by Tony Attwood
Starting with Dylan’s writings in the late 1950s I’ve tried to allocate a simple description title to each song Bob wrote during the year. About 50 descriptions have been used ranging from those which encompass one or two songs such as patriotism, or the rejection of labelling, and some which turn up over and over again. Love and lost love turn out to be Dylan’s favourite topics – at least this far.
After each year analysed I have totalled them all up and produced a list of the subject matter that Bob Dylan has used most, from the start to the year in question. By 1981 the top 10, showing the total number of songs across his career for each subject after.
- 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
But then with 1981/2 I hit a problem. A huge problem in fact. In 1979 every single song Bob composed was clearly about his faith. But by 1981 Bob had been through his Christian period and had come out the other side with a mix of extraordinarily interesting songs which nevertheless, despite their intricacies, could still each be classified in a word or two.
At the same time, the more I have worked on this series of reviews of Dylan’s songs, the more I have reached the conclusion that while Dylan does often write about ideas and issues that concern him, and while he does sometimes write about real live people, he also often writes about fictional characters, without their story having some moral or deeper meaning. There they are; he brings them to life.
It is curious that while with novelists we don’t generally assume that they are always writing with a message (rather we expect them to be telling a tale for enjoyment) with song writers – or maybe it is just with Dylan – many people expect there always to be a deeper reference. A meaning that we have to tease out. Yet I am increasingly coming to believe this is not the case.
I’ve been puzzling over this in relation to 1982/3 for quite a time and every time I go through this year I come to one conclusion.
It centres around “Blind Willie McTell” which was written in this period. For the song has nothing whatsoever to do with Blind Willie McTell or his music. In fact musically it doesn’t relate to Blind Willie at all.
Here is one of Blind Willie’s his most famous pieces
It’s a fairly typical piece. As I am sure you can hear, Dylan’s song and Dylan’s music has no connection at all with Blind Willie.
The most obvious conclusion to reach is that “Blind Willie McTell” is another song for which Bob has got a title or a first line (or in this case both) and he uses it. And indeed why not. “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” is a fantastic line and Bob writes a brilliant piece out of it, but musically there is no connection with the supposed subject of the song.
So what do we make of this? Or indeed if we are to consider the whole year (which is after all the purpose of this article, and each article in the series) what are we to make of the fact that Bob started the year with “Jokerman” and then moved on to “I and I,” a term that relates to the link between God and each individual person, but which also could be taken in a different context to mean that there are many different people inside my head? God is part of all of us but we are all separate and different. Or I can be all sorts of people and write all sorts of songs.
Looked at one way Bob is taking interesting phrases and making songs out of them – something he has often done. But at this point I got stuck, until I started to listen again and again to one particular song: “Foot of Pride”, and I got stuck on the phrase “There ain’t no going back”.
Bob had just come out of a period in which he totally publicly announced that he had accepted the complete message of the Christian religion and spent 18 months writing Christian songs. And now, it seems, he didn’t feel that way any more.
What’s more, in that year he had done something rather odd. In all the years when he was writing songs that did not have a particular or clear meaning, he told us nothing about them in his concerts. He just played. Now with songs that were quite clear in terms of their meaning he told us exactly what they were all about!
That is ok for most people who just tell and few friends to go to church, and then on changing their mind, stop going to church and don’t talk about such things any more.
But Bob Dylan is the ultimate public figure, despite his desire to stay silent. In fact when he does stay silent more and more people talk about him. And he had to cope with having declared himself a servant of the Lord and now not believing in the Christian message any more.
Here’s a list of the songs across this period that I sketched out, as I came to realise that virtually none of the categories I had set out before could be used to fit into these songs.
- Jokerman (There’s a jokerman out there)
- I and I (The Lord is out there, but so are we)
- Clean Cut Kid (We’re all affected by our environment)
- Union Sundown (Look after what’s out there)
- Blind Willie McTell (The blues describe what’s out there)
- Don’t fall apart on me tonight (Stay with me)
- License to Kill (Progress can hurt what’s out there)
- Man of Peace (Nothing out there is what it seems)
- Sweetheart like you (A fictional place, nothing real out there)
- Someone’s got a hold of my heart / Tight connection to my heart (It’s random out there)
- Neighbourhood Bully (Israel, distrust, there’s no going back)
- Tell Me (Lost love; no going back)
- Foot of Pride (Life is chaos; there’s no going back)
- Julius and Ethel (The innocent are prosecuted but that can’t be undone there is no going back)
- Lord Protect my Child (A father’s wish that his child will have a good life)
- Death is not the end (There is an afterlife but there still ain’t no going back)
Of course there is nothing to say that there should be a connection between the songs in each year at all. But still, for me, I find there is a connection. For Dylan is saying we are not the sum of what Jesus and God makes us, we are the sum of what we make ourselves, and we can’t go back and change what we have done because that is the life we have lived. There really ain’t no going back.
We live in a world where the innocent are prosecuted, but there is nothing we can do and thus “There ain’t no going back” really is the phrase for the whole year. We are what we are. The world is out there. It is what it is. We are what we make ourselves.
There really, really, really ain’t no going back.
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
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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.