What are Dylan’s songs really all about? 1958-1984

By Tony Attwood

I have slowly and laboriously been looking at the subject matter of Bob Dylan’s songs from the earliest compositions from the late 1950s up to 1984 and I feel this might be a moment to take stock.

What I’ve found (obviously I can’t speak for anyone else, as maybe you already knew this) is that the subject matter of Bob’s music is incredibly varied – far more varied than I imagined before I started the project.  What’s more the notion that Bob was a “protest singer” in the early days doesn’t really hold up.  Yes he wrote protest songs, but that was only a small proportion of his work , and the number of songs in that category was hugely outweighed by the more conventional topics of love and lost love.

We’ve also found one year (and it was only one) where he wrote only on one topic – 1979, the year when he only wrote songs about his faith.

But I’ve also noted how changes in Bob’s life are reflected in his themes.  His time in the Basement produced nine songs on the theme of being trapped, and escaping from being trapped, another seven on the theme that life is a mess, and nine on the fact that nothing lasts forever.  Not regular themes at other times in his writing career.

For myself, the more I have worked on this project the more I have become convinced that a lot of the lyrics that we find in Dylan’s songs are not there because of a deep meaning within the lyrics themselves, but because the words sound really good when sung.

“My love she speaks like silence” is meaningless, (or to be more arty in my language, it is an enigma) at least at the level of everyday speech and communication.  So, given that there is no context, is the line “Every step of the way you walk the line”.   We can make meanings out of these phrases, but there is no inherent meaning therein, in the way that there is meaning in the phrase “I live in the village of Great Oakley in England.”

This view is very different from the view expressed by many writers that much of Dylan’s work contains references to the Bible or other religious themes and sources.  Rather it says that Dylan uses lines from elsewhere because they sound good, and give a sense that there is a meaning within, yet despite all our brain power we can’t quite get to it.

Of course some lines which all Dylan fans remember do have clarity of meaning.  “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” is both clear in that it reflects an actual situation that arose which can be recalled by anyone who knows the history, but it is also profoundly emotional and symbolic in the implications that it carries.

What I have also increasingly been reminded about is that Dylan’s greatest lyrical works contains a mix of lines which of themselves don’t have clear meaning, but which can mean a thousand different things depending on the listener’s point of view.  Take for example,

The hopes and fears and dreams of the discontented
Who threaten now to overtake your promised land

Clearly there is a meaning here of a revolution of some sorts, but it is non-specific because it does not directly connect with the repeated theme within the song from which it comes, “You’re making a liar out of me.”

Of course we can all invent a connection, but we can’t be clear that this is what Dylan meant, or indeed if he meant anything at all.

To stay with the same song, some verses do seem to have a clear and obvious meaning such as

Well I say that, that ain't flesh and blood you're drinkin'
In the wounded empire of your fool's paradise
With a light above your head forever blinkin'
Turnin' virgins into merchandise
That you must have been beautiful when you were livin'
You remind me of some old-time used-to-be
I say you can't be trusted with the power you been given
But you're makin' a liar out of me

which seems to me to be clearly about the rites of the Catholic Church, and Dylan’s rejection of Christianity, but if one tries to follow this message all the way through the song the connections can be quite hard to argue through, because Dylan is forever drawn back to images rather than concrete meanings.

In thinking of this I am now reminded of the line

Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon 
    is on the riverside
They're drinking up and walking and it is time for me to slide
I live in another world where life and death are memorized
Where the earth is strung with lover's pearls 
    and all I see are dark eyes.

Again a meaning is here, but close examination of the song as a whole shows to me (and perhaps it is just me) lines that are included because they feel and sound interesting.

To me Dylan is saying in Dark Eyes that the world itself is not real – but I am not at all sure that is what he set out to say.  Rather I have the feeling of an abstract painting which includes elements of reality – within the lines and colours we can see scenes, but they are not connected.

There is in short no unified message any more than a Jackson Pollock painting has meaning.  It is in fact a form of abstract expressionism using words and music instead of paints.

But this thought has come during this task of taking the central themes out of Dylan’s songs and trying to classify them – which seems an absolute contradiction in itself.  And yet I still think this is right – that one can see the themes in most of the songs, but the way in which the theme is expressed often inclines towards the abstract.

So if we take “Drifters Escape” there is a theme of the randomness of events – although we can see that the drifter was held a prisoner, but ironically is the only person in the song who walks free at the end.  But why any of the events therein are happening, we have no idea.

And that theme seems to run through so many songs.  We really have no idea why any of  this is happening.  Seasons pass, feelings pass, beliefs pass and this ever changing world is painted in words.  And yet each song appears to have a theme that can be reduced to one or two words.  That is a real contradiction.

Perhaps this explains the extraordinary range of themes that we have found in Dylan’s songs.  For by 1984 Dylan had written, by my calculation 451 songs, and I have listed them by subject matter at the end of  this article.

Of these the most common themes account for 72% of Dylan’s songs, with the overtly religious songs accounting for just 3% of his total output thus far.

