By Tony Attwood
This article takes you through the first six songs that Bob Dylan wrote in 1980. Unless you are yourself a chronologist, it will probably be the first time you’ll have listened to these songs in the order they were written. Even if you don’t normally read my pieces on Dylan’s songwriting year by year, I hope you might have a moment to read this one, and much more importantly, play the songs in this order. I think you might find it quite revealing.
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One day, in a fantasy world many light-years from Earth, my telephone rings and the voice at the other end says, “Hi, I work with Bob Dylan, and he’s asked me to tell you that he really likes what you do on “Untold”. And he wants to say thank you by letting you pick the tracks for a new compilation album. All he’s said is that he’d appreciate it if you didn’t just choose the favourites that everyone has. He likes the fact that you go mad over “Tell ol’ Bill” which no one else has ever heard of, so he wants an album of tracks like that.
“Oh yes, it’s going to be called Untold Dylan. And Bob wants you to write the sleeve notes. That ok with you? And it’s got to make sense… Bob says it has to have a unity about it.”
“What does ‘a unity’ mean,” I ask trembling.
“He didn’t say,” says the caller. “But are you ok with this?”
Well yes, it is ok, not just because of the honour and the notion that would come if it were true and if Bob did ever know about our work on this site, which of itself would be just so overwhelming that the two of us who started this site would throw the biggest party in the history of parties and invite every regular reader along.
But there’s more, because I really do know what I would do if I ever got the chance to choose an album which had a unity about it, and wasn’t just my favourites. Because the album would be called “1980”. And it would just contain songs that were written in that year.
Of course, if you are following the series Aaron and I are running on “Dylan’s missing album” (the latest episode of which is here, and there will be another episode along shortly) will wonder why I am cutting across that series with something similar.
The reason is that the series Bob Dylan Songs: The Themes has reached 1980, and I don’t want to abandon that series. So we’re doing two missing albums at once.
I think it is fair to say that my series Bob Dylan Songs: The Themes is not exactly the talk of the town. But I enjoy it, so I keep doing it. In this series, I take each year, and look at the songs Bob wrote that year, ask what those songs are about, and see what that tells us about how Dylan was, and what he was thinking about, that year.
Now I think this is just about the most fascinating study of Dylan’s work I have ever been involved in, even though most readers avoid it like the plague. I have learned more about Bob’s thinking, and about his way of seeing the world, by writing this series, than through anything else. I rather fancy it might turn into a book in due course.
Just the simple fact that the single most common subject that Bob has written about is “love” surprised me. I really didn’t know that before I started the series. Nor that his second most popular theme was “lost love”.
Leaving aside the years in which he wrote very little, only in one year up to 1980 did Bob focus totally on one subject – 1979. And then there is the issue of the number of songs about being trapped, that were written in the Basement… that sort of thing seems logical when pointed out, and maybe it was just me not realising, but I really hadn’t grasped that fact before. Seems obvious now that he might have felt that way – I just hadn’t got it before.
Of course you can argue with my nomination of subjects but I suspect for most song you’ll probably go along with the categorisation because they are fairly obvious. Here’s the top five subjects that occupied Bob from the moment he started writing in the late 1950s up to the end of 1979…
- 1 – Love, desire: 62 songs
- 2 – Lost love, moving on: 48 songs
- 3 – Protest: 21 songs
- 4 – Faith: 19 songs
- 5 – The environment: 17 songs
So, if you came to 1980 afresh you might expect more of what we had in 1979 – faith songs. But no, it doesn’t work like that. Or rather, it starts out like that, but then the most amazing things happen.
But before I get into this, there is one oddity that is listed at the start of the list of songs for 1980 – Street Rock – which was a co-composition, Bob just writing the lyrics at the start, as far as I can make out. I don’t know when in the year it was written, and although it is kept on the list as part if the 1980 work it seems very out of place, and we know little about it, so I am leaving that out.
But we still have a dozen songs for the year and won’t you just look at the 12 songs I have got to choose for my CD “Dylan 1980”. Since the album is just a fantasy I’ve not timed them to see that they do fit on a CD, (that would be just too laborious and remove some of the magic – I’ll a minion at the record company do that). For now, let’s just assume that they can all fit on.
In keeping with the articles in the earlier articles in “The Themes” series, I am keeping the songs in the order that they were written, and giving them a simple subject listing in each case.
- Are you ready? fundamental Christianity, second coming
- I will love him fundamental Christianity, second coming
- Cover Down Christianity, the grave won’t set you free
- Ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody Christianity, I’m following Jesus
- Property of Jesus Christianity, salvation is assured
- Every grain of sand God made this world
- Caribbean Wind End of relationships, the end of time, the end of all things
- Groom’s still waiting at the alter It’s all falling apart
- Yonder comes sin It’s all falling apart
- Let’s keep it between us (Love – all we need is honesty)
- Making a liar out of me (This is me, this is where I have got to)
- City of Gold (Revelations / gospel)
It’s fairly obvious looking at this list that songs one to five continue the work of 1979, and looking at that list, and perhaps having picked up from my occasional comments on the matter that I am not just an atheist, but an atheist who would like the Chuch of England removed from its position of power and governance in the United Kingdom, you may be wondering what on earth is going on here.
And what is going on is that because of putting all of Dylan’s songs in their chronological order I’ve seen, more clearly than ever before the transition between Dylan the believer in Christ the king, Christ the saviour of mankind, Christ the son of God, into Dylan the philosopher.
