By Tony Attwood
In this series of articles I have been trying to look at each and every Dylan composition and summarise in one or two words the theme within the song. This has proved reasonably straightforward much of the time (love, lost love, moving on, the blues, surrealism, faith…) but as time passed by it got harder. And in the 21st century, things really get a lot more complex.
I’ve tried to show in these articles (and there is a full year by year index here) that we can tell a lot about where Bob’s thoughts and interests lay by looking at these lyrics, song by song. Not because the lyrics in detail relate to his real life, but rather that through the generality of the songs’ subject matter we can get an insight into the idea of Bob Dylan the man, and what was concerning him.
Bob has often said that he doesn’t know where his lyrics come from – they come from within, presumably influenced by his emotions, what he has been reading, the music he has been listening to, what films he has seen and so forth. So my theory is simply that we can get a much better insight into what is on his mind by starting from the premise that what pops into Bob’s mind reflects his current state of thinking and his current interests and feelings.
I also do feel that there has been a strong tendency among commentators to follow Heylin’s lead and primarily to see each song in isolation from those written around the same time. That approach fails to spot the flow of thoughts and ideas whereas by looking year by year we get a deeper insight into the general flow of thoughts behind the lyrics, in my opinion.
And indeed it’s not been too hard a slog to put this together, at least up to this point. And so consider the current point in this series, we can note that by 2005 Bob was recognised as the definitive master songwriter of the age, and in response to this he clearly felt even more free that before to meander as and where he liked. Of course this had always been the case, as witness the subject matter of songs assigned through the Basement Tapes period, where Dylan seemed to be writing and improvising without constraint.
And now, unshackled by any over-arching concern or interest or drive Bob was letting his inner thoughts be expressed in the lyrics more than ever before.
In what follows I am omitting Waiting for the morning light here as I am still not sure of its provenance. Which leaves us with 13 songs… as ever the simple summary of the subject matter appears in brackets after each song title.
- Tell Ol’ Bill (It’s just life)
- Can’t escape from you (Lost love)
- Thunder on the Mountain (It’s just life, its complex, don’t try to tie it down)
- Spirit on the water (Love)
- Rollin and Tumblin (Lost love, trying to put it all together)
- When the deal goes down (Death)
- Someday Baby (Lost love, Love gone wrong)
- Working Man’s Blues #2: (Economic woes in capitalist society)
- Beyond the Horizon: the sources and the meaning (Love, hope)
- Nettie Moore (Lost love)
- The Levee’s Gonna Break (Life’s going to change, time to move on…)
- Ain’t talkin’ (I live among the barbarians)
- Huck’s Tune (Lost love, Moving on)
So, in my usual attempt to draw these categories together I bring the list down to….
- It’s just life / change: 3
- Lost love / moving on: 5
- Love: 3
- Death: 1
- Economic woes / living with the barbarians: 2
Thus the old favourites of love, lost love, and moving on, are still there at the top of the list as they have been throughout so much of Bob’s writing career. But we may also note that Bob is concerned particularly with change and moving on.
In the last article in this series I looked at the songs written around 2001 and reached the conclusion that Dylan at that time was writing primarily about chaos. Adding together the subject headings I get for that year we had
- Chaos: 3
- Disaffection, disorientation: 2
- Leaving: 1
- Living lie a contrarian / crazy world: 4
- Coming to the end: 1
- Happiness is a state of mind: 1
So the emphasis has changed somewhat, but it is similar; the world is turned upside down, but we just keep on living in it, trying to do our best.
Tell Ol’ Bill, the song that I ceaselessly rave about to anyone who is crazy enough to listen, contains the lines
You trampled on me as you passed, Left the coldest kiss upon my brow, All my doubts and fears have gone at last, I’ve nothing more to tell you now.
Those are the lines of the ending time; the world marches on and tramples on ordinary people trying to make the best of the world they find themselves in. In these strange times Bob knows where he is; he has no more need to shout out the message. He’s done his bit.
As the reviews of Dylan decade by decade (listed below) show, Bob Dylan has never stood still in his choice of themes for his work, but in the 21st century Bob has been either treading new ground, or tackling where he has been before in a new way.
We we have three more major songwriting periods to cover before our series is done (assuming Bob doesn’t fool us and bring out another new album or the record company don’t give us the outtakes of Rough and Rowdy). So three more episodes before I can start drawing my final conclusions.
Meanwhile if you are interested in seeing the details of Bob’s songwriting year by year, that is brought together in five files, with each having links to the reviews of each and every song.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century