Steel and Feathers. Dylan composition number 595.

By Tony Attwood

A central part of this blog has been the notion of creating a place where every single Bob Dylan composition or co-composition is listed and reviewed.   When we started the project, those of us involved at the time thought that the total was going to be around 400 songs.

Heylin’s two-volume epic (Revolution in the Air, and Still on the Road) lists 610 songs which are numbered and then perversely it ends with one final song to which he has not ascribed a number!  (What a strange fellow he is).

But many of these songs, however, are simply references to titles or themes which Dylan has made in passing, but for which no evidence exists apart from a line of conversation somewhere along the road or an alleged now-lost recording from a session that someone happens remembering sometime.

Indeed the very first song sets the scene for the two volumes: Song to Brigit.  Dylan mentioned it once, but that is we all know, Dylan plays games with fans, journalists and above all supposedly deep-thinking analysts so maybe it existed, maybe it didn’t.  (Fortunately, Untold Dylan came on the scene long after most of the game playing had finished, and I very much doubt we’ve ever come to Bob’s attention, so I also totally doubt he’s lobbed any false trails our way.  Although I can’t deny it would be so wonderful if he ever thought we were worth bothering with.)

Anyway, my point is that given that the very first Heylin song is non-extant, and quite possibly never happened, we can take Heylin’s 610 total with big pinches of sodium chloride.  At least our total (up to about a week ago) of 594 was justified by actual references to actual pieces of music which have now all been actually listened to and reviewed.  And indeed this site includes a fair number that Heylin never even mentioned in passing.

So it would be fun to get our total up from 594 to 612, just to outdo the old pontificator, but progress these days is slow.  However a week or so back, Aaron provided an article 10 songs that Dylan let others finish and on checking the list through, as a good publisher always should do, I suddenly realised that one of those 10 had never been included on Untold Dylan.  Shock horror.  594 rose to 595.

The piece is Steel And Feathers (Don’t Ever) and it is one of the songs which Dylan started, abandoned and then allowed another songwriter to continue to its conclusion.  In this case it was Nikki Jean, who undertook a project in which she contacted several very famous songwriters and asked to collaborate with them for her 2011 album “Pennies In A Jar”.

According to the Wikipedia article on the album Nikki Jean “travels the country writing with her heroes. In the process Nikki wrote with over 30 hall of fame songwriters including Thom Bell, Luigi Creatore, Lamont Dozier, Burt Bacharach, Jeff Barry, Carole King, Bobby Braddock, Paul Williams, Jimmy Webb, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Carly Simon.”

No Dylan in that list, because to be pedantic she didn’t write WITH Dylan.  He gave her an unfinished work from years before and let her get on with it.

There is a clear description of how it all happened in relation to Bob Dylan on this videoed discussion

But, again according to Wiki, “Although most of the album was recorded while Nikki Jean was at Columbia Records she was released from her contract midway through its creation.”

Which is a bit odd with such a large and seemingly successful idea.  But she got a new contract with another company and released the album and went on tour. Here is a live version with Daryl Hall.

One of the key elements of the song (and of course we don’t know which of the composers is responsible) is the variance in the length of the emphasis of beats within the lines of lyrics and the changing rhyme patterns. 

If you list to the opening lines the variations become quite apparent by line four which has a rhythmic pattern quite different from line two, which it answers.

Then in the “Take your time” section the rhythm bends again and so does the rhyming scheme.  To give but one partial example “time” rhymes with “crime” at the end of the line as we might conventionally expect, but in the answering line “hiding” and “ridin” rhyme internally.  And then the rhyme scheme is abandoned totally in the next section with “shiny and new”.

So both the rhythmic and rhyming scheme, the things that hold popular songs together and make them easy to remember (which is in essence what makes them “pop”) is played with, manipulated, and then thrown out the window.

This game playing with rhythm and rhyme continues throughout, and if anything gets more and more extreme with

Take a cab to that little old diner and take a stab
At piecing together the steel and the feathers that make me

Quite what the steel and feathers are we are not told, but we guess the inner hardness that keeps the individual on the road, and the outer softness that suggests vulnerability.  Which actually when you think about it, is the exact opposite of what most songs that get into this sort of discussion portray.  Normally it is the outer self that appears solid and able to withstand pressure and pain, but the internal that is soft and falling apart.

Typical Bob Dylan.  Take an idea and turn it upside down.  (Or in this case, inside out).

——–

Don’t ever take yourself away
Don’t ever take yourself to a place where I can’t find you
Don’t ever take yourself away
I will never leave you, I will never deceive you I’ll be right there walkin behind you

Take your time, take my confession, take my crime
Take the halo I’m hiding and faith I got ridin on you

Rob me blind, I’d still see the best in human kind
In the way you make this broken world all shiny and new

Don’t ever take yourself away
Don’t ever take yourself to a place where I can’t find you
Don’t ever take yourself away
I will never leave you, I will never deceive you I’ll be right there walkin behind you

Take a cab to that little old diner and take a stab
At piecing together the steel and the feathers that make me

I’ve been told my hand is a hard one to hold
I fly or I sing but give me poison I’ll drink if you make me

Don’t ever take yourself away
Don’t ever take yourself to a place where I can’t find you
Don’t ever take yourself away
I will never leave you, I will never deceive you I’ll be right there walkin behind you

Take my tears to water the flower garden
Take my years so we can grow but
Don’t ever take yourself away
Don’t ever take yourself to a place where I can’t find you
Don’t ever take yourself away
I will never leave you, I will never deceive you I’ll be right there walkin behind you.

———–

It is a really beautiful song in my view.  Not a song we might recognise as a Dylan work, but the game playing with the music is very Dylan, and the feelings conveyed are eye watering (at least for anyone who knows a thing or three about love and lost love).

In my view it is a great addition to our catalogue of what was 594 but it now 595 songs.  One of those pieces which I need to be in an emotionally very secure place to be able to listen to, so I can’t always play it.  But when I can, it really is beautiful.#

And for the sake of pedantry, taking into account the work of others, I’m placing this in Dylan’s chronology in 1981, although the music was not composed until 2011.

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.

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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7 Responses to Steel and Feathers. Dylan composition number 595.

  1. jas says:

    Very beautiful love song! I never heard her. Thank you for recording and getting to know her!

  2. Dlanor says:

    There is a recording of this song by Bob Dylan, according to Olof Bjorner made on 23 April 1981. It seems pretty complete to me, though it has different lyrics.

  3. I’ve heard Dylan do this song! I’ll have to hunt for it in my collection but he definitely recorded it either in bootleg form, outtakes, or on an officially released album. I’ll get back to you.
    Actually, I’m sure I’m not the only one mentioning this.

  4. I just found it. It’s on “Between Saved and Shot”. It’s called Don’t Ever Take Yourself Away.

  5. Also on Genuine Bootleg Series Vol 1 (Disc 3)!

  6. Theo de Ruigh says:

    To me it seems that this is the same as the song listed as nr 100 titled,
    “Don’t ever take yourself away” if not why is it listed as a new song.

  7. jack says:

    Steel And Feathers (Don’t Ever) is NOT a “new” Dylan song.
    It is Dylan’s “Don’t ever take yourself away” released on the Hawaii Five -0″ soundtrack CD.
    Nikki Jean has simply changed some lyrics for her version and called it “Steel and Feathers”.

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