By Tony Attwood
“What are Dylan’s songs about?”
That is a very good question, and not an easy one to answer – at least not without going through every song he has written or co-written (of which, as you will know if you have been paying attention, there are over 600) and considering what each is about.
Which is what the series of little articles under the title “Dylan’s songs: the themes” that I have been writing for the past few months is all about. Taking each song and trying to tie down its core subject matter, and then look and see what we have overall.
When I started I had no idea what the answer to the question “What are Dylan’s songs about?” would be, or indeed if there was an answer. I didn’t know any book that had done such an analysis across all of his songs, and no one came along to tell me of one (which would have saved me a lot of trouble) so I have ploughed on, from the few songs we have of the 1950s, through to 1979.
However as I prepared for the series I recognise that a lot of books and articles about Dylan start from the premise that Dylan is primarily writing about x or y, and then find examples in his songs to prove this. What I hope the series on the themes within Dylan’s songs shows is that you can do this with practically any topic. If you want to prove that Dylan is concerned about the rural poor, there are plenty of examples. If you want to show that his central theme is that of moving on – something he reveals year after year with the Never Ending Tour – there are lots of songs that give weight to that argument.
You can, in fact, find songs that can lend weight to any such argument.
So my first interest was to know the answer in broad terms, what are the most common subjects that Dylan deals with in his songs? The number after each topic is the number of songs identified in that category, with each song only being allocated to one topic. (There are of course many other topics Dylan has written on; these two lists only include the most common).
The 1950s and 1960s
- Being trapped: 10
- Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
- Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
- Surrealism, Dada: 15
- Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
- Protest: 20
- Lost love / moving on: 30
- Love, desire: 31
- The environment, places, location: 8
- Moving on: 8
- People: 8
- Lost love: 17
- Love, desire: 18
- Faith: 19
And in case you are interested in the overall winners in terms of topics for the songs of the first two decades of Dylan’s writing – they are love and lost love. Which may not surprise you, but it certainly surprised me.
Dylan’s song writing exploded in the 1960s and over much of the decade sustained a level of productivity that was not, and indeed could not have been, kept up. He was just pouring out songs year after year until suddenly in 1968 he stopped, and wrote only one song – which he delivered late (it was Lay Lady Lay).
Of course part of that productivity came from the somewhat artificial period of Dylan being shut up in the Basement with the rest of the gang, with songs being improvised without any sense at the time that they would be kept for posterity. So it could be argued that we should not really be counting all those creations, but even without the Basement songs, the output of Dylan in the 1960s was prodigious.
But in fact, what we can also see was a constant movement in the themes that Dylan was interested in. Indeed what is fascinating is the sheer speed at which Dylan could pick up a new lyrical theme and run with it.
1961’s compositions were dominated by humour – although suddenly twice in the midst of the amusing pieces we got songs of tragedy or sadness, most notably Man on the street And indeed, it was when I saw the list of 1961 songs in order and thought about their subject matter that I realised I really did want to analyse Bob’s songs by lyrical theme and date.
What struck me so strongly was this sequence of composition…
- Talkin New York
- Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.
- Talkin Folk Lore Centre Blues
- Talkin Hava Negeilah blues
These are not just talking blues – they are very amusing talking blues. OK the humour is very dark in places, but still they are in utter contrast to Man on the street which was composed next.
That ability to switch subject, theme and style in one leap struck me as utterly remarkable in a songwriter who was composing so many songs. Yes, one can do it if one is writing maybe one song a month, because in a month your whole life can turn upside down. A friend can die, one might have a huge success with a venture, a child can be born, a lover leaves. A lot can happen in a month.
But what becomes clear when we look at Dylan chronologically is that he can jump from subject to subject in matter of days.
In 1962 Dylan wrote 36 songs – or at least 36 songs of which we have recordings. It is an astonishing number by itself, but when the variety of themes that we find within the songs is taken into account then it becomes more than extraordinary. This is where we start to see the mark of a driven genius. Just consider this sequence of songwriting.
- Quit your Lowdown Ways (a song which says you have to change, and learn to do the right thing)
- Baby I’m in the mood for you (a song of passion and absolute desire)
- Down the Highway (a song of leaving and moving on)
Yes of course other song writers have changed their subject matter in a matter of a handful of songs, but Dylan seems to have been doing this week after week through the year.
1963 gave us 31 Dylan compositions, including some of Dylan’s strongest and fiercest commentaries on the world he saw around him, from Masters of War onwards through the year. And he kept coming back to that anger from other perspectives, with songs such as With God on our Side and Only a pawn in their game written later in the year. But amidst this he could be phenomenally upbeat, positive and hopeful as with When the ship comes in.
Of course this is not to say that Dylan jumped from subject to subject all the time – but he could do. Just consider this sequence of songwriting
- Troubled and I Don’t Know Why – a song which suggests everything is wrong
- When the ship comes in – suggesting there is going to be a really good time ahead
- The Times they are a-Changing – no matter what we do things are going to improve
- Percy’s Song – reflecting on the total and absolute failure of justice
- The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll – the sheer horrors of contemporary life
Just that sequence alone puts pay to any notion that Dylan had a message – unless one claims that his message was that the world is going in every direction at once.
Now through this sequencing, I am not trying to suggest anything other than the inescapable fact that Dylan has had the ability to write about all sorts of themes, and move from one to another with ease.
However as I pause in this endeavour of seeking to understand his writing overall, rather than this writing in terms of each individual song, I am struck by the final year that I have looked at thus far: 1979. 19 songs written that year, and every one of them was a faith song. 1978, no faith songs – and there wasn’t even a build-up to the songs of 1979. The last three songs of 1978 were
The first one of these is simply about the illness. “Slow Train” although firmly associated with the first religious album, is (if you listen to the lyrics afresh without the thought that the rest of the album is religious) primarily about being out of step with those around you, and indeed with the world – it is a song about moving on. And the final song contains the message – “let me be me”.
My view, therefore, is that this venture of analysing the subject matter of Dylan’s songs which seems not to have been done before, of seeing all the Dylan compositions in the order in which they were written, and looking at the meaning of each, is really informative if we want to understand Dylan’s view of the world and Dylan’s unique creativity when it comes to songwriting.
I hope to explore this further in later articles in the “Year by Year” series.
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 604 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.