The themes within Bob Dylan’s music: I am the world, the world is me.

by Tony Attwood

In my article “Bob Dylan and the Blues: leaving town in all directions at once” I put forward the opinion that Bob “knew from the very start that he could take any form and make a success out of it.   Which is basically what he did from here on in.”

That revelation for me started with two pieces: first the 1962 work of utter genius Ballad for a friend in which Bob took the blues and turned it into something utterly extraordinary and amazing and different.  Quite why this song was then left behind I have no idea.  How could someone so young write something so brilliant, and then leave it?

The second thought along these lines came with “Times they are a-changin’,” when it suddenly struck me that this was not a protest song at all, even though most people called it that.  The lyrics say very simply that the world changes, and there is nothing we can do to hold those changes back.

As such it is the antithesis to a protest song. defines the phrase “protest song” as a “Term which gained currency (first in USA) in 1960s for song which voiced feelings of protest about some social or political injustice, real or imagined, or about some int. event which aroused strong emotions, e.g. America’s part in the Vietnam war. A famous example is ‘We shall overcome’.”

Yet Bob Dylan was of course a protest singer-songwriter sometimes because of songs like “Masters of War,” but not it seems in his most famous “protest” song of all!

I made that comment about Dylan’s very early compositions as I was starting to work out how I could write a series about the lyrical themes within Bob’s music.  Having puzzled over it for quite a while I decided that the only thing I could do was try and write a series about Bob’s music year by year and see if, in doing that, I could draw any conclusions.  You may have noticed these pieces in passing – we are now right up to the most recently works – where are reviewed in this way, below.

Thus I started writing this little series in which I have tried to give a two or three word explanation for the subject matter of each and every song Bob Dylan has written, but it took me a while to get the hang of what I was trying to do – which is why, having now made some sort of attempt to bring the series up to date I am going to have to go back and re-work some of those early articles.

Although by 1964 I think I’d got the prime idea of what I was trying to do and for that year – and thereafter – came up with a list of songs and the short explanations of what they were

  1. Guess I’m doing fine (I’m hurting; way we see the world)
  2. Chimes of Freedom (Protest, the future will be fine)
  3. Mr Tambourine Man (Surrealism; the way we see the world)
  4. I don’t believe you (She acts like we never have met) (Lost love)
  5. Spanish Harlem Incident (Love)
  6. Motorpsycho Nightmare  (Humour)
  7. It ain’t me babe (Song of Farewell)
  8. Denise Denise  (Taking a break, having a laugh)
  9. Mama you’ve been on my mind (Lost love)
  10. Ballad in Plain D  (Lost love)

and so on.

And it did make a certain amount of sense as some key themes kept coming up over and over again.  You’ll see in the list above “lost love” comes up three times.  That’s how it goes throughout most of Dylan’s career – certain subjects like “love” and “lost love” keep coming up.

Having realised this I gradually made the subject headings tighter, and discovered that the subject matter in Dylan’s songs was very different from that which I had anticipated.  The protest songs and political or social commentary were among the most famous, but in terms of quantity, not nearly as commonplace as Dylan’s songs about love, lost love and moving on.

Through some 50 episodes I have been exploring ways of classifying Dylan’s choice of subject matter – and above all I have realised how Bob’s chosen themes have changed year by year.  Yes of course I knew that, because each album  was different from the last, but just how much Bob could swerve around in terms of content was not clear to me before that.

But within all this there has been another thought.   Most writers (I am tempted to say almost all writers) have chosen to comment on Bob’s songs individually, without particularly referencing one song back to earlier songs, or seeing it as a preparation for later songs.   As a result, themes tend not to emerge.  Albums are of course considered together, but I’ve not seen years as a whole taken together very often.  Sometimes but not much.

Indeed it is remarkable that in his 1200 pages of recording Bob’s songs Heylin spends so little time looking for consistent themes.  It is as if each song exists on its own – a standalone with no point of reference in front of it or behind it – which to me is ludicrous.