If you can call all these songs to mind, there at song number six is the midpoint where Bob’s mindset utterly changed. In the rest of this article I’m going to look at songs one to five for 1980. Next time it will be the rest of my imaginary album, songs six to 12.
Now let’s go through the remainder of Bob’s Christian period and let’s listen to these works as we go… The songs that open my imaginary album “Dylan 1980”.
This first song of the year really makes it sound as if Bob is going to be intent on keeping the theme of 1979 running – the essence of the song is dead simple: Are you ready for the second coming? Look at the way Bob kerfollops onto the stage, looking around to see everyone is here and gives everyone an intro. It’s a new democracy, combined with the statement that “Somebody’s got to tell you about Jesus right?” It goes on for a while – and it is so worth hearing this and remembering it, in the light of what happened with the second group of songs this year. Bob actually starts singing around 3 minutes 15 seconds: “Are you ready to meet Jesus”. There really is no messing with this message.
I will love Him comes in as track two
The theme is the same – it is a song about the Lord complete with the female chorus, and the dedication of the singer to the Lord
I will love Him, I will serve Him, I will glorify His name
Whatever happened to Bob the lyricist? Well, yes we do get some variation, but just how many times do we need to repeat the same lines. And here’s a thought: apart from believers does anyone find any quotes from these songs worth keeping? I am sure there are a few, but they don’t leap out to me.
OK, two tracks down and we haven’t got much further, although I imagine those who are fundamentalist Christians will applaud the regular repetition of devotion to the Messiah. Indeed it is interesting that there appears to be this view that repetition, something that Dylan has only used sparingly should be used so much in these Christian songs. It’s a bit like hearing “I need your loving
The third track is Cover Down
The musical style of the repeated lines and Old Testament references with the female singers giving support is the same. Three songs and he’s doing the same thing both with the lyrics and the music.
Well, you wake up early in the mornin' Turnin' from a-side to side Somethin' givin' you a warning You can run but you can't hide Demands are laid upon you And burdens a-you can't bear Sins you can't even remember are waiting to meet you there You got to cover down, cover down.
Just listen to these songs one after the other – they are truly a series in the same style and approach throughout.
The title of the fourth song makes us expect the same again.
Yep, there it is, that same level of repetition – a repetition that has never been central to Bob’s work in the past. OK he has repeated the melody. Take “Blowing in the wind”, virtually every other line is musically nearly identical throughout the song – there isn’t even a “middle 8” to break the music up. But even that doesn’t reach the repeat repeat repeat level of singing the title of this song.
And by track five you are ready to question my protestations of being an athiest because it is Property of Jesus. And yes here we are with the same musical line over and over and over.
Even the chorus is repeating too, although the melody is a relief from listening to “Ain’t going to go to hell”. In fact, the music construction is quite an improvement on all that has gone before. And OK if you are moved by the message, or you are into the beat and the repetition of the message pounded into your heart and soul over and over, then you will be happy. And it is not hard to hear that Dylan did write these songs one after the after. They just come “pouring out” if you like them, or he’s “churning them out” if you don’t. He is a consummate musician and he could make a shopping list sound great, but…
But then, what happens?
Suddenly he stops.
He stops musically and lyrically and goes utterly somewhere else. OK you know the voice, of course it is Bob, but just listen to the difference between the lyrics and this music of what happens next and all that has gone before.
It is as if he has stopped walking down the same road and suddenly turned the corner and a totally different light is illuminating his life.
“Every Grain of Sand” is a philosophical piece, with clear religious overtones, but it is utterly different from the in-your-face you-must-believe songs that Bob had written for the past 18 months or so. This is where everything changes.
I do hope that to get to this point you have listened to at least some of each example – for quite possibly this might be the first time you have ever heard them in the order in which Bob wrote them. Remember them all. Clear you might. Stop. Take a deep breath, and now…
Here Bob has suddenly written a song that can be developed, evolved, moved, changed, transformed and re-invented, using the same lyrics in multiple ways – one only has to search around the internet to hear all the different versions, each one so different.
And that is the first big point. These earlier 1980 songs all had the same version almost each time they were played but “Every grain” had complete musical re-writes. And that is what started happening – just think of Caribbean Wind where every version is different.
Then the second point, as we move into this song the religious references are there but God, the Lord, the Master is no longer the dictator telling us how to behave, the slayer who will strike down those who do not believe. No we have suddenly stepped into the land of Tao Te Ching. We hear of the trembling leaf and gains of sand.
If God is still there He is gentle. But as far as I can see it is not God or Jesus that lights the way now, but nature. We are not trembling in fear, but we can appreciate conscience and good cheer.
This is also not the land of punishment, because the past doesn’t matter, we “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake.”
Suddenly the God, if it is God that is being sung about, is not the avenger sweeping aside all the evil but pure goodness and removes “the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space.” If this is God it is not the avenging God but the God of forgiveness.
Every millisecond of this rough run-through of this magical song turns the message of the previous performances upside-down both lyrically and musically. The door on the pounding message of the initial tracks has been shut and another has opened and taken us into a peaceful, magical, calm and beautiful garden of hope. A garden that is not restricted to the believers, but is open to all who are simply good people trying to act honourably in a mixed-up world.
Of course this is still the end, and a new beginning, but a different type of end and a different type of start. We don’t need God and Jesus to become good, we can just do it, because nature is perfect. We have set sail afresh, so where will we go?
Where Bob went follows in the second article about what I perceive to be this most extraordinary year in Bob’s history as a songwriter.
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.
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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 found 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.