What was Dylan writing about? The 20 songs of 1964.

by Tony Attwood

Bob Dylan composed 20 new songs in 1964 – although as you can read from the notes (just follow the link) the first song on the list is not a “real” Dylan song in that he only wrote the lyrics – and those were written as a poem and can’t be seen as an unfinished song.

But looking at the 20 songs he did finish, we can say that this was a year dominated by songs of lost love and moving on, on the one hand, and the issue of how we see the world on the other hand.

In the list below I have once again added a short note about the types of song that Dylan wrote during 1964:

  1. Guess I’m doing fine (I’m hurting; way we see the world)
  2. Chimes of Freedom (Protest, the future will be fine)
  3. Mr Tambourine Man (Surrealism; the way we see the world)
  4. I don’t believe you (She acts like we never have met) (Lost love)
  5. Spanish Harlem Incident (Love)
  6. Motorpsycho Nightmare  (Humour)
  7. It ain’t me babe (Song of Farewell)
  8. Denise Denise  (Taking a break, having a laugh)
  9. Mama you’ve been on my mind (Lost love)
  10. Ballad in Plain D  (Lost love)
  11. Black Crow Blues (Blues, The sadness of lost love and moving on)
  12. I shall be free number 10  (Talking Blues; humour)
  13. To Ramona (Love)
  14. All I really want to do (Song of Farewell; Individualism)
  15. I’ll keep it with mine (Don’t follow leaders; individualism)
  16. My back pages (Individualism)  See also Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”. He was so much older then.
  17. Gates of Eden (Protest, Individualism, A world that makes no sense)
  18. It’s all right ma – 2013 review (Protest; Individualism, A world that makes no sense)  It’s all right ma – 2015 review
  19. If you’ve gotta go, go now (Song of Farewell; Individualism)
  20. Jack o Diamonds (This song was evolved from the sleeve notes to the “Another Side” album and the date of writing those is uncertain).

Taking these I have added the totals that we have had from previous years of writing, in terms of the subject matter.  Where no new song is added, then using my cataloguing approach, Dylan wrote nothing new with those lyrics or in that style in 1964.

I’ve included some songs in more than one category, where that seems appropriate.  The total at the end reflects the total number of songs written in that category by Dylan, from 1962 onwards.

I would add that this is not supposed to be a definite analysis, as obviously anyone can do this sort of work.  But I think it gives us an insight into the key forms and subject matter of songs that Dylan was working on at the time, and how (if at all) it was different from earlier years.

Here are the 20 songs placed within the categories I’ve adopted.

The Blues (5 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 1 in 1964).  Total: 6)

  1. Black Crow Blues (Blues, The sadness of lost love and moving on)

Love / desire (3 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 2 in 1964).  Total: 5)

  1. Spanish Harlem Incident (Love)
  2. To Ramona (Love)

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)

  1. Guess I’m doing fine (I’m hurting; way we see the world)
  2. Mr Tambourine Man (Surrealism; the way we see the world)

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)

  1. Chimes of Freedom

Lost love / moving on (7 in 1962, 5 in 1963; 4 in 1964. Total 12)

  1. I don’t believe you (She acts like we never have met) (Lost love)
  2. Mama you’ve been on my mind (Lost love)
  3. Ballad in Plain D  (Lost love)
  4. Black Crow Blues (Blues, The sadness of lost love and moving on)

Travelling on / songs of leaving / songs of farewell (8 in 1962, 5 in 1963, 4 in 1964.  Total: 13)

  1. It ain’t me babe
  2. Black Crow Blues (Blues, The sadness of lost love and moving on)
  3. All I really want to do (Song of Farewell; Individualism)
  4. If you’ve gotta go, go now (Song of Farewell; Individualism)

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.)

Humour / satire / talking blues (7 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 3 in 1964.  Total: 12)

  1. Motorpsycho Nightmare  (Humour)
  2. Denise Denise  (Taking a break, having a laugh)
  3. I shall be free number 10  (Talking Blues; humour)

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.)

It’s just how we see the world, individualism (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 5 in 1964.  Total: 6)

  1. I’ll keep it with mine (Don’t follow leaders; individualism)
  2. My back pages (Individualism)
  3. Gates of Eden (Protest, Individualism, A world that makes no sense)
  4. It’s all right ma – 2013 review (Protest; Individualism, A world that makes no sense)
  5. If you’ve gotta go, go now (Song of Farewell; Individualism)

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)

Protest (war, poverty, society…) (6 in 1962, 10 in 1963, 3 in 1964.  Total 19)

  1. Gates of Eden (Protest, Individualism, A world that makes no sense)
  2. It’s all right ma – 2013 review (Protest; Individualism, A world that makes no sense
  3. Black Crow Blues (Blues, The sadness of lost love and moving on)

The future will be fine (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 1 in 1964.  Total 2.)

  1. Chimes of Freedom

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)

Thus after three solid years of writing we can now see these themes emerge from Dylan’s work:

  • Protest (war, poverty, society…) 19 songs so far
  • Travelling on / songs of leaving 13 songs so far
  • Lost love / moving on 12 songs so far
  • Humour / satire / talking blues 12 songs so far

Now very clearly the travelling on category and the lost love category are very similar indeed – and this category, and the “protest” category in which Dylan tends to note the state of the world rather than encourage people to correct it, dominate Dylan’s writing since he started composing.

Indeed if we chose to combine the travelling on and lost love categories we have 25 songs there, making this the dominant theme of Dylan’s first few years.

I’m hoping to keep going with this series, at least to take us through the 1960s.

Elsewhere in the series

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

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