Lay lady lay to Nashville Skyline The meanings of Dylan’s songs in 1968/9

by Tony Attwood

This article is part of a series that attempts to describe the subject matter of each Dylan song in a few words, in order to trace how his songwriting evolved over time, looking both at his interests within each year, and the subjects that particularly attracted him throughout his first decade as a writer.

As we saw in the last article in the series, the John Wesley Harding album took a direction of its own when it comes to the subject matter of Dylan songs, with a heavy emphasis on Kafka and the breakdown of cause and effect.   Dylan had written surreal songs before, but by and large this album travelled in a direction of its own.

But the album had a curious ending with two songs seemingly disassociated with the rest of the LP.  Was that a bizarre Kafkaesquian trick – a way of saying this whole album makes no sense because these last two songs have nothing to do with everything that has gone before?  If so, it was very successful, because few people have ventured to explain what Bob was up to with those final songs, other than the notion that he had run out of Kafkaesque songs  Quite what that meant however we had to wait and see because the following year Dylan took a break, and in the rest of the decade we were given just 16 songs.

As throughout the series I have attempted to give the shortest possible description to each song and what we can see is that in as much as anything that had gone before was an influence, the influence came more from those last two songs rather that “All Along the Watchtower” and “The Drifter’s Escape”.

Here is the list with the simplest of descriptions of the lyrics after each title.

  1. Lay Lady Lay (love)
  2.  Nowhere to go – co-written with George Harrison (escape)
  3. Minstrel Boy (we need to look after ourselves, as no one else will do it)
  4. I threw it all away (lost love; love is all there is)
  5. I don’t want to do it (lost love)
  6. I’d have you anytime (love)
  7. To be alone with you (love)
  8. One more night (lost love)
  9. Peggy Day (love)
  10. Country Pie (sex? country life?)
  11. Tell me it isn’t true (love)
  12. Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You (love)
  13. Wanted Man (being on the run)
  14. Champaign Illinois (celebration of the city)
  15. Ballad of Easy Rider (being world-weary)
  16. Living the blues (lost love)

Thus the most obvious way to read this is to see JWH as a one-off; here we have an utterly different approach to the subject matter for the songs as Dylan goes back to old themes and tries one or two new ones as well.

In JWH we had six songs that can be readily seen to be influenced by Kafka, two love songs, a couple of stream of consciousness pieces, a homage to WH Auden and a piece about living forever.

What we do have however are a few unusual topics, which may well have come about because was working with other songwriters during this year.  It may also be because he was trying to break away from his established themes.  The “assigned” notes below relate to topics we have already established in Dylan’s earlier writings in the 1950s and 1960s.

  • Love: 6
  • Lost love: 4
  • Escape (assigned to moving on): 1
  • Look after yourself: 1
  • Being on the run (assigned to moving on): 1
  • A celebration of one city: 1
  • Being world-weary (assigned to being trapped): 1
  • Sex / country life: 1

This is quite a mixture, and a real sign after JWH of Dylan turning back to some favourite themes, as well as trying out a couple of new approaches.

Love and lost love, as we have seen, have been key Dylanesque topics throughout his first decade as a songwriter.  But the other six topics which each have one song, are new to the list.

In the final article in this series on the subject matter of Dylan’s writing in the 1960s, I’ll look at the subjects that Bob chose for his songs, from the start of his writing to 1969.  And there is something of a surprise within that, I feel.

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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