By Tony Attwood
One of the first reviews I read said, “Here’s a love song in 3/4 time,” but even that starter is wrong, at least in my opinion. And as I don’t often get a chance to show off a bit of my classical music education I’ll utilise it now.
The song is pretty much a straight copy of Offenbach’s Barcarolle from “Tales of Hoffmann,” So we can start there.
Jacques Offenbach was a 19th century German-French composer and impresario. known for his operettas. His single opera “Tales of Hoffman” (which was never completed), is still a key part of the repertoire of opera companies today.
Here’s the original
So barcaroles were not in 3/4 time (as in three beats in a bar) as indeed this one isn’t. They are in 6/8, which sounds quite different. 6/8 is six beats in a bar in two groups of three, moving
1 2 3 1 2 3 / 1 2 3 1 2 3
and so on – generally quite quickly as here. The usual description is that this music is lilting. Barcaroles do give a feeling of relaxed sentiment. This comes from Act 2 if you want to listen to the whole work.
So what it is not, is a reference back to “Got my mind made up” by Tom Petty, which Dylan did record, but I can’t find a copy freely available on line. So here’s Tom larking around with it.
But that’s got nothing to do with it, so we should quickly return to Bob and agree that what he has done is taken a popular piece of operatic music and put lyrics to it with a new accompaniment (but keeping the same melody and chords).
Incidentally for those who like to claim that Bob is a musical thief and he should be prosecuted for stealing all these old songs, the work of Offenbach is out of copyright.
Here are the lyrics
Sitting on my terrace lost in the stars Listening to the sounds of the sad guitars Been thinking it over and I thought it all through I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you I saw the first fall of snow I saw the flowers come and go I don’t think anyone else ever knew I made up my mind to give myself to you I’m giving myself to you, I am From Salt Lake City to Birmingham From East L.A. to San Antone I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone My eye is like a shooting star It looks at nothing, neither near or far No one ever told me, it’s just something I knew I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you If I had the wings of a snow white dove I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love A love so real - a love so true I made up my mind to give myself to you Take me out travelling, you’re a travelling man Show me something that I’ll understand I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were I’m going to go far away from home with her I travelled the long road of despair I met no other traveller there A lot of people gone, a lot of people I knew I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you My heart’s like a river - a river that sings It just takes me a while to realise things I’ll see you at sunrise - I’ll see you at dawn I’ll lay down beside you, when everyone is gone From the plains and the prairies - from the mountains to the sea I hope that the gods go easy with me I knew you’d say yes - I’m saying it too I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
The line that gives all the problems in one go is “Take me out travelling, you’re a travelling man”. Up to this point it is all fairly comfortable with lines such as
Been thinking it over and I thought it all through I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you
That sounds like a relationship proposal, and since this is Bob Dylan and we know a bit about his life, and his loves, we might assume the song is sung to a lady. Especially as later we have
I’ll see you at sunrise - I’ll see you at dawn I’ll lay down beside you, when everyone is gone
but then we have the “Take me out travelling, you’re a travelling man.” So is he suddenly back to giving himself up to Jesus all these years after running away from the Christian Church? I have seen that proposed but it seems deeply unlikely to me and besides might Bob not have described “you” as “You” in that case?
Besides Bob Dylan knows about the travelling man, as does everyone whose been brought up through popular music and the blues. Indeed Bootleg 15 was “Travelling through”. (That’s the one that starts with the alternate version of “Drifters Escape”; almost as if the guys at the record company had been reading Untold Dylan and knew at once what the most important Kafaesque song of the “travelling through” era was).
The one thing that did strike me however was the comment in Rolling Stone (what an excellent magazine that is) about the Bootleg 15 set where they said, “It’s rare to hear Dylan sound like a fan trying to be a peer, but that’s what’s evident here.” That is in relation to him singing with Johnny Cash. So is he here giving a tribute to the great master, the man he admires so much? In that case the “lay down beside you” is easily recognisable as saying he will always give tribute to Johnny Cash, no matter what.
Of course it might just be a throwaway line. I know that is not a popular idea – that the mighty Bob Dylan might on occasion just throw in lines that are there because they sound good, but why not? Does every single Dylan line really have a great powerful meaning? (Incidentally when I was studying classical music we did occasionally use the phrase “Mozart on an off day” for a brilliant section of the score which seemed out of context. Why not “Dylan on a off day” as well? He couldn’t find a line that worked so dropped that in.)
But no, I’m going with the Travelling Man being either Johnny Cash, or just a phrase that means a person who keeps on keeping on, rather than necessarily a specific man. So in the lyrics we ought to write
Take me out travelling, you’re a "travelling man"
We will of course continue through the whole album until everything is reviewed. Here’s what’s be done so far. Hope you enjoyed my little meander.
Postscript: As you will see from the comments, the song has been used before – something I was not aware of. Here is a link to the earlier version by Donald Peers from 1969.
Rough and Rowdy Ways
- My own version of you: Bob’s revenge; Bob’s desire
- I contain multitudes; where do we start, where do we end?
- False Prophet: the meaning of life
- Why Murder Most Foul?
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
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