Being trapped: the meanings of Bob Dylan’Basement songs part 2

By Tony Attwood

Taking all of Dylan’s compositions up to the disappearance of the gang into the basement we have these as the major themes…

  • Lost love, moving on: 24
  • Protest (war, poverty, society): 20
  • Love, desire: 17
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving etc: 16
  • Surrealism, Dada: 14
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13

So now we can add in the subject matter of the New Basement Tapes notebook

  • Down and out blues: 1
  • Happy relationship: 1
  • Doing my own thing (Individualism): 1
  • Random events: 3
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Love: 1
  • Lost love: 5
  • Moving on: 5
  • Gambling: 1
  • Leadership: 2

Dylan’s writing up to 1967, but including just the NBT notebooks, not the BT recordings. 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

Review of the Basement tapes meanings part 1

The meanings of the first 20 Basement Tapes songs (one omitted as it is too short to describe)

  • Change: 4
  • Love: 6
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Lust 1
  • Relationships 1
  • It’s all a mess 3
  • Disasters 1

The meanings of the second set of BT songs analysed

  1. I’m not there (lost love, regret)
  2. You ain’t going nowhere (nothing means anything)
  3. This Wheel’s on Fire (disdain, but I’m not letting go)
  4. I shall be released (I am trapped)
  5. Too Much of Nothing (Being trapped)
  6. Tears of rage (Being trapped)
  7. Quinn the Eskimo – The Mighty Quinn (surrealism)
  8. Open the Door Homer (Escaping from being trapped)
  9. Nothing was delivered (We’re trapped, nothing’s been sorted)
  10. Sign on the cross (We’re trapped and misled)
  11. Sante Fe (getting away from being trapped)
  12. Odds and Ends (we’re trapped by time and don’t get the time back)
  13. Clothes line saga (trivia and profundity mix in life; nothing means anything)
  14. I’m alright (life’s a mess, I’m trapped, but I’m still going on)
  15. Apple Suckling Tree (children’s song, slang in a song)
  16. Get your rocks off (using slang in a song)
  17.  Silent Weekend (using slang in a song)
  18. Don’t ya tell Henry (using slang in a song)
  19. Going to Acapulco (moving on)
  20. Bourbon Street (Living in misery and regret, being trapped).

The meanings of the second 20 songs on the Basement Tapes

  • Lost love 1
  • Nothing has meaning 2
  • Disdain 1
  • Being trapped, and escaping from being trapped 9
  • Surrealism 1
  • Slang in a song 4
  • Moving on 1

Adding the Basement Tapes songs thus far together…

  • Change: 4
  • Love: 6
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Lust: 1
  • Relationships: 1
  • It’s all a mess: 3
  • Disasters: 1
  • Lost love: 1
  • Nothing has meaning 2
  • Disdain: 1
  • Being trapped, and escaping from being trapped: 9
  • Surrealism: 1
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Moving on 1

What we have here is one outstanding category – Dylan was writing about being trapped in the Basement (maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously, but through these first 40 songs that is what comes across.)

Which gives us this analysis of Dylan’s subject matter as below.  Where there is just one number it means we have not found any new examples of Dylan working in this lyrical theme for the songs considered here for the first time.   Where there are such examples these have been added after the plus sign, and then (obviously) the two numbers are added to give a new total.  Equally obviously (I hope) is that an entry starting with 0 means that Dylan had not tackled this topic before.

  • Art: 3
  • Being trapped / escaping from being trapped: 0 + 9 = 9
  • Blues: 8
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Change: 0 + 4 = 4
  • Death: 3
  • Depression: 1
  • Disasters: 0 + 1 = 1
  • Disdain: 6 + 1 = 7
  • Future will be fine: 2
  • Gambling: 2
  • Happy relationships: 1
  • How we see the world: 3
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Individualism: 7
  • It’s a mess: 0 +3 = 3
  • Leadership: 2
  • Lost love / moving on: 25 + 1 = 26
  • Love, desire: 18 + 6 = 24
  • Lust 0 + 1 = 1
  • Moving on: 6 + 1 = 7
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 0 + 2 = 2
  • Party freaks: 0 = 3 = 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • Personal commentary: 2
  • Protest 20
  • Randomness: 4
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Relationships 0 + 1 = 1
  • Religion, second coming: 2
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Slang in a song: 0 + 4 = 4
  • Surrealism, Dada: 14 + 1 = 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Tragedy of modern life: 3

And finally, as ever, taking the list and putting the most used topics in order.

  • Humour, satire: 13
  • Surrealism, dada: 15
  • Moving on, songs of leaving and farewell: 16
  • Protest: 20
  • Love, desire: 24
  • Lost love, moving on: 26

Conclusions:

The most obvious conclusion is that the Basement makes it clear to us how Dylan’s environment influences what he writes about.  Never before has Bob written about being trapped, but suddenly he has written nine pieces about being trapped – and he’s staying in the basement.  Never before has he used slang as a central piece of a song’s lyrics, but here he is doing it four times.

There are several other new categories here, and if I may, let me assure you that I am working hard to avoid creating more and more categories.  But I’ve felt the need to put in slang, party freaks, relationships, nothing has meaning, “it’s a mess” (which in retrospect as a topic could be merged with “nothing has meaning”, disasters and being trapped.

Indeed if we do link, nothing has meaning, it’s a mess, change, disasters and being trapped together we have a new category of 19 songs, which would be the third most popular topic for Dylan.

Of course just how we assign songs to categories is a moot point, and it affects the analysis.  I am tending to go for more, rather than fewer categories, for it is then going to be easy to close these down into fewer groupings at the end, while still retaining a record of the thinking as we went along.

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2 Responses to Being trapped: the meanings of Bob Dylan’Basement songs part 2

  1. jas says:

    I was in doubt, as it often happens to me, with respect to item 8 + 12 in view of item 8 + 2 (both outside Basement Tapes). But thanks to this article, especially the plus sign, item 0 and the new sum, he convinced me that I don’t have to think about my doubts now.
    I’ve never seen Dylan’s work broken down into topics, and through numbers and totals.
    The conclusions on the topics are also very interesting, for example the impact of the basement on the number of slang uses.
    Thank you for your article, I will continue to follow your work, Mr. Attwood

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Very kind Jas. Much appreciated.

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