The subject matter of Dylan’s songs of 1963

Other articles in this emerging series about Dylan the composer in the 1960s

In 1962, the first major year of Dylan the songwriter, Bob Dylan composed 36 songs.   In 1963 another 30 emerged.  Actually, he probably wrote many more, but these 66 composed across two years are the ones that have survived by having been recorded either in a studio or at a concert.

Musically this was a time in which Dylan was often re-using the melodies and themes from traditional folk songs and re-writing them, as had been the tradition throughout the centuries of European folk music.   However it was not the tradition of contemporary popular music, and some felt affronted by a traditional song being re-written, with Dylan claiming copyright on the words.

But we can readily understand why Dylan was doing this: to compose 66 original, interesting, singable, and memorable melodies in two years is a lot too ask.  Maybe Irving Berlin did it, but I suspect even he was pushed to reach this level.

Now when, some years back I first attempted to do a very brief review of this year I called it  Dylan the storyteller – and that title, still seems right to me.

I also chose as my “Highlight of the year” for 1963 as “When the Ship Comes In”, not just because I have always loved it from the moment I first got the LP through to today, but because of what it is:  “Part religious, part protest, this has all the vigour and vitality of change and reform that “Times they are a changing” (written soon after) doesn’t get close to with imagery that is utterly new within this type of music.”

Yet in a sense “When the ship” is very much like “Times” in that both set out the profound belief that change is coming, with the implication that really there isn’t much we have to do – the change is inevitable, either because society is inexorably changing (Times), or because God has a plan for mankind (Ship).   The inevitability of change became a central theme for Bob.

If we look at the range of themes Dylan introduced into his compositions this year, unsurprisingly many are very similar to those of the previous year – indeed they are the themes that Bob adopted as his own: lost love, songs of leaving, etc.  But there are new themes gaining greater prominence too, particularly including songs recording the failure of justice.

The list of the 30 songs written in this year, in the order they were written, with a very brief note as to the subject matter appears here (just scroll down the page).

Below I am trying to group the songs according to the lyrical content, the aim being to get more of a feel as to what Bob was writing about this year, and then how that compared with other years.

To do this I am going to take the thematic headings that I affixed to Dylan’s work when looking at the previous years of his compositional life and from this draw a conclusion as to whether thematically Bob was moving on, or in fact if he was using the same themes as before.

The Blues (5 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

Love / desire (3 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

Gambling (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

It’s just how we see the world (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

Personal commentary – do the right thing (2 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

The future will be fine (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

Lost love / moving on (7 in 1962, 5 in 1963; total 12)

  1. Girl from the North Country (Lost Love)
  2. Bob Dylan’s Dream (Lost love)
  3. Only a Hobo (moving on)
  4. Ramblin Down Thru the World (moving on)
  5. Dusty Old Fairgrounds (keep on moving)

Travelling on / songs of leaving (8 in 1962, 5 in 1963, total 13)

  1. Boots of Spanish Leather (Song of Leaving)
  2. Farewell (a song of leaving)
  3. Going back to Rome (there is something about Italy)
  4. One too many mornings (Song of Leaving)
  5. Restless Farewell (moving on)

The tragedy of modern life (3 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

  1. You’ve been hiding too long. (Our leaders have betrayed the ideals of our country)
  2. Troubled and I Don’t Know Why (everything is wrong)

Death (3 in 1962, 1 in 1963)

  1. Who killed Davey Moore?  (Boxing, Inequality)

Gambling (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

Humour / satire / talking blues (7 in 1962, 2 in 1963)

  1. All over you (comedy alternative to talking blues)
  2. New Orleans Rag (aka Bob Dylan’s New Orleans Rag) (Humour; life is chance)

Patriotism (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

  1. You’ve been hiding too long. (Our leaders have betrayed the ideals of our country)

Social commentary / civil rights (4 in 1962, 2 in 1963)

  1. Only a pawn in their game  (Social commentary, protest)
  2. North Country Blues (Rural protest)

It’s just how we see the world (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

