Dylan’s Lyrics about Women – Have they Evolved?

Dylan’s Lyrics about Women – Have they Evolved?

By Dearbhla Egan

I am going to spare you the tedious and markedly uninteresting details of each and every woman that may or may not have been the subject of Dylan’s love songs.  The subject is so hackneyed and unnecessary a great deal of the time.  I merely wish to explore a few of the many, many songs Dylan wrote about women over such a broad span of time in order to see if there is any notable progression in his attitudes, language, tolerance and understanding of women as he developed both as a singer-songwriter and as a man.

Dylan was just 21 years old when he wrote ‘Don’t think twice, it’s Alright’ in 1962.  It was one of the songs included on his second Album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (released 1963) and a standard in concert and in many compilation albums that would follow in later years.  Dylan at that time had two preoccupations in life, the first being music, and the second, like any young man of his age, being women.  Where women were concerned, there is evidence to suggest that Dylan had been around the block quite a few times already from an early age so it does not come as any great surprise that he was in a position to write such a song so eloquently.

What I like about this song is that it really reflects my own memories of how young men in that age- group behaved when let down badly in love.  He is letting out some of the anger and disappointment but there is a sense of control, that he is holding back a lot because, ultimately, the cool thing to do is to be cool! There is a lot of ‘couldn’t-care-less’ language in there when the truth is, he could not care more.

…….. It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road
Still I wish there was somethin’ you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
We never did too much talkin’ anyway
So don’t think twice, it’s all right….

…….‘I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right

I chose to mention ‘Don’t think twice’ first because it just seems to fit with who and what he was at that age.  Therefore there is a kind of purity in the lyrics that are true to the man and how he was actually feeling when he wrote it.  It is my contention that while Dylan wrote a great number of love songs, there were a relatively small number that had this quality about them.

However, not long after this, he wrote a very different kind of love song in 1964, It Ain’t Me, Babe, where there was absolutely no ambiguity about his anger towards the female subject of the song.  I would go so far as to say that if such a woman were to actually exist, she would have to be deemed some kind of monstrous anomaly and would probably be best locked away for her own safety and the safety of mankind.

There are three verses in the song each of which make no apologies about putting this woman down and in her place right up to the last and most vitriolic verse where he sings:

Go melt back in the night
Everything inside is made of stone
There’s nothing in here moving
An’ anyway I’m not alone
You say you’re looking for someone
Who’ll pick you up each time you fall
To gather flowers constantly
An’ to come each time you call
A lover for your life an’ nothing more
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe

Well, this was surely a sharp slap in the face for someone.  Not alone does he say he does not need her but deliberately degrades her into some kind of stereotypical, empty headed woman who needs him to ‘gather flowers constantly’? I really don’t believe that the 24 year old Dylan could possibly have perceived women in this way but what better way to insult someone than to publicly refer to them like this.

That being said, perhaps I am giving him more credit than he is due because if we jump ahead to 1978 when he was 38 years old with a long and complicated romantic history behind him he wrote and released ‘Is your love in Vain?’ on the album ‘Street Legal’.  Some of the lyrics of this song really defy belief and had they come from the hand of a much younger Dylan they may not have been so badly received by the critics and fans alike.  What could he have been thinking of when he wrote:

Are you so fast that you cannot see that I must have solitude?
When I am in the darkness, why do you intrude?
Do you know my world, do you know my kind
Or must I explain?
Will you let me be myself
Or is your love in vain?


All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you
If I’m a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too
Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow
Do you understand my pain?
Are you willing to risk it all
Or is your love in vain?

I’m guessing that even his most ardent female fans would not have filled in the application form for that one! But this is real Dylan. His romantic lyrics move between extremes of great resentment, loss and even hatred to love that is so intense, so passionate it almost defies description.  There are no grey areas in romantic relationships where he is concerned. I love you or I do not.  You love me or you do not.  Of course he has friends who are a separate concern and he pays homage to them in a different way.

But moving back again, just a little, I would like to mention ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ written in 1969 for the ‘Nashville Skyline’ album.  I am almost reluctant to mention the song as it has been so overplayed and people are not inclined to like it for this reason.  But I think it is important for the purpose of this review to mention this song.  Now, the 29 year old Dylan has learned, through personal experience, how sexual connections work, whether they are casual or on going.  This song is like the images we see in nature where the male of the species will carry out a ‘performance’ to win over the favour of the female.  This is Dylan as Peacock.

