Dylan in 1964: the year of multiple masterpieces

By Tony Attwood

This article comes from a continuing series of reviews of Dylan’s compositions, and the themes he evolved in his writing, year by year.   Previous articles in the series are…

By 1964 Bob Dylan was known as a protest singer, the voice of a generation, the songwriter of his age, and quite a few things more.  Among his masterpieces already recognised as such he had composed maybe 15 masterpieces which anyone who studied the form would know about and recognise.  In order of composition those 15 that I nominate were

  1. Blowing in the wind 
  2. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
  3. Don’t think twice
  4. Masters of War
  5. Girl from the North Country
  6. Boots of Spanish Leather
  7. Bob Dylan’s Dream
  8. Who killed Davey Moore?
  9. With God on our Side
  10. Only a pawn in their game
  11. When the ship comes in
  12. The Times they are a-Changing
  13. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
  14. One too many mornings
  15. Restless Farewell

These are songs that had been composed in under three years, of which the first four in particular, along with “Times” are surely known by most people who know anything about the era.   And indeed Times itself is still quoted daily, with opening lines to newspaper and blog articles along the lines of “As Bob Dylan wrote, The Times They Are A-Changing, and ….” and off the piece goes.  Do a daily search for articles from around the world on Bob Dylan and most days up will pop a fair sprinkling of those.

And it is this year that takes us to comparisons with America’s other great songwriter: Irving Berlin.  On his death the New York Times wrote, “Irving Berlin set the tone and the tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century.”

Now, suddenly, we begin to find that Bob Dylan was setting the tone and tempo for the tunes that reminded America of where it had come from, how far it had fallen from its great ideals, and where it might yet go.

Both men wrote utter classics.  By the time he was 30 Irving Berlin was an absolute legend.  By the time he was 23 so was Dylan for he had written “Times they are a changin”, “Blowing in the wind”, “Don’t think twice,” and so on.

Curiously though although Berlin was nominated for Academy Awards eight times, he never got one.  But he did write, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America”.  Different men totally, but the two great pinnacles of American songwriting.   Dylan was never going to write “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Cheek to Cheek”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “Blue Skies” and “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” but he started to get people to think about what lay beyond, rather than celebrating what’s here.  And he got an Oscar, plus the Nobel Prize.

And certainly by 1964 people were realising that Bob had, in under three years, challenged the whole notion of what music could be about, while still using some of the themes of the past.  He was about challenging the established view while not preaching a particular line.  It was about lost love and hope for the future; a better world to come, maybe.  And all done by one man with a guitar and harmonica.

It was a year which started with a song of hurting Guess I’m doing fine and ended up as a song of leaving and individualism (If you’ve gotta go, go now).   (The additional song added at the end of the list of compositions, is of questionable date as it was evolved from the sleeve notes to the “Another Side” album and the date of writing those is uncertain).

In my earlier article, written long before I tried to pull all of Dylan’s lyrical themes together and make some sense of the pattern of his writing I used the title Bob Dylan in 1964: the overview. Adding new themes.  And I think he did this with his first song of the new year Guess I’m doing fine.   It’s far from a great piece, but it marks out a different element in Bob’s music.

But that was by way of introduction, because the next song of the year was the protest pieces Chimes of Freedom and  It’s all right ma almost right at the end.  And perhaps the even more important news was that he was still experimenting.  He did not write “It’s all right ma” and think, “well I can’t go much further than that”, because he suddenly changed direction again and wrote If you’ve gotta go, go now before the year was done.

And it has just occasionally struck me, was Dylan talking to himself at that moment, saying, “You’ve just written the most profound song you’ll probably ever manage, so if you are going to stop writing now is a good time to do it.  Cos if not, it’s going to be a long long ride.”

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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