Dylan songs of 1978: the meanings in Bob’s troubled year.

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, and in a sense this year is where the whole series has been leading, because I wanted to see how Dylan’s build up to his Christian period was reflected in his songs.

In a sense the water at this point is muddied because a lot of the songs were written with Helena Springs and they are marked with an asterisk *.  But we don’t know who wrote what (in terms of lyrics and music) and who influenced whom.

But we can trace the lead up to Christianity through some of the topics in Dylan’s writing.

I find many of the meanings of these songs quite obscure or if not obscure then muddled, which might be a reflection of Dylan working with Ms Springs, and it might be that Dylan was muddled and troubled, which led him to Christianity by the end of this sequence.

To deal with this in terms of meanings I have allocated a double meaning – a longer one first and then a shortened one that fits into the list of meaings that we have evolved previously.  Those are highlighted at the end of each line.

  1. If I don’t be there by morning. * Being on the run, trying to get back home. Moving on.
  2. Walk out in the Rain * If you’ve gotta go, go now. Moving on.
  3. Coming from the heart * Love or lost love it’s up to you. Love
  4. New Pony The blues – there is always the blues.  Blues
  5. Baby Stop Crying Forget the past; Blues
  6. Stop Now * Forget the past.  Blues
  7. The Wandering Kind * She will leave no matter what I do.  Lost love
  8. More than Flesh and Blood * Love
  9. I must love you too much * Love
  10. Tell me the truth one time * Lost love
  11. Stepchild You’re treating me badly
  12. You don’t love me no more Lost love
  13. This a-way that a-way.  Moving on
  14. Take it or leave it Take me as I am or just walk away.  Be true to yourself.
  15. Daddy’s gonna take one more ride Come back to me???
  16. Legionnaire’s disease The illness
  17. Slow Train Being out of step, Moving on
  18. Do right to me baby (do unto others) Let me be me

In terms of totals for this year, we have the details below.

  • Moving on: 4
  • Love: 3
  • Blues: 3
  • Lost love: 3
  • Treating me badly: 1 (counted as lost love in the table below)
  • Come back to me: 1 (counted as lost love in the table below)
  • Legionnaires Disease: 1 (counted as death in the table below)
  • Let me be me: 1 (counted as “be yourself in the table below)

I have often commented in this series that in writing it I have been amazed to find that love and lost love are the two top topics in Dylan’s output.  Here I am amazed to find something else – a total confusion and uncertainty.  A year in which he is writing a piece that seems to be saying “just let me be myself” alongside a song about Legionnaires Disease, and a plea for a woman to return.

It is a year of confusion expressed in compositions and is a way of explaining where Dylan went next – into writing Christian songs.

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 1975/7 1978 Total since 1950s
Environment, places, locations 8 17
Jewish prayer 1 1
Visiting 1 2
Love, desire 13 2 3 62
Lost love 5 7 5 48
Blues 1 1 3 14
Be yourself 1 1 3
Post-modernism 1 2
Protest 1 22
Dance 1 2
Being trapped 1 12
Death 1 1 6
Moving on 3 1 4 24
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

This is fascinating; it is a year of change, with Dylan heading towards his religious period but also an era where he is not letting go of the old songs – love songs and songs of lost love dominate Dylan’s output throughout his career, and here we are again seeing these songs.

Moving on, another popular theme is there as well, but there is a little bit of rebellion as Dylan heads towards handing himself over to Jesus as “Take it or leave it” falls into the hardly ever used “Be yourself” category.

This is thus not specifically a preparation for Christianity as such but an awareness of change coming, of which “Slow Train” itself was the perfect example – the definitive “moving on” song that Dylan had been edging towards for years.

All Dylan compositions by subject up to 1978. 

In this listing, the previous total up to 1977 is given first.  Where there are songs from 1978 the plus sign (+) is added after the number for up to 1977, with the grand total to date including 1978, after the equals sign (=).

  • Art: 3
  • Be yourself: 2 + 1 = 3
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12
  • Blues: 11 + 3 = 14
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 6
  • Dance: 2
  • Death: 5 + 1 = 6
  • 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: 43 + 5 = 48
  • Love, desire: 59 + 3 = 62
  • Lust: 1
  • Moving on: 20 + 4 = 24
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • People (including fictional people): 8
  • Personal commentary: 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 1978…

  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Being trapped: 12
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 14
  • Surrealism, Dada, Kafka: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell: 16
  • Environment: 17
  • Protest: 21
  • Moving on: 24
  • Lost love / moving on: 48
  • Love, desire: 62

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 603 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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