We would do well to remember that there is a reason why this song was such a huge hit and became so overplayed.  At its conception, Dylan was breaking new boundaries both in the manner in which he sang but also, and more importantly, in the words he wrote.  There was no innuendo or subtlety here.  He was saying very frankly, come to bed with me and I’ll give you the night of your life.  This kind of forthright language concerning sex was unheard of prior to this and for many young people at the time it was an act of rebellion to own and listen to the song.  But Dylan was not playing games here.  The song really exuded sensuality and sexuality and the simplicity of the lyrics was the shining glory.

Lay lady lay
Lay across my big brass bed
Stay lady stay
Stay with your man a while
Until the break of day
Let me see you make him smile

His clothes are dirty but his, his hands are clean
And you are the best thing that he’s ever seen

Stay lady stay
Stay with your man a while

Why wait any longer for the world to begin
You can have your cake and eat it, too
Why wait any longer for the one you love
When he’s standing in front of you

Speaking for myself, 35 years ago, this would have done it for me!

In ‘Shelter From the Storm’ written in 1975 for the album ‘Blood on the Tracks’ the 35 year old Dylan places the female subject of the song as more of a metaphor than a reference to any actual person.

Here he seems to be referring to woman as ‘mother’ in a traditional way.  She is the person, the home we return to when everything is lost and the darkness, full of unthinkable terrors, threatens to consume us.  He is filled with respect for this ‘woman’ who constantly offers him refuge from a world that is filled with chaos and states that he will always owe her and never forget her.  There is a reference in the song to a mistaken tryst between him and the woman but it changes nothing. This is the voice of a more mature man, perhaps recognising that the women he has known have often been the source of much solace and he needs to remember that as well as the bad times.

………And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”…………

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”…………..

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

It truly would be possible to write on this subject to the point of writing a book.  There is so much rich material to work with and the temptation is to go along with this and in all likelihood, never finish this review.  But, I am not going to take the long road on this occasion.  I will stick with what I intended which was to explore if there is evidence in the lyrics of Dylan’s love songs of any progression, maturing or other change in his attitude to women as he became older with a great deal of human experience behind him.   It is important to remember also that while he was writing some of the later material he was also deeply involved in a personal spiritual and religious journey that was bound to impact on his world view and his perception of women at that time.

Bearing in mind the songs I have discussed and the hundreds that it is impossible to cover here I have concluded that there is a final song that says to me that the 24 year old Dylan who wrote ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ eventually, at the age of 52, wrote a song that is a beautiful and understanding homage to women.  The song is ‘Sweetheart Like You’ from the album ‘Infidels’, released in 1983 and in this song he looks into the heart and soul of the woman.  He sees her worth and merit as a human being and decries the fact that she is not getting the respect and recognition that she deserves.  In this song Dylan shows great insight into the human condition and I would certainly regard this as a love song that does justice to all women.

I think it serves to disprove the notion that Dylan was stuck in an emotional rut because of the failure of so many meaningful relationships.  It seems to me that the loss of love in his life was the emotional catalyst for wonderfully inspired songs written in late middle age.  Dylan might need to take stock and quit doing concerts, but as for writing, as long as he can hold a pen it just gets better and better.  I think the lyrics of this song prove the point.

“Sweetheart Like You”

Well the pressure’s down, the boss ain’t here
He gone North, for a while
They say that vanity got the best of him
But he sure left here in style
By the way, that’s a cute hat
And that smile’s so hard to resist
But what’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this ?

You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you
She wanted a whole man, not just a half
She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh
In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear
It’s done with a flick of the wrist
What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this ?

You know, a woman like you should be at home
That’s where you belong
Taking care for somebody nice
Who don’t know how to do you wrong
Just how much abuse will you be able to take ?
Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss
What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this ?

You know you can make a name for yourself
You can hear them tires squeal
You can be known as the most beautiful woman
Who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal.

You know, news of you has come down the line
Even before ya came in the door
They say in your father’s house, there’s many mansions
Each one of them got a fireproof floor
Snap out of it baby, people are jealous of you
They smile to your face, but behind your back they hiss
What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this ?