I really don’t think that is the way to consider, or indeed comprehend Bob’s songwriting.  We do need (in my view) to consider how he moved around through the themes, and nowhere more so than in considering “Rough and Rowdy Ways” – obviously the final chapter (at least for now) in my quest.

And not just the final chapter, but the most fiendish.

But let us start at the beginning, for this section also has to include one song written in the year before “Rough and Rowdy”….

That wasn’t too hard.  But after that there is no escaping Rough and Rowdy Ways.   And nothing I have worked on in the previous 50 articles has given me a grid or set of guidelines through which I can work.

So what do I have?  How about this….

That is the best I can do at this moment.  I am sure you’ll disagree.

Of course the argument may well be that these songs are far too diverse and complex to be treated in this way, reduced to just a few words, and no benefit comes from trying to reduce such complex works to a few lines.  It is a bit like reducing War and Peace to one phrase [The lives of three characters as Napoleon invades Russia] – but yes it can be done and I have found it informative.

Each short statement about a song is, of itself, not especially helpful, but… when one has such a list it helps one look at the songs in a broader context.

And ultimately that is what I have been struggling towards: seeing Dylan’s work not as a set of isolated songs, and not as works of literature to be explored in terms of influences and borrowed lines, but as the work of a songwriter with the ability to write songs covering numerous musical themes, moving through the years responding to the world around him, his own emotions, the music he loves, reflections on his past, thoughts of people he has known…

It may sound ludicrously pretentious to say that this is a way of looking at Dylan that others have not tried before, for I am sure others have worked along these lines – at least not through Dylan’s whole career.  But even if no one else has found it interesting, it has given me insights that I did not have before.

Now as I think of returning to the start of the series in order to bring the knowledge I gained in later episodes to the earlier ones, and not least now knowing what the end is going to look like, I think I might be able to add a few further insights.

What I can say is that I am absolutely convinced that the key to grasping the essence of Bob Dylan’s songs is his commentary about not knowing where the phrases that he uses in his songs come from.  That I am sure is the truth and also the key to Dylan’s songwriting.  The phrases appear in his head, they meld together in a song, and from there a meaning of sorts may emerge or may not.

The work of Jochen in showing us all the relationships between Bob’s phraseology and the musical, film and literary works of others is incredibly helpful and important not just in this study but in all studies of Bob’s writing, and I’ve been enormously aided by that.  But what I am trying to do is see how all these inputs flow across  the songs, to reflect what was in Bob’s mind as he moved through the years.

In a way this is similar to what Mike Johnson is doing here in musical terms, as he explores the way Bob has performed on the Never Ending Tour.  I guess the ultimate understanding of the evolution of Bob Dylan’s thinking will incorporate Jochen’s knowledge of the lyrics, Mike’s reporting of how Dylan’s music evolved on the NET, and then to a degree, what I am trying to add in terms of the themes and subjects that occupied Bob’s thoughts each year in the music that he composed.  I feel the need to go through my contribution again to make it even partially worthy of having this input alongside the work of my friends on this site.

If this all reads as a tedious and indeed pompous  load of tripe, don’t worry – the rest of the gang will (I hope) continue to be writing about Dylan in their own way.  There’s no obligation to read everything, or indeed anything.  Just as with an album, you don’t have to listen to every track.  You don’t have to buy the album.

So that’s it.  I have done what I set out to do – given every Dylan song as simple a meaning as possible concerning its lyrics.  Now I am going to try and turn that into a coherent journey, which I’ve not always been able to do through the individual articles.  So now the next step is to return to those early songs from the late 50s and early 60s, knowing now about how things developed year on year.

(PS – I’ll keep calling the articles “The themes within Bob’s music” so you’ll be able to spot them and easily ignore them if you find this all too boring, or maybe even too esoteric.  The great thing is we have well over 1800 articles here, and my series represents only 4% of the total.  There is plenty more to distract your mind.)

The series from start to end

Bob Dylan’s songs: the themes

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