Shelter from the storm: Dylan the poet laureate, Dylan the myth maker

This review updated 19 July 2018, with the addition of four videos of the song, plus the missing verse and a short debate on the meaning of mythopoeic and a comparison with Gormenghast.  Plus a list of other articles that to greater or lesser extents take in this song along the way.

by Tony Attwood

Long before Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Heylin, called this “a lyric worthy of any poet laureate”, which shows a rare bit of insight, even if it was wholly fortuitous in its predictive sense.

He continues, “Another long song, the “Shelter” narrative descends from some mythopoeic realm…” which had me reaching for the Complete Oxford dictionary – and yes that word is there, meaning the making of myths.   Rather in the manner of Tolkein, William Blake, Mervyn Peake… which immediately had me wondering where my copies of Gormenghast were.

But really, is the story here enough to be a myth in the sense that the Gormenghast trilogy is a myth?   No of course not.  Not even if we add in the missing 11th verse

Now the bonds are broken but they can be retied

By one more journey to the woods, and the holes where spirits hide

It's a never ending battle for a peace that's always torn

"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm"

This is Dylan playing with images, showing us that lyrics can paint any picture, even against the simplest of musical textures.  And that is brilliant; of course it is a brilliant song.  But just as Dylan is playing with words, so is Heylin.  It’s not a myth, it’s a story.  There’s no need to pretend it is something more, just to show you know what a long word means.

But what took me at once from mythopoeic to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast; that city where nothing changes and the meanings of the rituals that dominate everyday life have long been forgotten?

I think probably it is the fact that everything in this complexly woven tale is told around three chords; the same three chords in every line in every verse – the same rotation of I V IV I.  Nothing changes save that lines two and three of each verse miss the final tonic.  Nothing moves on, the last line is always the same – exactly as is isolated Gormenghast.  It is a world of nothing moving on.

The instrumentation is also played out in the same terms of never-endingness (if there could be such a word).   Acoustic guitar playing chords, a double bass and a touch of echo on Dylan’s voice.

And that choice of instruments feels quite right: the song is so simple.  He finds her when he is nothing and has nothing or both, she welcomes him in, and he wanders off and loses her, much to his eternal regret.  She is the shelter from the storm of life – in a world of total doom, crying babies, nails and broken teeth.

Here’s a variant form – I’m not sure it is better but it is so engrossing to hear it after a lifetime based on the LP version.  I’m playing this over and over…

To me this represents the conflict of the man perceiving beauty and his desire to possess it (which will ultimately destroy that peaceful beauty).   Hence the simple presentation, the repeats and repeats, and yet the complexity encoded in the lyrics.

Steve Adey actually went further in recording it and took it so slowly that it lasted forever, which fits the end, but to me, not really the start, for at the start he has come in and taken shelter from the storm.  Dylan does get exercised in his singing, occasionally emphasising a line here or there.  That seems to get it exactly.   But if you have eight minutes to spare, here it is…

But overall, if you want an image for this song, just think of a cottage with no other habitation around, and a howling wind blowing outside, with all manner of evil lurking in the dark as the thunder crashes and rain falls.  Then you have it.  But as you find your own image, just remember those opening lines…

’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud

Here’s the world:
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm

And this is her:
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm

And this is the singer:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn

She ends his torture…

She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns

She is a goddess, he is a mortal.  He wants to possess beauty, but knows that he count – and yet he can’t let go of that desire.  In the end that’s it.  He wants to possess, but she will not let him for beauty is to be shared.

Always, always, always.

Many people find this to be the greatest re-working of all by Bob.  I’m not sure if it is the best, but to me it passes the eight minutes with more meaning and insight than I get from Adey.

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7 Responses to Shelter from the storm: Dylan the poet laureate, Dylan the myth maker

  1. Joni Zornes says:

    “Shelter from the Storm” is my absolute favorite song of his. It is about grace. Every verse is about grace. In the “Hard Rain” album, he even shouts “GRACEfully”. Along with the song “Oh Sister”, it seems to be a precursor to his soon open conversion to Christianity. Not suprising, with his career long connection to black American Gospel singers. Some indicators in SFTS: Deputy – the law (vs grace); God and her were born – age of grace began with Christ; one – eyed undertaker, futile horn – death’s power is futile with the resurection; of course my first understanding of the song came when I heard the verse “they gambled for my cloths”. I count about 20 direct inferences to old and new testiment scripture. Also interesting is to watch the video of when he sung this song. It seems he painted 4 backdrops, the first one looks like Christ being beaten, the second shows Bob Dylan himself with a giant key over the top and a Christian symbol of a fish to the right of Bob. The next shows a star of David and two females, one black and one white. I would love to know more about those paintings. Anyway, this is what the song means to me. Like so many other of his works, we will never know exactly what he meant. What we can know is when we feel the grip in our souls when we hear him sing his songs, we feel some of the connection with his heart.

  2. AZTrans says:

    Shelter From the Storm is unquestionably a religious song. The title phrase comes from Isaiah (4:6 (“There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.”), and 25:4 (“You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall…”).) The narrator is Christ, as is made plain from the “In a little hilltop village” stanza (Matthew 27:35).

    The meaning of the song is still obscure to me however. The grace interpretation, above, is plausible. The song arguably reflects Trinitarian intuitions — Christ appears as the narrator, and the figure of the woman suggests the Holy Spirit, who, as the Nicene Creed states, “proceeds from the Father and Son” (= “when God and her where born”?).

  3. Angus McSwayne says:

    Maybe, just perhaps, the meaning is the relationship. In other words, there is no meaning beyond the melody and the syntax.

    “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm”

    I love this song and the way it makes me feel. I only recently tried to understand what it’s saying. It’s a lot like trying to understand a giant Jackson Pollock painting, I don’t know what is says, I only know how it makes me feel.

    I find shelter from the storm when I hear this song. My heart is bigger, my smile a little wider and my warmth radiates everyone around me.

  4. aes says:

    i am a high school student analyzing songs, and i chose this one because it has a quite deeper meaning than meets the eye. the song allows for us to see into his friendship or love life, whichever it may be in this case, and we can see the decline of the emotions as the song progresses.

    in the beginning it is about beauty and grace, but towards the end it is a memory of the girl and the memory of the traits:
    “Now there’s a wall between us, somethin’ there’s been lost”

    its a very beautiful song, do not get me wrong, but what i cannot seem to figure out is why he repeats the last two lines of every section. It is most likely for emphasis, however i do not know why. why would he choose the emphasize those lines and not the internal beauty and fragility of the relationship. That is a clear point the song is making through the use of both negative and positive images.

  5. Well Tony another great essay. Written enough, read enough? Then come inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/557/Shelter-from-the-Storm and listen to all the great versions.

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    The song is qusestionably religious because of the presence of the unnamed ‘she’ who is most likely
    Sad-Eyed Lady Lownds who shelters Dylan from fans who want him to be a Christ-like figure wearing a crown of thorns; Dylan isn’t willing to be sacrificed for their sake, but then finds his creative well being poisoned by his mercury- mouthed wife; so the drifter has to leave the shelter and face the storm.

  7. nezzo says:

    To me this song is almost some kind of sequel to “I Want You” (the entire album feels like a far-away, aged, jaded sequel or reprise to Blonde on Blonde, a reexamining of that album’s emotional content several years later) and some of its characters pop up again. Here, the “guilty undetaker” only has one eye left, and all the fathers without true love now have nothing but broken teeth. Similarly, the arcane, mythological Sad Eyed Lady is reduced to being an “Idiot” and so on.

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