The foundations of Bob Dylan’s lyrics: The subject matter in the early years

By Tony Attwood

As you may have realised (if you have been paying attention to my ramblings), of late I have been trying to evolve an overview of Bob Dylan’s writing between 1959/60 – when we have a sighting of three possible compositions – and 1962 wherein we now know Dylan wrote at least 36 songs.

1962 represented an extraordinary explosion of talent, not just because of the number of compositions but also because of the variety of themes to be found in these songs and of course the quality of some of those songs.

I’ve recently been back through the list of compositions from 1959 to 1962 and written, as best I can, a very short description of the lyrical theme of each song, (as well as trying to make sure that all the video links to recordings of the song work.   That final task never ends because songs do get removed, and copyright rules are different in each country, but I’ve had a go and with luck you might find one or two of the “This video is not available” notices do, now, once again play some music.

The list of songs with the brief descriptions are in the article Dylan songs of the 60s and now, just dealing with those opening years of Dylan the composer, I want to try and draw a few conclusions about Dylan’s opening stance when it comes to the writing of lyrics.   Then, if I manage to make that work, and if anyone is interested, I’ll try and do the same with subsequent eras.

So, as an opener, I’ve tried to list the subject matter of each of the songs during that initial burst of creativity, and I am hoping to go on and explore what happened in the years after this opening period.

Of course I am not suggesting that Bob sat down and thought, “Hmmm time to write another lost love song, I guess”.  He wrote the lyrics and music as he felt them, influenced by his daily experiences and the music that he listened to.

And that simplistic observation explains why I feel an analysis like this – crude as it obviously is – has some interest.  For the themes Dylan evolved in his songs surely reflect where his mind was at the time.

Of course that doesn’t mean that each time he wrote a song about death he did so because someone he knew had died.  Dylan, in these formative years as a composer, was also listening to vast quantities of music, and following themes that he heard.  But it does give us a clue as to where he was mentally, and where he wanted to be.

What I would add however is that whenever one comes up with an analysis like this there is always a strong chance that there is already an incredibly famous book that has done this in a more comprehensive and more exciting way, leaving me looking like a total idiot.  “But surely you’ve read….” is one of the phrases everyone who plays with ideas and doesn’t spend a lifetime reading what everyone else has said beforehand, is bound to hear sometime.

But then there lies the benefit of the internet.  If someone has done all this before me, then I can always delete this page and if ever asked, claim it was a set of notes I wrote “years ago” and which somehow got published by mistake.

As for the detail, I should add that where I find a song that incorporates several different themes, that song is listed in each of those thematic areas.   If you are looking for a list of the songs in order of composition, with no duplication along the way, that is to be found on the page concerning Dylan songs of the 60s – as noted above.

I’ve got 16 categories for song themes in these opening years.  I’m going to try and use the same categories as I move on to through the subsequent years (unless, as I say, someone has done this all before me).   The one category that is slightly different from the rest is the first one – the blues – which can refer to the style of music, and the theme of the lyrics.

The Blues

  1. When I got troubles
  2. One eyed jacks
  3. Ballad for a friend
  4. Poor Boy Blues
  5. Standing on the highway

Love / desire 

Lost love / moving on

  1. Corrina Corrina
  2. Honey just allow me one more chance
  3. Rocks and Gravel
  4. Quit your Lowdown Ways
  5. Down the Highway
  6. Tomorrow is a long time
  7. Kingsport Town

Travelling on / songs of leaving 

  1. Down the Highway
  2. Song to Woodie
  3. I was young when I left home
  4. Rambling Gambling Willie
  5. Long Time Gone
  6. Rocks and Gravel
  7. Don’t think twice
  8. Walking Down the Line

Tragedy of modern life 

  1. Man on the street
  2. Mixed up confusion
  3. The Ballad of the Gliding Swan

Death

  1. Ballad for a friend
  2. Watcha Gonna Do? 
  3. I’d hate to be you on that dreadful day

Gambling

  1. Rambling Gambling Willie

Humour / satire / talking blues

  1. Talkin New York 
  2. Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues
  3. Talkin Folk Lore Centre Blues
  4. Talkin Hava Negeilah blues
  5. Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
  6. Bob Dylan’s Blues 
  7. I shall be free

Patriotism

  1. On Wisconsin

Social commentary / civil rights

  1. Hard times in New York Town
  2. eath of Emmett Till
  3. The Ballad of Donald White
  4. Ain’t gonna grieve

It’s just how we see the world

  1. Blowing in the wind 

Personal commentary – do the right thing

  1. Let me die in my footsteps
  2. I’d hate to be you on that dreadful day

Nothing changes

  1. Long Ago Far Away

Protest (war, poverty, society…)

  1. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
  2. Ballad of Hollis Brown
  3. John Brown
  4. Ye Playboys and Playgirls 
  5. Oxford Town
  6. Train A Travellin’

The future will be fine

  1. Paths of Victory.

The second coming

  1. Whatcha Gonna Do?

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

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