The subject matter of Dylan’s songs 1971 to 1973

by Tony Attwood

This is part of an ongoing series which attempts to assign a short simple theme or meaning to each Dylan composition, not (I hasten to add) to simplify Dylan’s work but to try and give me (and anyone else who happens to be reading) a greater insight into the way Dylan moved through themes and meanings in his songs.

By way of example (and this is the example I have given several times) many people consider Dylan (particularly in the 1960s) as a writer of “protest ” songs.  Yet very few people (if any) have mentioned that “protest” was the theme of a tiny minority of his compositions, or that his most famous “protest song” (Times they are a changin’) is not a protest song at all, but rather a song about the fact that the world changes in its own way, no matter what we do.

This article covers 1971 to 1973.  There is an index to the articles already written relating to the meanings of the songs of the 1950s and 1960s.   In terms of the 1970s, one article precedes this one The meanings behind Bob Dylan’s 15 compositions of 1970

That article about 1970 makes the point that 1970 saw Dylan move onto another new theme – the environment and how it relates to, and to an extent how it effects, the world and the way we see the world.  Many of the songs from that year have environmental elements in them, as well as other issues, and the final listing of the songs’ prime element from that year gave us

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

So just two themes emerged in more than one song: the environmental songs and love songs – and indeed many of the songs which I have not counted as primarily “environmental” in the list above, do have environmental elements.  Bob, we may take it, was in love and feeling that the place was significant.

That collection of songs gave us a new list of key topics that appear in Dylan’s lyrics, and selecting as I have done in earlier years, just the categories that have reached double figures since he began writing songs at the end of the 1950s, we get these subject areas as the main ones that Dylan had written about from his very first songs through to this 1970 collection…

  • 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

As such Bob Dylan, in terms of subject matter, had become, across the years, much more conventional in his writing than generalised articles recognise.  But he never stopped exploring, as 1971 shows.  In that year Dylan only wrote six songs but they were a very varied collection.

And indeed 1971 was a year in which Bob took more time out but producing two magnificent songs. Here is the list of songs with, as before, the shortest possible description of the topic of each song…

  1. Vomit Express (postmodernist blues; cheapest seats on the cheapest flight)
  2. When I paint my masterpiece (art, Rome, the environment)
  3. Watching the river flow (The artist as observer, the environment)
  4. George Jackson (protest)
  5. Wallflower (asking for a dance)
  6.  For you baby (love)

What is particularly interesting is that, as I have oft mentioned, one of the most widely accepted definitions of what constitutes the themes of the lyrics of popular music came from Professor Keith Swanwick of London University Institute of Education (whose work I particularly remember since he oversaw my research degree) who stated that the vast bulk of popular songs dealt with just three subjects: love, lost love and dance.

Dylan had not, up to this point, particularly bothered himself with dance (apart from once saying that he saw himself as a song and dance man, when asked to define his music) and yet here (perhaps for the first time) he wrote (or possibly co-wrote) a country song about dancing: Wallflower.

1972 then gave us an even shorter list of new songs which as it turned out incorporated a hint of what might come next…

  1. Forever Young – (Love and hope for a child)
  2. Billy 1, 4, and 7 and the Main title theme – Billy the Kid (Being trapped; they’re out to get you)

Adding the two years’ music together we get, in terms of the short-version of the themes…

  • Post-modernism: 1
  • The environment: 2
  • Protest: 1
  • Dance: 1
  • Love: 2
  • Being trapped: 1

Now moving on one more year we have 1973.  The earlier article about the chronology of Dylan’s writing is still on line: Bob Dylan in 1973: moving into the second round of unadulterated genius

And the songs created that year, with their brief lyrical content summary, were…

  1. Goodbye Holly (Death)
  2. Wagon Wheel (Rock me mama) (Moving on)
  3. Sweet Amerillo (Moving on)
  4. Knocking on heaven’s door (Moving on – although we should add the song has nothing to do with the movie)
  5. Never say goodbye (The environment)
  6. Nobody cept you (Love)
  7. Going going gone (Lost love)
  8. Hazel (Love)
  9. Something there is about you (Love)
  10. You Angel You (Love)
  11. On a night like this (Love)
  12.  Tough Mama (Love / lost love)
  13. Dirge (This wheel’s on fire reworked)  (Disdain)
  14. Wedding Song (Rejection of labeling, setting oneself free

So here are another 14 songs and the themes assigned give these totals…

  • Love: 5
  • Lost love: 2
  • The environment: 1
  • Death: 1
  • Moving on: 3
  • Rejection of labelling: 1
  • Disdain: 1

Pulling these three years together we get these subject totals for 1971-3

  • Post-modernism: 1
  • The environment: 3
  • Protest: 1
  • Dance: 1
  • Love: 7
  • Being trapped: 1
  • Lost love: 2
  • Death: 1
  • Moving on 3
  • Rejection of labelling: 1
  • Disdain: 1

Which now means we can update the complete total of Dylan’s subject matter from the start of his song writing career up to 1973.  As usual categories that have one or more new songs that appear for the first time in this article, have these shown after the plus sign, and the new grand total after the equals sign.

Thus art was the subject matter of three songs written prior to 1971, but of no songs in the period covered here.   Being trapped was the subject matter of 10 earlier songs, and one more song in this period, making (rather obviously) 11 songs in total.

All Dylan compositions by subject up to 1973

  • Art: 3
  • Be yourself: 1
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 10 + 1 = 11
  • Blues: 9
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 4
  • Dance: 1
  • Death: 3 + 1 = 4
  • Depression: 1
  • Disasters: 1
  • Disdain: 7 + 1 = 8
  • Environment: 6 + 3 = 9
  • 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: 1
  • Leadership: 2
  • Look after yourself: 1
  • Lost love / moving on: 31 + 2 = 33
  • Love, desire: 35 + 7 = 42
  • Lust: 1
  • Moving on: 9 + 3 = 12
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • Personal commentary: 2
  • Post modernism 0 + 1 = 1
  • Protest 20 + 1 = 21
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Rejection of labeling: 0 + 1 = 1
  • Relationships 1
  • Religion, second coming: 2
  • Sex (country life): 1
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • The tragedy of modern life: 3
  • Visit: 1
  • WH Auden tribute: 1

And as usual here is the list of the top categories by the end of 1973…

  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 11
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Moving on: 12
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Protest: 21
  • Lost love / moving on: 33
  • Love, desire: 42

We can see of course that moving on turns up three times – and it could be argued that they should be merged to make a giant moving on category with 61 songs, but I still feel the difference between the types of moving on songs, and find the categories worth keeping as separate groups.  Some just reflect the desire to move on, some the moving on because love has gone and one needs to escape, and some that link to the notion of farewell.

These then are the nine themes that have occupied Dylan the songwriter the most since he started writing at the end of the 1950s.

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

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



  1. I’m really loving these articles. I feel like we are getting real insight into what Dylan was working on through the years.

    What about the Jimmy Berman Rag? 🙂

  2. Sounds like Jimmy Berman is a Ginsberg burlesque on Jimmy Brown, the paper boy…I believe Tony said in his article on the song that he didn’t want anything more to do with it (lol).

    Released in 1974.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *