Dylan songs in 1979: after the anxiety, the certainty

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…

An index to all the articles in this series covering the 1960s is here.

I have noted before that I have been amazed at what this study has found on occasion. For example the number of “protest” songs is far lower than I had originally expected, and I would never have believed that Dylan’s prime occuption in lyrics was love and lost love.

But 1978 was a revelation and a half.  We know that in 1979 Dylan became pre-occupied with Christianity.  What I had not expected to find was just how troubled a year 1978 was in terms of the subject matter of songs.  It prepares me for 1979 in a different way.

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

  1. Gotta Serve Somebody  Faith
  2. I believe in You  Faith
  3. Ye Shall be Changed Faith
  4. Trouble in mind Help me Lord, Faith
  5. Man gave names to all the animals Genesis, Faith
  6. No Man Righteous Faith
  7. Gonna change my Way of Thinking Faith ,blues
  8. Precious Angel Faith, love
  9. When you gonna wake up Faith
  10. When He Returns Faith
  11. Saving Grace Faith
  12. Blessed is the Name Faith
  13. Covenant Woman Faith
  14. In the Garden Faith
  15. Pressing On Faith
  16. Saved Faith
  17. Solid Rock Faith
  18. What can I do for you? Faith
  19. See by faith (also known as stand by faith) Faith

Which makes it fairly straightforward.  19 songs, all defined as faith.

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 1975/8 1979 Total since 1950s
Environment, places, locations 8 17
Jewish prayer 1 1
Visiting 1 2
Love, desire 13 5 62
Lost love 5 12 48
Blues 1 4 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 5 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
Faith 19 19

Of the year before the faith year, I wrote, “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.”

But not this year.  This was faith all the way.  The awareness of change coming that I mentioned in the previous year had completely gone.  This is straight certainty.

All Dylan compositions by subject up to 1979. 

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: 3
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12
  • Blues: 14
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 6
  • Dance: 2
  • Death: 6
  • Depression: 1
  • Disasters: 1
  • Disdain: 9
  • Environment: 17
  • Eternity: 1
  • Faith: 19
  • 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: 48
  • Love, desire: 62
  • Lust: 1
  • Moving on: 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, this time by the end of 1979…

  • 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
  • Faith: 19
  • 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.

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan.  It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.

We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers.  Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics who study English literature.  If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a note saying that it is for publication.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with approaching 5000 active members. 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.  Not every index is complete but I do my best.

But what is complete is our index to all the 603 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.  I’m proud of that; no one else has that many songs with that much information.  Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.

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).

If in reading the site and listening to some of the music you get even one tenth as much pleasure as I get in publishing the material, you’ll be having a good time.

Tony Attwood,  Publisher / editor, Untold Dylan.

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