How Dylan’s lyrics evolved through the 1960s and 1970s

By Tony Attwood

If asked, “what does Bob Dylan write about?” not many people would say “love” as their first choice for an answer, and yet as we study his compositions from the start of his active writing through to 1979 – by far his most prolific period –  “love”, and its close relative “lost love” are the topics that surpass all others.

68 songs of love and desire, 48 songs of lost love and moving on.  The protest song for which Dylan was so well known in the early years flourishes for a little while but then fades away.  20 protest songs in the 1950s and 1960s and then just one in the 1970s.

Now of course with any simplistic analysis, as these totals surely represent, one can disagree – you may count the protest songs and get a few more or a few less, than I do, but in terms of the generality, these give us the order of magnitude.

To an extraordinary degree, Dylan has had the ability to dip in and out of themes and topics across the years according to his mind-set, and the world around him.  It is a rare talent and one that is somehow ignored as we focus on each new album and each new tour.

But these changes of theme are there; they are real.  In the Basement, for example, Dylan came up with ten songs about being trapped.  There was a burst of randomness in the early years too, as surrealism, Dada and Kafka (topics of interest to him) all merged together into one gooey theme.

And although the blues, which has always been part of Dylan’s output, gradually became less important, it was supplemented always with its eternal bedfellows, the songs of moving on, and the songs of farewell which have always been part of that tradition.

I have already published a list of the different topics that can be found in Bob Dylan songs from the moment he started composing in the late 1950s, up to the end of 1979.  In case you missed it there are eleven topics that occupied Dylan for more than ten songs during this period.

Put these totals together and across the two and a bit decades we get these as the mainstream Dylan topics for his songwriting.  Oh and to be clear, Kafkaesque randomness as a subject has gone into randomness not Surrealism.  Just thought you would like to know.

  • Randomness: 11 songs
  • Being trapped: 12 songs
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 14 songs
  • Surrealism, Dada, Kafka: 15 songs
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell: 16 songs
  • Environment: 17 songs
  • Faith: 19 songs
  • Protest: 21 songs
  • Lost love / moving on: 48 songs
  • Love, desire: 62 songs

And within this admittedly crude set of classifications, we have the topics that are always with us in popular music (the love, lost love, moving on collection) and those songs that are otherwise related to the moment.

Other topics come and go.  “Being trapped” is a topic from the Basement, perhaps understandably, and after that it has little impact on Dylan’s songwriting consciousness.  On the other hand awareness of “place” is stronger as time passes.  Plus as we shall see, in 1979, for the first time ever, Dylan devoted himself entirely to one topic throughout the whole year: his newly found faith.

But more than this, leaving aside the eternal topics of love and moving on, other topics come, occupy the writer for a while, and then themselves are in turn, moved on.  And with such a perspective it would have been easy when the religious songs burst upon the scene to think (as it turned out with a certain level of accuracy), “I’ll give it a couple of years”

However this is not to say that Bob wrote evenly around those topics year by year – this was far from being the case.  For example, just breaking the 22 years into two sections we find…

The late 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 1970s

  • The environment, places, location: 8
  • Moving on etc: 8
  • People: 8
  • Lost love: 17
  • Love, desire: 18
  • Faith: 19

However, these lists don’t really tell us the full story because Dylan wrote on certain topics in bursts, with the most obvious example being the already mentioned explosion of songs expressing he Christian faith in 1979 – 19 of them all told.   Meaning that in one year he had created almost as many Christian faith songs as he had written “protest” songs in his entire career as a composer up to that point (21).

My quest in this article is to conclude the review of the topics of Dylan’s songs in his first two decades as a composer (and described on this site in a series of articles) by looking at a few other “bursts” of interest in particular subjects.

As soon as I pondered the topic, the surreal and Dadaist songs of 1965 which exploded out of nowhere, caught my attention.  Indeed the only other sudden burst in terms of topic was the aforementioned Christian songs of 1979.  For although it can be argued that “Slow Train Coming” gave us a clue the year before I doubt that anyone outside of Bob’s inner circle knew what was about to come next.  It is a clue once you know what happens next!

