The subject matter of the Basement tapes compared to other Dylan songs

by Tony Attwood

This article updated 17 Feb 2020, with a few extra statistics at the end of the piece.

Trying to categorise the themes within Bob Dylan’s songwriting is complicated – many songs overlap between themes, and besides, who is to say how the themes should be defined?  My own judgement as to what makes a theme thus affects the results – if you do your own analysis of Dylan’s songs by subject, you’ll come up with your own results.

But I have pressed on with this idea of categorising Dylan’s songwriting, not because I am trying to offer a definitive view as to what Bob was writing about in the 1950s and 1960s, but rather to give myself a general feeling about how he chose what to write about.  A feeling which I hope might influence my reviews of these songs, should I choose to go back and review the reviews.

Looking at the New Basement Tapes notebook and the complete collection of Basement Tapes recordings what hits me most of all is the sheer variety of topics that Dylan covers.  Some themes that have become well established in Dylan’s writing by this time are well represented, but they don’t get used over and over.  Other new themes emerge.  Only occasionally touched themes from the past get an airing again.

Let me give an example.  There are 31 “lost love” and “moving on” songs on The Basement Tapes recordings.   And even if you profoundly disagree with my categorisation of each song, I am fairly sure you will be putting a lot of those songs together into the “lost love / moving on” groups.  Lost love and moving on is a central theme of Bob Dylan in the 1960s.

But there are so many other themes as well, and so many songs and sets of lyrics, that we can almost lose sight of individual subjects.  Hence my attempt at any analysis.

The full list of categories that I have selected for the Basement Tapes and the notebook is given below with the total number of songs I have allocated to each topic given as well.  Lost love and moving on was the key topic, with almost 50% of the notebook songs falling into this area.

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 / moving on: 10
  • Gambling: 1
  • Leadership: 2

Basement Tapes – all topics covered

Below are the totals for the original boxed set of Basement Tapes recordings.  I’ve separated the songs out into the listings for the three articles used to analyse the song.  Given that there is a link in terms of the time each song was written and recorded, and the order in which they were removed, it is interesting to see how over the period of the recordings, Dylan’s interests changed.  The themes that were prevalent at the start slipped away as time passed, and in particular, we can notice that love as a subject was dropped by the second 20 songs while “being trapped” and escaping from the entrapment suddenly emerged as a topic.   “Moving on” as a topic was used only once in the first 40 songs, but then became the dominant theme of the last group of songs.

Part 1

  • Change: 4
  • Love and lust: 7
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Relationships: 1
  • Life is a mess: 3
  • Disaster: 1

Part 2

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

Part 3

  • Humour: 2
  • Life is a mess: 4
  • Lost love / being lost: 5
  • Love: 3
  • Moving on / Nothing lasts forever: 8
  • The Woman is in control (Leadership): 3

The Topics of the Basement Tapes songs (not including the New Basement Tapes notebook songs)

We can now look at the Basement Tapes as a whole.  Some themes appear throughout the series (those marked with an asterisk) others come and go.

  • Being trapped, and escaping from being trapped: 9
  • Change: 4
  • Disaster: 1
  • Disdain: 1
  • Humour: 2
  • Life is a mess: 7*
  • Lost love / being lost: 6*
  • Love and lust: 10*
  • Moving on / Nothing lasts forever: 9*
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Relationships: 1
  • Surrealism: 1
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Woman is in control (Leadership): 3

*These topics spread across more than one of the three collections analysed,

That gives us 15 topics across 63 songs.   And given that Bob Dylan clearly didn’t have a plan during the Basement Tapes days and nights, this becomes one of the richest sources of data for us in terms of understanding how Bob worked in coming up with ideas for songs.

We have the story, of course, of the creation of Sad Eyed Lady where Bob worked away on the song through the night and the band sat around waiting for him to complete the song.  But here in the basement, we see a different approach – songs emerging very quickly out of the situation in which Bob and the guys were sitting around, improvising, talking, drinking (etc) and trying out ideas.

The songs on certain topics do come in groups, but even so Bob is clearly moving on quickly between topics as he tries out different possibilities.

If we now compare the New Basement Tapes notebook of lyrics with the Basement Tapes songs we find only two themes that appear in both collections.   The NBT has three songs about random events, while the Basement Tapes has two on nothing having any meaning.  And the NBT has two songs on leadership, while the Basement Tapes has three, all of which have the emphasis of women being in control.

This shows again (to me if no one else) that the Basement Tapes subject matter really was influenced by the situation of Dylan and the guys being together and songs emerging.

There is nothing in the Basement Tapes that suggests that Bob Dylan was sitting and planning songs, topics or themes, (as in, “let’s try some songs about…”) rather it appears that they just emerged, often taking form and shape during the lyrics of the song itself.

The Basement Tapes topics in order of popularity

Here is the list of topics in the Basement Tapes in order of their popularity of use.

  • Love and lust: 10
  • Being trapped, and escaping from being trapped: 9
  • Moving on / Nothing lasts forever:9
  • Life is a mess: 7
  • Lost love / being lost: 6
  • Change: 4
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Woman is in control (Leadership): 3
  • Humour: 2
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Disaster: 1
  • Disdain: 1
  • Relationships: 1
  • Surrealism: 1

Topics that had gone before & songs written in the Basement

Dylan’s writing up to and including 1967, is below.

The first number (or only number) shows songs up to the Basement Tales including the New Basement Tapes notebooks.  The number after the plus sign shows the number of songs found on the Basement Tapes.   Then after the equals sign, we have the total number of songs we have found by Dylan, throughout his career thus far, in that category.

  • Art: 3
  • Being trapped and escaping from being trapped: 0 + 9 = 9
  • Blues: 8
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Change: 0 + 4 = 4
  • Death: 3
  • Depression: 1
  • Disdain: 6 + 1 = 7
  • Disaster: 0 + 1 = 1
  • Future will be fine: 2
  • Gambling: 2
  • Happy relationships: 1
  • How we see the world: 3
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13 + 2 = 15
  • Individualism: 7
  • Leadership / woman is in control: 2 + 3 = 5
  • Life is a mess: 0 + 7 = 7
  • Lost love / moving on / being lost: 25 + 6 = 31
  • Love, desire, lust: 18 + 10 = 28
  • Moving on / nothing lasts forever: 6 + 9 = 15
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 0 + 2 = 2
  • Party freaks: 0 + 3 = 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • Personal commentary: 2
  • Protest (war, poverty, society) 20
  • Randomness: 4
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Relationships: 0 + 1 = 1
  • Religion, second coming: 2
  • Slang in a song: 0 + 4 = 4
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Surrealism, Dada: 14 + 1 = 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Tragedy of modern life: 3

I think that makes 237 songs

Finally, the most common topics found in Dylan songs since he started writing, up to the Basement Tapes.  These are all the topics with over 10 songs in them – also now showing for the first time the percentage of songs in each category.

  • Lost love / moving on / being lost: 31 (13%)
  • Love, desire, lust: 28 (12%)
  • Protest (war, poverty, society) 20 (8%)
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16 (7%)
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 15 (6%)
  • Moving on / nothing lasts forever: 15 (6%)
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15 (6%)

Those seven groupings of subject matter account for 140 out of the 237 songs considered, which is 59% of the songs.  In other words 41% of the songs were songs relating to the remaining topic areas.

This collection of 237 songs, up to and including the Basement Tapes represents 40% of the songs (including co-written songs) that we have found written by Bob Dylan.

Of course this was not the end of 1967 because Bob Dylan then left the Basement and composed 12 songs for his new album.  I’ll consider those next in this series.

Dylan songs of the 1950s and 1960s…

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