Dylan songs of 1975: the meaning

by Tony Attwood

In this series of articles, I have been trying to give very simple one-word definitions of the subject matter of Bob Dylan compositions year by year, in the hope of seeing exactly how the themes within the music ebbed and flowed.  As well of course of noting what the key subject matter of the songs was, year by year.

The whole of the 1960s (Bob’s most prolific decade as a songwriter) has been analysed through a series of articles which are indexed here.

Three articles have been published so far on the 1970s…

Now here is the list of 1975 songs, each assigned to a category…As with the earlier articles, there is a huge problem because a lot of the songs are about multiple subjects and I am trying to fit each song into one simple title, but it was rather hard.  This is the first list I made…

  1. Money Blues (Blues, no money)
  2. One More Cup of Coffee (lost love, moving on)
  3. Golden Loom (Everything changes, nothing is fixed)
  4. Oh Sister (Everything changes, nothing is fixed)
  5. Abandoned Love (Lost love, everything changes, nothing is fixed)
  6. Isis  (Lost love, everything changes, nothing is fixed)
  7. Joey (People: social protest; glorifying the outlaw)
  8. Rita May (People: making fun of the feminist, Dr Rita Mae Brown*)
  9. Hurricane (People: Justice gone wrong)
  10. Black Diamond Bay (The rich playboys and girls are disrupted by a volcano)
  11. Catfish (People: Celebrating a sportsman)
  12. Mozambique (Celebrating the country)
  13. Romance in Durango (Story – two kids on the run)
  14. Sara (Dylan’s wife)
  15. Sign Language (A scene, a setting, people)
  16. Patty’s gone to Laredo (Lost love?)**
  17. What will you do when Jesus Comes? (What is the point of asking, what is the point of living?

*This is contentious.  See Jochen’s review and my footnote.

**Although there is no online version of this song it is available as a download from Amazon.  In the UK the cost is 99p.

I then worked from here and reduced this down to the sort of simplicity of topic that I have used through the songs of previous years.

  1. Money Blues (Blues)
  2. One More Cup of Coffee (lost love, moving on)
  3. Golden Loom (Everything changes)
  4. Oh Sister (Everything changes)
  5. Abandoned Love (Lost love)
  6. Isis  (Lost love)
  7. Joey (People)
  8. Rita May (People)
  9. Hurricane (People)
  10. Black Diamond Bay (People)
  11. Catfish (People)
  12. Mozambique (People)
  13. Romance in Durango (Love)
  14. Sara (People)
  15. Sign Language (People)
  16. Patty’s gone to Laredo (Lost love)
  17. What will you do when Jesus Comes? (Religion)

To give a comparison with what Dylan had been writing about here are the subjects for the earlier part of the 1970s with the 12 songs above added at the end.

Subject 1970/4 Previously 1975 Total
Environment, places, locations 8 9 17
Jewish prayer 1 1
Visiting 1 1 2
Love, desire 13 42 1 55
Lost love 5 31 3 39
Blues 1 9 1 11
Be yourself 1 1 2
Post-modernism 1 1 2
Protest 1 21 22
Dance 1 1 2
Being trapped 1 11 12
Death 1 4 5
Moving on 3 12 15
Rejection of labelling 1 1 2
Disdain 1 8 9
Gambling 1 2 3
Fate 7 7
Change 4 2 6
People 8 8
Religion 2 1 3

What leaps out is a new category – Dylan focussing on individuals, without invoking love or lost love, and writing about them.

All Dylan compositions by subject up to 1975. 

In this listing, the previous total up to 1974 is given first.  Where there are songs from 1975 the plus sign (+) is added after the number for up to 1974, with the grand total to date including 1975, after the equals sign (=).

  • Art: 3
  • Be yourself: 2
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12
  • Blues: 10 + 1 = 11
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 4 + 2 = 6
  • Dance: 2
  • Death: 5
  • Depression: 1
  • Disasters: 1
  • Disdain: 9
  • Environment: 17
  • Eternity: 1
  • Fate: 7
  • Future will be fine: 2
  • Gambling: 3
  • 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: 36 + 3 = 39
  • Love, desire: 54 + 1 = 55
  • Lust: 1
  • Moving on: 15
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • People (including fictional people): 0 + 8 = 8
  • Personal commentary: 2
  • Postmodernism: 2
  • Protest: 22
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Rejection of labelling: 2
  • Relationships 1
  • Religion, second coming: 2 + 1 = 3
  • 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
  • Visiting: 1 + 1 = 2
  • WH Auden tribute: 1

And as usual here is the list of the top categories by the end of 1975…

  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Being trapped: 12
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Moving on: 15
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell: 16
  • Environment: 17
  • Protest: 21
  • Lost love / moving on: 39
  • Love, desire: 55

If we combined being trapped, moving on and travelling on, we get 43 songs, a category second only to love and desire.  And since the lost love / moving on category also contains elements of the same type of concept, we can see more clearly than ever that the issue of change is as central to Dylan’s work as is the issue of love and desire.

What also comes across is that although these themes are central to Dylan’s writing, he retained the ability to write in new genres – this time I have had to create the new genre of “people” – although this is perhaps not very surprising since the lyrics will have been written by Levy.   And of course having created that to accommodate the Levy lyrics we can think of the many songs in the past that Dylan has written which could now to moved into this category.

But despite the obviously different ways of writing this list, what comes out is that contrary to the popular image Dylan writes about love and lost love (two of the three classic subjects of popular music) far more than anything else.

You might also enjoy 1975: Working with Jacques Levy

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 3330 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 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  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 602 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

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, or indeed have an idea for a series of articles that the regular writers might want to have a go at, please do drop a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article to Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note our friends at  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, plus links back to our reviews (which we do appreciate).

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