The meanings behind Bob Dylan’s 15 compositions of 1970

By Tony Attwood

Although “New Morning” is seen as being, in terms of Bob Dylan, the work that started the new decade, there was, in fact, quite an overlap in terms of time between the writing/recording of some of the Self Portrait songs and the New Morning collection.

But to make this series on the themes within Dylan’s work manageable I’m keeping with convention and seeing Self Portrait as part of the 60s and New Morning as part of the 1970s.

By the end of the 60s we have found the main themes of Dylan’s song writing to be

  • Being trapped: 10
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Protest: 20
  • Lost love / moving on: 30
  • Love, desire: 31

So what happened next?

What really grabs my attention is the way the series of songs starts – for “Time Passes Slowly” is exactly the antithesis of the protest songs such as “When the ship comes in”.  It is rural relaxation.  Not revolution but stasis.

But also these songs are a mix bringing in all sorts of topics although as I’ll explain I think one bit of background does come shining through in many of these pieces.

This one theme that does keep popping up all the way through the songs of this year – the environment around us.  From “Time passes slowly” onwards Dylan is reflecting, in many of these songs, on the world around him.  The environment might not always be the core of each song but in many cases it plays an important background part.  The hotel in “Went to see the gypsy” is certainly not the heart of the matter, but it provides the context and location – and we get a lot of context and location here.   And that is not always the case in Dylan’s songs.

Here is the list of compositions for this year, with the briefest of summaries as to its content.

  1. Time passes slowly (Just relax, there’s nothing to do; environment, lost love)
  2. Father of night (a Jewish prayer)
  3. Went to see the gypsy (a visit)
  4. All the tired horses (I’m tired; environment)
  5. If not for you (Love)
  6. Sign on the window (Thinking about the past; environment)
  7. Working on a Guru (Blues, I need philosophical help when things are bad?????)
  8. Ballad of Easy Rider.  [This song was originally placed in 1970 but following some more research has now been moved back to 1969]
  9. One more weekend (Love; being away – environment)
  10. New Morning (Love; exploring opportunities, environment)
  11. Three Angels (Christmas decorations; environment? The Book of Revelations?)
  12. If dogs run free (Just be yourself)
  13. The Man in Me (Rural life; environment)
  14. Winterlude (Love; environment)
  15. Day of the locusts (Getting his degree; environment)

Taking the environment as the key issue of these songs, not least because it is the one theme that crops up over and over again, then the themes we get for this year are…

  • The environment, places, locations: 5
  • Jewish prayer: 1
  • Visit: 1
  • Love: 4
  • Lost love: 1
  • Blues: 1
  • Be yourself: 1

Of course with a number of the songs covering several topics they could each also be classified elsewhere – particularly with the love element being the prime consideration alongside the environment throughout.    The rules I set myself when I started this series was to have each song listed in one main topics – and so that is what happens in the list above.

We have had one Jewish song before: Talkin Hava Negeilah blues so one could argue that is now a category – although the two songs are very different in style, content and indeed intent.

I’m taking the list above as the one I’m going to add to the overall list of categories.    That then gives us the overall chart of topics as below.  As before, where there is a new addition of songs from this year that is included after the + sign, with the grand total after the equals sign.  Where there is just one number it means there was nothing new in this year.

  • Art: 3
  • Be yourself: 0 + 1 = 1
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 10
  • Blues: 8 + 1 = 9
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 4
  • Death: 3
  • Depression: 1
  • Disasters: 1
  • Disdain: 7
  • Environment: 0 + 6 = 6
  • Eternity: 1
  • Future will be fine: 2
  • Gambling: 2
  • Happy relationships: 1
  • How we see the world: 3
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Individualism: 8
  • It’s a mess: 3
  • Jewish prayer: 0 + 1 = 1
  • Leadership: 2
  • Look after yourself: 1
  • Lost love / moving on: 30 + 1 = 31
  • Love, desire: 31 + 4 = 35
  • Lust : 1
  • Moving on: 9
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • Personal commentary: 2
  • Protest 20
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Relationships 1
  • Religion, second coming: 2
  • Sex (country life): 1
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Traveling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • The tragedy of modern life: 3
  • Visit: 0 + 1 = 1
  • WH Auden tribute: 1

This gives us a new list of key topics that appear in Dylan’s lyrics (selecting as I have done in earlier years, just the categories that have reached double figures).

  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 10
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Protest 20
  • Lost love / moving on: 31
  • Love, desire: 35

An index to all the previous articles in this series (covering all Dylan’s songwriting up to 1969) can be found here.

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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