What was Dylan writing about in the New Basement Tapes notebooks

By Tony Attwood

If you have been following this series you’ll have got the idea by now – I’m taking each year and trying to find the key themes that were on Dylan’s mind that year.

You can find the articles which analyses Bob’s writing year by year for the 1960s in the Dylan in the 60s index page.

And now we come to 1967 – which I didn’t really think about when I started this series.  For 1967 was the year of the Basement Tapes and the year in which Bob made his notebook jottings of what are now known as the New Basement Tapes.  Maybe if I had thought about ’67 I’d never have started the series.

Trying to find themes within the 1967 songs looks nigh on impossible, but I’m having a go, and in this article I am looking again at the New Basement Tapes lyrics.   All the songs as realised by Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, and Rhiannon Giddens have already been reviewed on this site, (go to this page and scroll down to “1967“).  Here I am looking at them again from the perspective of themes in the lyrics.  I’ll start to tackle the Basement Tapes proper in a subsequent article.

So first off we have the New Basement Tapes with links to the review article and then written after each song, a very short indication of the subject matter.

And before you shout at the screen that I have no idea what I am talking about, remember I am trying to put each song in as short a description as possible, and yes, I admit it is more than likely that quite a few of these are not right at all.

  1. Down on the bottom: The ultimate “I’m down and out” blues
  2. Married to My Hack: Despite temptations, I’m happy with my girlfriend
  3. Kansas City: I’m doing my own thing
  4. Spanish Mary  Does life make sense; random events
  5. Liberty Street Life in Kansas City; random events
  6. Nothing To It Reflections on the betrayal
  7. Golden Tom Silver Judas: Random events
  8. When I get my hands on you: Love, obsession
  9. Duncan and Jimmy: Moving on with your best mate by your side
  10. Florida Key: Lost love.
  11. Hidee Hidee Ho #11/#16:  Lost love
  12. Lost on the River # 12 & #20 Lost love
  13. Stranger Lost love
  14. Card Shark  Gambling?A card game???
  15. Quick like a flash We have ideas, we stick with them, leadership
  16. Diamond Ring Don’t follow leaders
  17. The Whistle is Blowing Moving on
  18. Touchy Situation – Lost love
  19. Six Months in Kansas City Moving on
  20. Santa Cruz: Moving on
  21. Please look after my child – moving on variation

So when you have stopped laughing at some of my guesses what we have are

  • Down and out blues: 1 (classified below simply as “the blues”)
  • Happy relationship: 1
  • Doing my own thing (Individualism): 1
  • Random events: 3 (1 in 1966)
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Love: 1 (6 in 1966)
  • Lost love: 5 (5 in 1966)
  • Moving on: 5 (1 in 1966)
  • Gambling: 1
  • Leadership: 2

By way of comparison I have put the 1966 totals in brackets, where they overlap.  The 1966 subjects I identified which do not turn up in the New Basement Tapes songs are

  • Surrealism: 3
  • Art (Farewell to folk music): 1
  • Disdain: 2
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Depression: 1

Dylan’s writing up to 1967, but including just the NBT note books, not the full NBT sets of songs performed by Dylan, is below.  The first number concerns songs up to 1966 and the number after the plus sign (if there is one) is the NBT number, followed obviously by the grand total.

  • Art: 3
  • Blues: 7 +1 = 8
  • Betrayal: 1 (new category)
  • Death: 3
  • Depression: 1
  • Disdain: 6
  • Future will be fine: 2
  • Gambling: 1 + 1 = 2
  • Happy relationships: 1 (new category)
  • How we see the world: 3
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Individualism: 6 + 1 = 7
  • Leadership: 2
  • Lost love / moving on: 24 + 1 = 25
  • Love, desire: 17  + 1 = 18
  • Moving on: 5 + 1 = 6
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Patriotism: 1
  • Personal commentary: 2
  • Protest (war, poverty, society): 20
  • Randomness: 1 +3 = 4
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Religion, second coming: 2
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Surrealism, Dada: 14
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Tragedy of modern life: 3

Selecting the most popular categories of all the songs Dylan had written up to this point we get…

  • Lost love / moving on: 25
  • Protest (war, poverty, society): 20
  • Love, desire: 18
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Surrealism, Dada: 14
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13

Of course, there are many other classifications that can be used in looking at Dylan’s songs, and one can argue with the classifications I have used for certain songs.  Indeed even I argue with some of them.  But I am not trying to do this as a definitive exercise but to give us all an idea of the themes that interested Bob year on year.

Here are the articles in this series to date

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 594 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, links back to our reviews

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