Going back to 1965 we find that Dylan discovered in that year the notion of surreal and Dadaist lyrics in songs and spent the year exploring them, from Visions of Johanna  to Queen Jane Approximately from Tombstone Blues to Subterranean Homesick Blues

This sudden interest in specific themes is a fundamental aspect of Bob’s writing across the two decades I’ve been seeking to analyse, and such specific themes pop up throughout these two decades.  And yet few people seem ever to have looked at Dylan’s work in this way – perhaps because before we came along, no one had such a comprehensive list of Dylan’s composition in the order in which they were written.

Yet the study is most rewarding.  Take the Basement Tapes for example – when we work through the vast array of songs recorded in the basement, and look at these songs with the view of looking for repeated themes, it is not that surprising that we find the three dominant topics from that period were love and lust (all those guys cooped up together!) with 10 compositions, moving on (along with nothing lasts forever) with nine songs, and being trapped (and escaping from being trapped) also with nine songs.

That does all fit – the guys were in the Basement, so Dylan wrote about being trapped, getting out, and finding a new woman.

And what is particularly interesting are the songs which relate to topics Dylan touches on just a handful of times – and yet when he does do this his skill with words and music remains consummate.  Never once is there a feeling that Dylan is not the master of his chosen topic for this song.

Take the theme of leaving the old world behind and seeking a new fortune, unsure of what will be there.   It’s a well established folk music theme, and yet in one year Dylan gives us Boots of Spanish Leather,  One too many mornings,  and Restless Farewell. Three masterpieces on one theme – tucked in among all the other topics Bob feels he wants to tackle that year.

And then he drops in a couple of songs in a rarer topic like justice (Seven Curses,  Percy’s Song) just to show he can!

Then again there is the humour.   Bob was strong on humour with his talking blues songs very early on.  However he moved on and we might have thought he put away these jokes as just being suitable for his early days, but no, suddenly he picks up that threat and gives us Motorpsycho Nightmare.  Although over time the humour has faded away.

It was in 1965 that Bob showed us that he most certainly could pick most unexpected new themes by not simply venturing into Surrealism and Dada where the world is not connected to everyday reality, but also seeing the world through a haze, or making it just plain weird.  From Visions of Johanna to Subterranean Homesick Blues we were taken into a completely new world, while beyond the window the songs of love (such as She Belongs to Me) and the lost love songs tumble out from the maestro and tumble over each other as he moves onto the theme of artist vs society in for example Maggie’s Farm.

So adept does Bob become by this time that within the same year he can offer Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream and Desolation Row – ludicrous humour to the most serious contemplation of society’s failings ever produced in popular music or folk song.

But just as we get the hang of that then suddenly we find ourselves facing something new – four “songs of disdain” are offered in quick succession, including two utter classics in Positively Fourth Street and Like a Rolling Stone.

Indeed by 1965 it is possible to create a list of some 15 themes with which Dylan has worked before, but which are now set aside.  Such themes as civil rights, nothing changes, justice, death…

By 1966 Bob was showing us that he could deliver the inevitable love (6) and lost love (5) songs while, for the rest of the total of 22 songs that year, travel whatever road took his fancy.  Surrealism gets three songs, disdain another two, and five other pieces just doing their own thing, handling their own topic.

But for all the jumping around in terms of his lyrics we can see very clearly what mostly occupies Bob’s mind.  It is not injustice or change.  It remains lost love and moving on (of which there are 31 songs on The Basement Tapes recordings alone).   Lost love and moving on becomes the eternal key topic, with almost 50% of the Notebook songs falling into this area.

And as we might expect from a mind so full of invention and so willing to take on new directions, by now we have all sorts of other themes emerging.  Nine songs are about being trapped, and escaping from being trapped (a telling diversion), seven move onto the notion that life is simply a mess, quite a few of the 10 love songs are more about lust than love, and the moving on songs are often emphasising the more abstract point that nothing lasts forever.