  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12 (3%)
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 12 (3%)
  • Religion, second coming: 12 (3%)
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13 (3%)
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15 (3%)
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16 (4%)
  • Blues: 18 (4%)
  • Faith: 20 (4%)
  • Environment: 21 (5%)
  • Protest: 22 (5%)
  • Moving on: 26 (6%)
  • Lost love / moving on: 54 (12%)
  • Love, desire: 78 (17%)

Of course logic and Dylan don’t often make easy bedfellows, but it does seem to me that if Dylan had wanted to create a religious message (or any other message) within his music he might have put it into more than two percent of his songs.

I am publishing these articles as I write them, and as such I don’t know what I am going to find in the songs that are yet to be analysed, but thus far there are certain consistencies.  Most of the time Dylan explores different themes in each year, and most years he keeps the love themes as his favourite topics.  And above all,  most of the time he does appear to me to be more interested in the interestingly enigmatic turn of phrase than in anything else.

In short, as I pursue this slightly unusual approach to Dylan’s writing what I find more and more is that the interesting enigmatic phrase is more interesting than any deeper meaning with the songs.  “Hey Mr Tambourine Man” is a perfect example.  The tambourine man can’t play a song if all he has is a tambourine.  But we’ve heard the song so often we forget that. “The country music station plays soft but there is nothing really nothing to turn off.”   Except yes there is something to turn off, there is the country music station.  And Bob quite likes country music.

The only way to explain this is to forget about the meanings, and instead focus on the feelings.  The energy, the chaos, the love, the lost love, and above all the images, the sounds… which together make up the feelings.  Not the meanings but the feelings you get when you hear…

Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl

To try to reveal those feelings Bob does use subjects, and I’ve continued to total up the subjects that he has dealt with in songs.  But increasingly I’ve realised through this exercise, that these are not the fundamental issues; they are the mechanisms.  It is only now that I am coming to understand fully that the subjects are merely the tools that allow Bob to find the feelings underneath.  And because feelings a mushy and difficult to explain, more abstract approaches are required.

Here’s the full list of subjects covered by Dylan up to and including the songs written in 1985.

  • Art: 3
  • Be yourself: 5
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12
  • Blues: 18
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 7
  • Chaos: 1
  • Dance: 2
  • Death: 6
  • Depression, tedium: 2
  • Disasters: 1
  • Disdain: 9
  • Environment: 21
  • Eternity: 2
  • Faith: 20
  • Fate: 7
  • Future will be fine: 2
  • Gambling: 3
  • Happy relationships: 1
  • How we see the world: 4
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Individualism: 8
  • It’s a mess: 5
  • Jewish prayer: 1
  • Leadership: 2
  • Leisure: 1
  • Look after yourself: 1
  • Lost love / moving on: 54
  • Love, desire: 78
  • Lust: 1
  • Moving on: 26
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 2
  • People (including fictional people): 8
  • Personal commentary: 3
  • Postmodernism: 3
  • Protest: 22
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 12
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Rejection of labelling: 2
  • Relationships 3
  • Religion, second coming: 12
  • Sex (country life): 1
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • The tragedy of modern life: 4
  • Uncertainty, doubts, disbelief: 7
  • Visiting: 2
  • WH Auden tribute: 1

The most common themes throughout Dylan’s work up to this point are…

  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 12
  • Religion, second coming: 12
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Blues: 18
  • Faith: 20
  • Environment: 21
  • Protest: 22
  • Moving on: 26
  • Lost love / moving on: 54
  • Love, desire: 78

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 subject line saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with approaching 6000 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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4 Responses to What are Dylan’s songs really all about? 1958-1984

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Tony is trying terribly hard to convince everybody that many of Dylan’s songs have no meaning, but he only convinces himslf as far as I can tell.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Suject’s lives matter!

    Music creates the mood…otherwise why not write every song with nonsense words that simply sound good…but even then words in context take on a meaning of their own because of the way in which language is structured to make it capable of communicating with others.

    Poems of EE Cummings, for example.

    This is so taken for granted that it’s often forgotten.

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    In written art, concrete ‘correlatives’ are word-images that attempt to objectify abstractions that are by definition not tangible, including internally felt moods which are not that easy to communicate to others in words …especially when written down just on a piece of paper.
    I would argue that music is an objective correlative that merges meaning and mood in song lyrics.

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    There are some analysts of art who claim that the meaning behind pure abstract painting in modern society is characteristic of bureaucratic society that possess no realism, has no substance, no perspective- ie, people are considered nothing more numbers and statistics

    Music with language can and does strive to replicate such a state too, but Bob Dlylan’s songs counter that reflection of such an alienated society, and keeps realism from fading away all together in the hope that things will change for the better …at least that is what I contend.

    That is, the Romantic idealism of the individual capable of epressing the inherent urge for freedom, and manifesting it in social action is not yet dead….
    Not quite anyway….but it’s getting dark.

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