Got to be an important person to be in here, honey
Got to have done some evil deed
Got to have your own harem when you come in the door
Got to play your harp until your lips bleed.
They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king
There’s only one step down from here, baby
It’s called the land of permanent bliss
What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this ?

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  1. Ok ok ok – Bob is just a man. We all get that – but if you’ve read Carl Jung (or even James Hollis, or better yet – Robert A. Johnson) the you know that a man’s relationship to ANY woman (and really, all our relationships to the opposite sex) are not really external. And I’m not being overly academic here!! Bob really understood how powerful the modern philosophers were! He wrote a whole song on movie lyrics (Seeing The Real You At Last). So – my point is that to characterize the women in “Simple Twist of Fate,” or “Sweetheart like You, or “Shelter from the Storm,” or “Standing in the Doorway,” as separate from Bob is misleading. These all represent the feminine parts of Bob’s soul – just look at the pronoun changes in “Tangled up in Blue” to see he’s singing not to someone else but the female part of his own psyche! Have you read the beat poets? Bob must have – William S. Boroughs – Allen Ginsburg – FUNDAMENTALLY concerned with uniting the animus and the anima. I am a woman, I know you men hate to be called feminine – but that’s CULTURAL. Just think about it, Ok? Bob’s not the voice of all our souls for nothing, Ok? To say he’s got a weird relationship with women means us women wuldnt be able to relate – and we do. Bob’s power is in his ability to touch us where we need to be touched – I think that if you really examine your soul you might change your relationship to these ladies in Bob’s songs. What if they are actually part of you?! “If you see the Buddah coming down the road kill him.” Ok? Just consider it, alright?

  2. Emily, I like the response you have written to my article. It is interesting and draws attention to another, albeit different, perception on the subject. I still hold firm on the angle I have chosen from which to illustrate the points that I have raised even if the end result does not seem insightful to some readers, but that is ok – it is ok for any individual to have their own way of interpreting Dylan’s lyrics. I am just not an analytical person. However, based on what you wrote and because it offers an alternative way of contemplating these lyrics perhaps you might consider contacting Tony Atwood who runs this site with a view to writing an article of your own? Just a suggestion and I know that Tony is very open to contributions from other writers. I just don’t think there are really any definitive ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ about how we view these things. It is all so subjective and as far as I am concerned, the more the merrier. We learn something new, even if we don’t agree with it, by reading other peoples points of view so I would love to see a more comprehensive piece on your views. Thanks for your response. Dearbhla

  3. Emily, just so we can avoid any confusion…not sure if you were directing your response to me directly or to a wider audience but if it was to me, I would like to be clear that I am also a woman…just for the record!

  4. The funny thing is what he is rejecting in the song “it aint me babe”

    “You say you’re looking for someone
    Who’ll pick you up each time you fall
    To gather flowers constantly
    An’ to come each time you call
    A lover for your life an’ nothing more”

    is exactly the same thing he wants for himself.

    Oh I miss my mother. She died last year. She was such a wonderfull housewife for the whole family. She was also very clever and you could talk with her about everything. In the evenings and nights she read books. Inspired of the books one day she could tell me – “I would have liked to be a sailor” – another day “I would have like to be a gardener”. I just laughed and said: “I dont think you would have liked it mama” . Then she smiled with one side of her mouth and squinted and we continued the housework. She realy could make a home nice , clean , cosy , beautifull with flowers and silverspoons.
    SHE wanted me to take an education why?
    So I did – Now I am a doctor – work 60 hours a week –
    But I haven´t got an houseman 24/7. WHAT a pity.

    Why do we like Bob Dylans poems. Because he is honest about his feelings – and because we have had the same thoughts or experienced the same.

    Visions of Johanna starts with:
    “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
    We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”

  5. Do you know how many times I have told my daughter:
    I am sorry I cannot talk now.
    I could also have told her:
    Dont intrude.
    That would have been the truth.

    Fortunately she is a clever girl.

  6. How can anyone who listens to Dylan think songs like ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ and ‘Sweetheart Like you’ are written about a woman?

  7. Phil Merson: the origins of thought processes are strange indeed but surely it would be much more informative if you wrote a piece or a note about why you think the opposite is true.

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