Dylan and the half truth: an analysis of the subject matter of Dylan’s lyrics 1959-1965


by Tony Attwood

What exactly are Dylan’s songs about?  Is there one theme (as for example propagated by those writers who have argued that they are all about religion), multiple themes (love, moving on, social justice etc), songs in which nothing that can be directly related to reality (the more surreal songs for example such as Tombstone Blues), or just a mixture of all types of subject matter?

It was without much hope of finding an absolute answer I started drawing together the list of the 593 songs that we have on this site which Bob Dylan has written or co-written, to see if I can offer any sort of insight into the theme or themes that have occupied Bob Dylan since he started song writing.

The series is far from concluded – in fact I have hardly started, and have only reviewed the years up to 1965, but that is starting to give me an insight into just how complex a subject this is going to be.

In fact I have made several attempts since launching this website in 2008 at classifying Dylan’s song lyrics into styles and subject matter, and each time have stopped as I have become overwhelmed by confusion.  And maybe that is right, for as Jochen reminded us recently, “Donald Fagen [of Steely Dan] repeatedly assures that the bard is the source of inspiration for their poetic and impenetrable texts. ‘No one in the pop medium had ever used that breadth of subject matter or surrealistic and dream language,’ he says in the Wall Street Journal (“Rock’s Reluctant Front Man”, July 8, 2011).”

I think there’s a lot in that comment, although as I have continued my quest for meanings and themes in the 593 Dylan compositions and co-compositions we have found, the main comments I get back are from people telling me either that I am quite wrong, or that I should chill out and not worry and just accept the songs as they are – neither of which comment is particularly helpful for anyone who wants to understand Dylan’s lyrics a little more.

Although to be clear, it doesn’t actually worry me if (f0r example), “Went to see the gypsy” is about Elvis Presley, or is simply the musical equivalent of a short story about a curious performer in a big hotel, but rather, my starting point is a deep fascination with the range of subject matter that appears to turn up in Dylan’s work.

Of course, although Dylan can be very obscure, Dylan himself has given us the occasional insight, as when he said to Bill Flanagan in 1986,

“A lot of times you’ll just hear things and you’ll know that these are the things that you want to put in your song. Whether you say them or not. They don’t have to be your particular thoughts. They just sound good, and somebody thinks them. Half my stuff falls along those lines. Somebody thinks them. I’m sure, when I’m singing something, that I’m not just singing it to sing it. I know that I’ve read it. Somebody’s said it. I’ve heard a voice say that. A song like Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight sort of falls into that category: I’ll take you to a mountaintop and build you a house out of stainless steel. That kind of stuff just passes by. A guy’s getting out of bed saying don’t talk to me; it’s leaving time. I didn’t originate those kinds of thoughts. I’ve felt them, but I didn’t originate them. They’re out there, so I just use them.”

And I must say I find that explanation very attractive, although just writing, “I’ve heard a voice say that,” as the explanation for the meaning of a song lacks a certain depth.

But of course it doesn’t mean that every song is like this.  “Day of the Locusts” has the giveaway line about the degree in it, so we can accept that it was about his getting his honorary doctorate.  And whether “Don’t think twice” is about an actual relationship or just about breaking up a relationship doesn’t really matter too much – it is a song of leaving, and that is the point.  “Look out your window and I’ll be gone” is the giveaway, and songs of leaving are very common in Dylan’s output.

What does strike me however is the way that Dylan can slip in and out of various different modes of thought between songs and within songs.  Soon after talking about “a lot of times you just hear things,” he also said, “Not a whole lot of real thought goes into this stuff.”

So now we have two issues.   Dylan picks up words, phrases and ideas most of the time, and uses them without too much thought.  Second, the meanings we find are created by ourselves.

That is not to denigrate his work, but rather to reflect upon how it happens.   If we could interview William Shakespeare now and have him say much the same, reflecting that, “All the world’s a stage” was just a phrase he picked up somewhere, would he suddenly become less than the greatest playwright of that age – perhaps of all time?  Probably not, although Shakespeare would be right.   Juvenal, in the second century, wrote in “Satire 3”: “All of Greece is a stage, and every Greek’s an actor.”  Shakespeare just enlarged the stage a bit.

Yet it doesn’t matter too much, because what’s important is not just the line but the whole set of images and feelings given in the piece.   Dylan is no less a writer by having picked up ideas along the way.

But we do have curious moments – not least with the religious period.  Starting with the album, “Slow Train Coming” Dylan for once did seem to preach overtly – although I’ve always been curious about the fact that the song that seemingly launched the change as the title piece of the album, actually has no overt reference to Christianity at all in its lyrics.  More its a condemnation of the political and economic state of America – or at least that is how it seems to me.

All that foreign oil controlling American soil
Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed
Sheiks walkin’ around like kings
Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings
Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Mind you that is Dylan for you.  As I have mentioned so many times on this site, “Times they are a changin” is not a protest song in the conventional sense at all.  There is no call to arms, no demand for the young to rise up and overthrow the rotten old regime.  It just says, “change is happening and can’t be stopped.”   Which is undoubtedly true, but not actually very helpful as a guide to what we should do about it.

The other odd fact from the religious period is that although we all could hear quite clearly that Dylan had been converted, and thus didn’t need to lyrics explained, this was the period in which he lectured us on his views while on tour.  Quite a paradox – especially as many in the audience didn’t actually seem very interested in listening.

Yet as that period drifted to an end we were back with songs that were full of exquisite phraseology and gorgeous musical moments such as Caribbean Wind, and which then never made it onto the mainstream album of the day.  How perverse this man has been.

