The themes in Bob Dylan’s songs in 1981

By Tony Attwood

In this series of articles, I am looking at each year in order to get a clearer idea of what Dylan wrote about, and how his themes evolved and developed over time.

The last article was such a monumental year, in my estimation, that I chose to approach it from the idea that there was a CD called Dylan 1980, and I traced this through three articles:

What we ended up with in terms of the simple description of each song, which I use in this series was

  1. Are you ready? fundamental Christianity, second coming
  2. I will love him fundamental Christianity, second coming
  3. Cover Down Christianity, the grave won’t set you free
  4. Ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody Christianity, I’m following Jesus
  5. Property of Jesus Christianity, salvation is assured
  6. Every grain of sand God made this world
  7. Caribbean Wind  End of relationships, the end of time, the end of all things
  8. Groom’s still waiting at the alter It’s all falling apart
  9. Yonder comes sin It’s all falling apart
  10. Let’s keep it between us (Love – all we need is honesty)
  11. Making a liar out of me (This is me, this is where I have got to)
  12. City of Gold (Revelations / gospel / Christianity)
  • Christianity (7)
  • Endings, falling apart (3)
  • Love (1)
  • Being myself (1)

In 1981 the drift away from Christianity which we saw in the three “Endings” songs (Caribbean, Grooms, Yonder) was amplified, although as I have admitted in the re-written review of the last song in 1981 Dylan was ambiguous to the end.

And 1981 was an end because at that point he stopped writing for a while.

In that year Bob wrote 23 songs most of which have long since been forgotten and it is hard to find themes that persist through this year – which clearly suggest a troubled mind, not a mind filled with the certainty of either Christianity or Judaism.  Which is interesting, considering that just two years before we had the first-ever year where Bob wrote only about one theme: Christianity.

Here is what I make of 1981

  1. Shot of Love (Love)
  2. You changed my life (Religion)
  3. Angelina (Uncertainty, I am torn in two, is this religion the right way?)
  4. Heart of Mine (Love) new revised article with videos]
  5. Is it worth it?  (Love, turning my life upside down)
  6. In the summertime (Lost love)
  7. Need a woman  (Religious doubts, desire)
  8. Almost Persuaded (I nearly got there, then I lost it, doubts)
  9. Borrowed Time (Things are changing)
  10. On a Rocking Boat  (I’ve got a boat, leisure)
  11. Fur Slippers (Blues)
  12. Give him my all. (Love – Dylan co-wrote the words, not the whole song)
  13. Hallelujah (Love???)
  14. High Away (Ah ah ah) (Leaving???)
  15. Wind Blows on the Water (Natural environment)
  16. Magic  (Love)
  17. Dead Man Dead Man (in support of faith, Christianity)
  18. Trouble (Everything is wrong, doubts)
  19. Don’t ever take yourself away (Love)
  20. Watered down love (Love)
  21. Lenny Bruce (Don’t believe the wise men)
  22. Jesus is the one (Christianity)
  23. Thief on the Cross – the last gospel song, or a warning that Christianity has been stolen?  Changing (See the review for more details).

And so, the themes:

  • Love: 9
  • Religion / Christianity: 3
  • Uncertainty / doubts / don’t believe: 5
  • Lost love: 1
  • Changing: 1
  • Leisure: 1
  • Blues: 1
  • Nature: 1
  • Leaving: 1

Just looking at that list suddenly the year makes a lot more sense.  Love has always been Bob’s main musical theme, but now in this year his feelings for Christianity vie with his doubts, and they share a similar number of songs, but the doubts are clearly winning.

All Dylan compositions by subject up to 1981. 

Where more than one number is given, the first number relates to the total number written up to 1980, the number after the + sign shows the number written in 1981, and (rather obviously) the number after the = sign adds them together to give the current total.

  • Art: 3
  • Be yourself: 5
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12
  • Blues: 14 + 1 = 15
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 6 + 1 = 7
  • Dance: 2
  • Death: 6
  • Depression: 1
  • Disasters: 1
  • Disdain: 9
  • Environment: 17 + 1 = 18
  • 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: 5
  • Jewish prayer: 1
  • Leadership: 2
  • Leisure: 0 + 1
  • Look after yourself: 1
  • Lost love / moving on: 48 + 1 = 49
  • Love, desire: 64 + 9 = 73
  • Lust: 1
  • Moving on: 24 + 1
  • 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 labeling: 2
  • Relationships 3
  • Religion, second coming: 9 + 3 = 12
  • Sex (country life): 1
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Traveling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • The tragedy of modern life: 3
  • Uncertainty, doubts, disbelief: 5
  • Visiting: 2
  • WH Auden tribute: 1

And as usual here is the list of the top categories, this time by the end of 1981…

  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Being trapped: 12
  • Religion / second coming: 12
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 14
  • Blues: 15
  • Surrealism, Dada, Kafka: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell: 16
  • Environment: 18
  • Faith: 19
  • Protest: 21
  • Moving on: 25
  • Lost love / moving on: 49
  • Love, desire: 73

So we have been through the Christian era and come out the other side, and although Faith has entered our list of top subjects, it has not had a major impact on what has truly occupied Dylan for most of his life: love, desire, lost love, moving on.

It can of course be argued that faith and religion should be added together to make 31 songs which would make it the third largest category, but still a long way behind love.

Now Bob stopped writing – it was not the first time for he had done this before, as with 1968.  But as we of course know, he was soon to come back.

There is an index of all the articles in this series 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 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 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.

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