdose ( as in „All I really want to do“ ) of actually responding to Dylan‘s lyrics, whether one understands them or not.

  4. daniel ogle says:

    The Drifter is our Lord Jesus Christ in his human weakness displaying his Faith that following his Fathers commandments would result in New covenant with all mankind who accept the FAITH OF JESUS thru his Atoning sacrifice MUSTand hence Escape the Judgement of G-D the Father which abides on All of mankind. His TRIP had been a pleasant one but I still do not know what LAW I broke. Once Pontius pilate throws his robe of human judge aside he expresses the anti-Semitism of ROME saying “why must you even try?”because of the Covenants He came to the house of ISRAEL.The cursed jury of pharasism is witnessed by JOHN and Mary the nurse! everybody knelt to pray? is wishful thinking? even so come Quickly Lord YESHUA

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan’s lyrics above are ambiguous. To cast them in stone as biblical orthodoxy in a one size fits all approach does not fit all listeners, as it can be noted that the drifter immediately escapes his captors in the song while, according to the Bible, Jesus is restrained, taken away, and dies on the cross.

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