Bob Dylan: the songs of moving on 1961/62

By Tony Attwood

This is part of a series of articles in which we examine the lyrical themes of Bob Dylan’s music.  Articles so far in the series include

In this piece I’m looking at a favourite Dylan theme – and indeed a favourite theme within the blues genre – “moving on”.  Of the 48 songs that Dylan wrote before the end of 1962, around 10 songs can be counted as being in this category.

In purest form of these songs, the travellers goes on his way mostly for no purpose other than travelling on.  He is driven to travel, just as some are driven to change partners, driven to gamble, driven to eat, or (I guess some of my friends would say about me, driven to write, given that I not only run this blog but two others as well!)

And this song theme has a most particular element within it because Dylan is known as the man who has toured and performed more than anyone else in the world of music.  The “Never Ending Tour” is certainly well named.

So in this particular theme we find something very close to Dylan’s heart – part of the essence of his own life.  But at the same time in the songs as often as not we normally don’t find any reason for the travelling – it is more a case that the singer has to “just keep on keeping on” – defined as the act of doing what you have been doing but doing even it even more.

Thus sometimes we know the reason for moving on, but normally we don’t.  The traveller just does it.

The first example of such a song in Dylan’s portfolio of compositions is Song to Woody in which he not only travels on but also remembers those who have trod this road before.  So from the very start the song establishes moving on as an honourable tradition.

And this is also a song that establishes Dylan’s position on the subject, in two verses

I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings

and…

Here’s to Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly too
An’ to all the good people that traveled with you
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind

Yes we are up and moving on.

But there can be deep regret too, as with Dylan’s next song in this genre I was young when I left home where he is concerned about his abandonment of his family.

Standing on the highway then shows us exactly where Bob was getting his inspiration from – Robert Johnson with Cross Road Blues:

Well, I’m standing on the highway
Trying to bum a ride, Trying to bum a ride
Trying to bum a ride
Well, I’m standing on the highway
Trying to bum a ride, Trying to bum a ride
Trying to bum a ride
Nobody seem to know me
Everybody pass me by

and the central nature of moving on because moving on is what he does comes with the fourth verse…

Well, I’m standing on the highway
Watching my life roll by

Rocks and gravel continues the theme, and this song was seriously considered for Freewheelin’.   Here the singer is travelling on and looking for “that girl of mine” – one of the most common explanations or excuses for the travelling on.

And then we move on again to Down the Highway, recorded in one take, on the album, and then never played it in concert. Sheer contrariness?  Maybe it just needed to be said, maybe it was about his girlfriend and that needed to be said.

No one really seems to have commented on it much either way, despite Howard Sounes’ book being named after it.

Of course in concert a song like this would be an absolute show ender. It is bleak in its unforgiving open chord tuning on the guitar and playing style that harks back to the blues masters of the 1930s. But then the sheer contrariness of Dylan’s nature suggests he might just do it one day.  And besides it is based on reality – his woman has gone to Italy. He’s tailing along behind, and for that the sheer emptiness of the song’s feeling is perfect.

So the message is clear – it’s a lost love song and a blues about travelling on, all in one.

We should also notice that many of these songs are based on older blues travelling pieces, and this is certainly the case with Long Time Gone–  a re-working of “Maggie Walker Blues” as can be seen from the opening lines…

Bob Dylan sings

My parents raised me tenderly
I was their only son
My mind got mixed with ramblin’
When I was all so young
And I left my home the first time
When I was twelve and one
I’m a long time a-comin’, Maw
An’ I’ll be a long time gone

“Maggie Walker” opens

My parents raised me tenderly,
They had no child but me.
My mind being placed on rambling,
With them I couldn’t agree
Just to leave my aged parents
And them no more to see.

And then, this being Dylan, he keeps the same theme but utterly changes direction with Don’t think twice.

This time we get a bit of an explanation for moving on; this is moving on without it being for the sake of moving on.  It is all her fault…

I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ all the way down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I’m told
I give her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don’t think twice, it’s all right

This really is different, and the line “You just kinda wasted my precious time” is as big of a put down as one can imagine.

But then with Walking Down the Line we are back to the more carefree existence – all of life’s troubles can be overcome by just moving on.

By now Bob was a star bringing in vast amounts of money through his songwriting and his appearances but he could still write

My money comes and goes
My money comes and goes
My money comes and goes
And rolls and flows and rolls and flows
Through the holes in the pockets in my clothes

which is in itself quite interesting.

In terms of keeping on keeping on the year ended with Kingsport Town

The singer of this type of song portrays himself as having been around the world and suffered all sorts of hardships and problems, and he (or she but generally he) has washed up here, in this bar, and tells his tale.

Of course this is the antithesis of the troubadours who described the lives of the great nobles and ladies in their castles, but the function is similar. In both cases the singer is saying that he has seen the world and is returned to tell stories of it. It is just that in one case the world is the world of the lords and ladies, and in the other it is the world of the lonesome traveller, betrayed in love.

It is an approach that in England goes back to the Middle Ages, during which time mosst villages were totally isolated from the rest of the country and mostly from each other. “Born here and die here” was exactly what it was like for everyone and nothing changed the endless monotony of life other than the changing seasons, the religious festivals, and the occasional visitor from the Lord of the Manor’s estate office.

Since at that time a small town 20 miles away was as remote as the then unknown China, the tales were fanciful, but the singer gave himself some credence by placing himself within the adventures of which he told. If he had had great fortune, then his ragged clothes and asking for free food and drink in return for the singing would be hard to explain. So the songs of being misled, let down and cheated, came into fashion.

A difference thus has come between the reality of Bob Dylan, a star known across the world after Freewheelin’ and his still hankering after the keeping on keeping on songs.

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 590 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, is starting to link back to our reviews

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.