The subject matter of Bob Dylan’s songs 1976/7

By Tony Attwood

This article continues the reviews of the meanings of Bob Dylan’s songs of the 1970s.  Previous articles in this series have been…

When I started this series of articles I had no idea if I was going to learn anything from trying to come up with a very simple classification of the essence or subject matter of each of Bob Dylan’s songs year by year.

And yes for me, if no one else, it has worked, not least for when I went back and had another look at “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”.  Heard on its own, it can have a certain meaning, but heard within the context of Dylan’s interest in Kafka and consider his songs from the Basement era and onto JWH, it offers a different set of insights.

So I continue with the series, with the hope that by the time I get to the end of the 1970s I will be in a position to chart the ebbs and flows of Dylan’s interests as expressed in his music.

We have only seven songs from 1976/7, here they are with the meanings I have assigned to each…

  1. Changing of the Guards: personal: the sound of words, the possibility of rhymes, the music
  2. Is your love in vain?: personal: the dilemma of the person in the public eye.
  3. Senor (Tales of Yankee Power): moving on, but is it our choice, or are we moved?
  4. No Time to Think: rejection, lost love
  5. True Love Tends to Forget: love
  6. We better Talk this Over: lost love, moving on
  7. Where are you tonight? lost love

Boiling this down to simplicity (which is what we need to get some sort of feel of 600 songs) we have four lost love songs, one of moving on, and two highly personal songs (a new category)

To give a comparison with what Dylan had been writing about here are the subjects for the earlier part of the 1970s with the songs above added at the end. The final figure gives the total number of songs written by Dylan in each category since he started writing in the 1950s

Subject 1970/4 1975 1976/7 Total since 1950s
Environment, places, locations 8 17
Jewish prayer 1 1
Visiting 1 2
Love, desire 13 1 1 56
Lost love 5 3 4 43
Blues 1 1 11
Be yourself 1 2
Post-modernism 1 2
Protest 1 22
Dance 1 2
Being trapped 1 12
Death 1 5
Moving on 3 1 16
Rejection of labelling 1 2
Disdain 1 9
Gambling 1 3
Fate 7 7
Change 2 6
People 8 8
Religion 1 3
Personal commentary 1 3

So the theme of the year is clear – moving on, lost love and a personal reflection upon that.

All Dylan compositions by subject up to 1977. 

In this listing, the previous total up to 1975 is given first.  Where there are songs from 1976 the plus sign (+) is added after the number for up to 1975, with the grand total to date including 1976, after the equals sign (=).

  • Art: 3
  • Be yourself: 2
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12
  • Blues: 11
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 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: 39 + 4 = 43
  • Love, desire: 55 + 1 = 56
  • Lust: 1
  • Moving on: 15 + 1 =16
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • People (including fictional people): 8
  • Personal commentary: 2 + 1 = 3
  • Postmodernism: 2
  • Protest: 22
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Rejection of labelling: 2
  • Relationships 1
  • Religion, second coming: 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: 2
  • WH Auden tribute: 1

And as usual here is the list of the top categories by the end of 1976…

  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Being trapped: 12
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Moving on: 16
  • Surrealism, Dada, Kafka: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell: 16
  • Environment: 17
  • Protest: 21
  • Lost love / moving on: 43
  • Love, desire: 56

In each episode it comes as a shock to recognise that the two largest categories of Dylan songs that we have are love and lost love.  Roughly five times as many Dylan songs to this date are about love and lost love as are protest songs.  Once again these two topics were the only two topics that Dylan turned to each year thus far in this decade.

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.

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 4200 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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