By Tony Attwood
This article revised and updated 25 September 2020
In my article A song is like a painting, you can’t see it all if you’re standing too close I attempted to make the point that sometimes detailed analyses of a song, (as with any other work of art), can lead us down false trails, primarily because the artist is not always delivering a clear message. Instead the artist (and I use the word to include writers, visual artists, musicians etc etc) may be giving us a feeling or a sense of the world, rather than a “this is how it is” statement.
And I tried to explore this notion in relation to Dylan, remembering, as Jochen reminded us recently, “Donald Fagen [of Steely Dan, pictured above] repeatedly assures that the bard is the source of inspiration for their poetic and impenetrable texts. ‘No one in the pop medium had ever used that breadth of subject matter or surrealistic and dream language,’ he says in the Wall Street Journal (“Rock’s Reluctant Front Man”, July 8, 2011).”
Dylan, as we know, generally does not overtly explain each song, but he given us the occasional insight, as when he said to Bill Flanagan in 1986,
“A lot of times you’ll just hear things and you’ll know that these are the things that you want to put in your song. Whether you say them or not. They don’t have to be your particular thoughts. They just sound good, and somebody thinks them. Half my stuff falls along those lines. Somebody thinks them. I’m sure, when I’m singing something, that I’m not just singing it to sing it. I know that I’ve read it. Somebody’s said it. I’ve heard a voice say that. A song like Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight sort of falls into that category: I’ll take you to a mountaintop and build you a house out of stainless steel. That kind of stuff just passes by. A guy’s getting out of bed saying don’t talk to me; it’s leaving time. I didn’t originate those kinds of thoughts. I’ve felt them, but I didn’t originate them. They’re out there, so I just use them.”
I find that explanation very attractive. For although just writing, “I’ve heard a voice say that,” as the explanation for the lyrics within a song, lacks a certain depth, there is a lot in that, as one thinks of the three levels that most songs exist within. First there is the meaning of individual phrases, second there is the overall meaning of the song, and third the meaning of the music.
I’m not going to deal with that third case here, but to give the simplest of examples, most of us who are used to hearing western music hear a minor chord (for example D F A) as sad, while we hear a major chord (for example C E G) as either neutral or happy when it comes to emotions. I’ll come back to this in another article anon.
In my series of articles on the themes in Dylan’s songwriting it is the overall message or theme of each song that I have been looking at. It was an exercise that revealed to me (for the first time, despite a lifetime of listening to Dylan) just how his subject matter has changed across time, from the early days when he looked at many different themes (from love songs to protest for example) to the one year in which he wrote only on one theme – that of faith.
To see just how Dylan changed over the years we might consider the songs written in 1962 as an example. Here they are listed in the order Dylan composed them (as far as we have that information) with my briefest of subject matter summaries thereafter.
- Ballad for a friend (Blues; death)
- Poor Boy Blues (Blues)
- Rambling Gambling Willie (Moving on, gambling)
- Standing on the highway (Blues)
- Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues (Right wing protest)
- Death of Emmett Till (social commentary: racism)
- The Ballad of Donald White (social commentary)
- Let me die in my footsteps (anti-nuclear war; stand up and be proud)
- Blowing in the wind (It’s not the world, it’s the way you see the world)
- Corrina Corrina (Lost love)
- Honey just allow me one more chance (Lost love)
- Rocks and Gravel (lost love, moving on)
- Quit your Lowdown Ways (do the right thing)
- Baby I’m in the mood for you (Absolute desire)
- Down the Highway (Lost love, Song of leaving)
- Bob Dylan’s Blues (Comedy)
- Tomorrow is a long time (Lost love)
- Ain’t gonna grieve (Civil rights)
- Long Ago Far Away (Nothing has changed)
- Long Time Gone (Moving on)
- Hard Rain’s a gonna fall (War protest)
- Ballad of Hollis Brown (Rural protest)
- John Brown (War protest)
- Don’t think twice (Song of Leaving)
- Mixed up confusion (Rock n roller is confused)
- I’d hate to be you on that dreadful day (Bob gets the ship ready to come in)
- Paths of Victory. (The future will be fine)
- Train A Travellin’ (Stand up and protest about what’s going on around you)
- Walking Down the Line (Keep on moving on)
- Ye Playboys and Playgirls (Stand up and change the world)
- Oxford Town (Racism Protest)
- I shall be free (Comic talking blues)
- Kingsport Town (Lost love, moving on)
- Hero Blues (Beware when your girlfriend loves you because you are famous)
- The Ballad of the Gliding Swan (Life throws up every surprise, but life goes on)
- Whatcha Gonna Do? (How will you be placed at the second coming)
Now of course you can argue about the subject matter of any of those songs, but I suspect many people tackling that list of 36 songs would come up with a variety of topics, generally along the same lines as mine. There can be, for example, little doubt what “Joe Brown” or “Oxford Town” are about. Nor indeed for the extraordinary “Ballad for a Friend”.