You want to see a restless artist at work?  Look no further than the Basement Tapes!

But then in a sense nothing has changed because by the end of the Basement Tapes, a quick survey shows us that a quarter of all Dylan’s songs were about love or lost love or moving on.  No other grouping gets close to that percentage.

Yet if that was the theme of the Basement, John Wesley Harding had nothing to do with such matters.  Seven of the tracks on that album concern what might be best described as Kafkaesque randomness, or “stream of consciousness” writing.  Drifters’ Escape is the summit of this – a set of meaningless random events set in a world that we know exists, and which is the very essence of making sense (the criminal justice system) but which now makes no sense at all.  The only good thing is that the Drifter does indeed escape while the wretched jury get their comeuppance.

And then Dylan has a year off, and one can hardly blame him.  As we’ve noted, no one since Irving Berlin had worked this hard and produced this much quality songwriting at this speed in the entire history of American songs.  And yet after the year out Dylan was back with the lost love theme (I threw it all away for example) and the love (To be alone with you). Kafka had had his chance; we were back to matters of the heart.

However there was no settling down, no feeling that Dylan had explored the terrain and was now in for the easy ride, for in 1970 Dylan began to write about the environment, places and locations – five songs fall into this group.

1971 was a year in which Bob took more time out and produced the unexpected with Vomit Express (a postmodernist blues concerning getting the cheapest seats on the cheapest flight) and two magnificent reflective pieces relating to art and contemplation (When I paint my masterpiece and Watching the river flow) along with the extremely unusual (or tediously mundane depending on your point of view) Never say goodbye (which is either about the environment or is a love song, depending which Untold Dylan reviewer you choose to follow.)

Love songs dominated the early 1970s for Dylan but then suddenly in 1974 Dylan took another turn – as fate became the theme of songs as diverse as Tangled up in blue, If you see her say hello,  Call Letter Blues,  Simple Twist of Fate  etc etc.

Working with a co-writer as Dylan now found himself, took him in another direction, for he created songs about people, instead of about love and lost love.   Joey, Rita May, Hurricane, Black Diamond Bay, Catfish, Sara and Sign Language took Dylan in yet another new direction.

Curiously tucked away at the end of the year is a song that gave a foretaste of what was to come… What will you do when Jesus Comes? But at this point the theme was not developed.  The song stood alone.

1975 to 1977 were years of lost love (seven songs) and songs about people (eight songs) while 1978 was a year in which Dylan wrote a lot, but apart from “Slow Train” little of it is remembered. It’s almost as if having cleared the basement, he was now clearing out the attic.   For the main themes were by now as expected, four moving on songs, three love songs, three blues and three lost love.  If surprises were wanted, they were not to be found in the subject matter.

Which is why the 19 songs of 1979 were such a surprise.  They really were all about the same subject – something Bob had never done for.  The subject was of course Christianity, and it swamped every other thought for not only did Dylan sing them and record them, he even lectured the audience on the subject.  The one subject which more than any other did not need an explanation, got a 10-minute diatribe in the concerts!

And yes, there was not a single song on another topic. Yet although now we can see Slow Train as being the forerunner of this series, listened to without the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to say this song is about Christianity at all.  It is about change coming – it is as if Bob felt the need for change but hadn’t yet decided what the change is.

And so having taken us through the first two decades of Bob’s lyrics, I can say the main topics of Bob’s songs up to 1978 were

  • Love and desire (62 songs)
  • Lost love (48 songs)
  • Moving on (24 songs)
  • Protest (22 songs)
  • Environment, places, locations (17 songs)
  • The blues (14 songs)
  • Being trapped (12 songs)

1979 was, as noted.  Every single song was on the same theme.  Thus after 22 years of writing Bob had found himself a new direction.  The question then was, what on earth was he going to do with it?

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 teach 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 on Untold Dylan.

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 also 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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