But let’s go back to the 1960s – not least because with the 1960s I’ve made a start on seeing what the themes were in Bob’s writing which is indexed (as far as I have got) under the grand heading “The songs of Bob Dylan written in the 60s.”

What you will find there are 12 articles covering the first half of the decade, which I am not suggesting you necessarily want to plough through, but rather which points out the complexity of trying to analyse what Dylan was writing about, in general terms.  By which I mean, we can by and large work out what each song means, or at least what genre it falls into, but getting an overall picture is more difficult.

What I have then done is tried to compact Dylan’s work into categories.  I did try to get the number of categories as small as possible, but I still end up with around 20 thematic approaches.

Now of course the immediate response of some fans is to say “don’t do it” – claiming that Dylan is unclassifiable and that grouping the songs like this either diminishes the output, or my efforts simply contain mistakes.  Or both.   But I have plodded on this far, because it interests me.  If others think it is wrong, fair enough, but I find it insightful.   Here’s how far I’ve got, for songs up to 1965.  You can find a similar set of details for each year covered thus far.  To be clear, I’m only listing here the songs that were added to the subject area in 1965.

Surrealism / Dada  (note this was a new category started in 1965: 11 in all)

  1. Visions of Johanna
  2. I wanna be your lover
  3. Jet Pilot
  4. Ballad of a thin man
  5. Queen Jane Approximately
  6. Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues
  7. Highway 61 Revisited
  8. Tombstone Blues
  9. Sitting on a barbed wire fence
  10. Outlaw Blues
  11. Subterranean Homesick Blues

The Blues (5 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 1 in 1964, 1 in 1965). Total: 7

  1. Highway 61 Revisited (The world makes no sense, except maybe the blues; Dada.  It’s not a blues in itself, but it is about the blues.)

Love / desire (3 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 2 in 1964, 6 in 1965).  Total: 11

  1. Long distance operator (Panic because he can’t get through on the phone)
  2. I wanna be your lover (It’s a surreal world that makes no sense; Dada)
  3. From a Buick 6 (I got this woman who does everything)
  4. She Belongs to Me (Love)
  5. Love Minus Zero (Love)
  6. Love is just a four letter word (Is love real?)

Lost love / moving on (7 in 1962, 5 in 1963; 4 in 1964, 7 in 1965. Total: 19

  1. Medicine Sunday (Moving on – although the song is only a fragment so it is hard to say)
  2. On the Road Again (Moving on, the artist vs society; Dada)
  3. Maggie’s Farm (Moving on, the artist vs society; Dada)
  4. It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry (I’m so tired of all this moving on)
  5. Sitting on a barbed wire fence (Moving on, nothing makes sense; Dada)
  6. California (Blues, moving on)
  7. Outlaw Blues (Moving on, The artist vs society; Dada)

Travelling on / songs of leaving / songs of farewell (8 in 1962, 5 in 1963, 4 in 1964, 2 in 1965  Total: 15

  1. It’s all over now baby blue (Song of Farewell)
  2. Farewell Angelina (Song of leaving)

Humour / satire / talking blues (7 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 3 in 1964. 1 in 1965. Total: 13

  1. Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (Beat poetry as rock music; new talking blues, humour; Dada)

Protest (war, poverty, society…) (6 in 1962, 10 in 1963, 3 in 1964, 1 in 1965.  Total: 20

  1. Desolation Row (Political protest; It’s not the world, it’s how you see the world)

The songs of disdain (0 in 1962/4, 4 in 1965.  Total: 4

  1. Can you please crawl out your window? (Song of Disdain)
  2. Positively Fourth Street (Song of Disdain)
  3. Like a Rolling Stone (Song of Disdain)
  4. Why do you have to be so frantic (Lunatic Princess). (Song of disdain)

The most popular themes.  

Here’s how that running total looked at the end of this year for the subject matter that occupied Bob the most in these early years as a songwriter…  You can of course argue that the “moving on” songs are in the same category as “travelling on” – and that exemplifies the problem here.  The judgements are subjective.  If this is of any help to anyone, it is simply through providing one way of analysing Bob’s work.

  • Protest (war, poverty, society…): 20 songs so far
  • Lost love / moving on 19 songs: so far
  • Travelling on / songs of leaving: 15 songs so far
  • Humour / satire / talking blues: 13 songs so far
  • Surrealism / dada: 11 songs, all composed in this year.

Previous themes

Here is a list of the other categories I have created for previous years, but for which in my estimation, Dylan did not compose a song in 1965

  • Gambling (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964).  Total: 1)
  • It’s just how we see the world (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 2 in 1964.)  Total: 3)
  • Personal commentary – do the right thing (2 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total: 2)
  • The future will be fine (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 1 in 1964.  Total: 2)
  • The tragedy of modern life (3 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964. Total: 3.)
  • Death (3 in 1962, 1 in 1963, 0 in 1964: Total: 3.)
  • Patriotism (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 1.)
  • Social commentary / civil rights (4 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 6.)
  • Individualism (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 5 in 1964.  Total: 6)
  • Personal commentary – do the right thing (2 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 2.)
  • Nothing changes (3 in 1962, 1 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 4)
  • The future will be fine (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 1 in 1964.  Total 2.)
  • The second coming / religion (1 in 1962, 1 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 2)
  • Justice (0 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 2)
  • Art (0 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 2)

I am hoping to keep this little project running, and you never know.  It might actually offer some deeper illumination as we proceed.


What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about 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.

The index to all the 592 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

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, links back to our reviews

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