Personal commentary – do the right thing (2 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

Nothing changes (3 in 1962, 1 in 1963)

  1. Eternal Circle (Nothing changes)

Protest (war, poverty, society…) (6 in 1962, 10 in 1963, total 16)

  1. Masters of War (War protest)
  2. Walls of Red Wing (Protest: life is a matter of chance)
  3. With God on our Side (Protest)
  4. Talking World War III Blues (Protest, surrealism)
  5. Only a pawn in their game  (Social commentary, protest)
  6. North Country Blues (Rural protest)
  7. When the ship comes in  (Protest, the world will change)
  8. The Times they are a-Changing (Protest, the world will change)
  9. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (Protest, racism)

The future will be fine (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963)

The second coming / religion (1 in 1962, 1 in 1963)

  1. Talkin Devil (talking blues, the Devil is real)

Justice (0 in 1962, 2 in 1963)

  1. Seven Curses (Absolute betrayal of justice)
  2. Percy’s Song (The failure of justice)

Art (0 in 1962, 2 in 1963)

  1. Gypsy Lou  (Art, Protest)
  2. Lay Down your Weary Tune (the natural world is superior to anything mankind can make)

Thus after two solid years of writing we can see the main themes emerge from Dylan’s work:

Protest (war, poverty, society…) 16 songs so far

Travelling on / songs of leaving 13 songs so far

Lost love / moving on 12 songs so far

And interestingly two of these themes (the second and third on the list) are closely related.  So clearly although it was reasonable for Dylan to be known early on as a protest singer (it was the subject that occupied him more than anything else) we have to note that only 16 songs out of the 66 written in 1962 and 1963, (Dylan’s first two prolific years) were protest songs (just around a quarter).  20% were songs of leaving or travelling on, and 18% were songs of lost love and moving on.

Indeed since it would be perfectly legitimate to consider the second and third category in the short line as one (moving on, leaving, travelling on, lost love) we do have one major area of poetic interest for Dylan which occupies him more than protest songs, making up 38% if his songs.

But it was the protest songs that made the headlines, and understandlably so.  Songs of lost love, leaving etc etc, will never make the national headlines.  But songs telling swarms of young people that society is about to change is a challenge and a half to the established order.

Finally as a reference marker, here is the list of the 30 songs Dylan wrote this year, in the order in which he wrote them (as far as I can tell).

  1. Masters of War (War protest)
  2. Girl from the North Country (Lost Love)
  3. Boots of Spanish Leather (Song of Leaving)
  4. Bob Dylan’s Dream (Lost love)
  5. Farewell (a song of leaving)
  6. Talkin Devil (talking blues, the Devil is real)
  7. All over you (comedy alternative to talking blues)
  8. Going back to Rome (there is something about Italy)
  9. Only a Hobo (moving on)
  10. Ramblin Down Thru the World (moving on)
  11. Who killed Davey Moore?  (Boxing, Inequality)
  12. Dusty Old Fairgrounds (keep on moving)
  13. Walls of Red Wing (Protest: life is a matter of chance)
  14. New Orleans Rag (aka Bob Dylan’s New Orleans Rag) (Humour; life is chance)
  15. You’ve been hiding too long. (Our leaders have betrayed the ideals of our country)
  16. Seven Curses (Absolute betrayal of justice)
  17. With God on our Side (Protest)
  18. Talking World War III Blues (Protest, surrealism)
  19. Only a pawn in their game  (Social commentary, protest)
  20. Eternal Circle (Nothing changes)
  21. North Country Blues (Rural protest)
  22. Gypsy Lou  (Art, Protest)
  23. Troubled and I Don’t Know Why (everything is wrong)
  24. When the ship comes in  (Protest, the world will change)
  25. The Times they are a-Changing (Protest, the world will change)
  26. Percy’s Song (The failure of justice)
  27. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (Protest, racism)
  28. Lay Down your Weary Tune (the natural world is superior to anything mankind can make)
  29. One too many mornings (Song of Leaving)
  30. Restless Farewell (moving on)

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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