Looking at those brief summaries we might agree that maybe seven of them are traditional blues songs, six seem to be are lost love songs, five or six are protest, depending on how you define that term. But what do you say about Baby I’m in the mood for you? Love? Lust? Desire? Humour? You take your choice.
Thus in my articles looking at the subject matter of Dylan’s work I am not making any claim to the effect that this subject matter list is somehow correct or perfect. Indeed although for some songs the subject matter is obvious, the attribution of subject matter of many others undoubtedly could be challenged, and indeed the whole process of classification is one of personal choice. So I am not trying to be definitive; rather I am just trying to point out the diversity of Dylan’s work year by year, and how it changed over the years.
To leap forward 16 years, I called 1978 “Dylan’s troubled year” and ascribed the meaning of his songs that year as
- Moving on: 4
- Love: 3
- Blues: 3
- Lost love: 5
- Death: 1
- Be yourself: 1
Again you may differ if you do your own analysis, but whatever you came out with I can’t believe you are going to find much in that collection that is happy, jolly and bouncy.
On the other hand 1979, the year that follows, is called on this site After the anxiety, the certainty in which I have no doubt that all 19 songs were songs expressing religious faith.
As I worked through the 1980s trying to ascribe a theme to each song I found myself drawn more and more to the notion that the subject matter of the songs tell us a lot about how Bob is feeling. It is perfectly clear from the songs that Bob had had his troubled year in 1978, and then gave himself over to his seemingly new found faith (“seemingly” because he had not written about it that much before) in 1979.
But this new revelation did not continue, and by the end of 1980 he had written the stunning, “Making a liar out of me,” which although not a rejection of Christianity, sounds to me like a stunning reprimand to those who try to use Bob and his music as a way of backing up their world views.
Thereafter the lyrics of Bob’s songs reveal that he slips into the gloom in his thinking, as I hope I might have reflected in the titles chosen for each year in the second half of the 1980s.
- 1985: Bob Dylan slips back into negativity
- 1986: The year Dylan slowly turned himself all around
- 1987/8: Possibly the greatest trilogy of compositions in Dylan’s career
- 1989: The menace emerges
And to jump forward and explain by what I meant by “the menace”, the songs that year include Disease of Conceit, What was it you wanted?, Broken Days / Everything is Broken , Most of the Time, and Man in a Long Black Coat, to name but a few. That is a lot of darkness!
Now I know that there are some who will argue, and argue indeed very coherently, that in essence most of Dylan’s songs are primarily about faith and religion. I, rather obviously given the above, disagree – and there are two strands to my thinking here.
One is that if I wanted to convert you to a religion and wanted to do it by using such artistic talent as I have, I would write songs that are clearly about that religion, the benefits of being part of it (eternal salvation for example) and what might happen if one doesn’t believe (eternal damnation etc). And indeed this is exactly what Dylan did for a year and half.
But if I was trying to convince you to follow my religion of choice, why would I write songs which take quite a large stretch of the imagination to be seen as religious songs? Why be obscure when trying to convert? Of course there is nothing wrong with obscurity – Bob is often at his best when being obscure (Johanna is a perfect example) – but if the message (rather than the subtle textures and hints) is the central point, surely obscurity is pointless.
Now I have to add that I have a small amount of experience in this. Of course I am not comparing my work with any of the major talents in the world of the arts, or even the minor talents – I have spent my life writing books and articles in part because I couldn’t make any money out of my earlier careers of playing in a band, writing songs and working in the theatre. And besides I quite enjoy writing books and articles.
But I know, with my own very, very, very minor talent as a songwriter, and slightly larger talent as a writer of articles and books, that phrases can come to one out of the blue, and can linger in the mind, sometimes without necessarily having any associated meaning and sometimes through having multiple meanings.
I have touched often before upon the phrase that Dylan borrowed from those who have gone before him, “Beyond here lies nothing,” and I must admit I rather wish he hadn’t used it, because I would have loved to have written a song, or a song cycle, or a novel using that phrase and exploring some of the meanings. In fact if I was going to write a book about what Dylan wrote about after the 18 months of overtly religious songs, I would almost certainly have “Beyond here lies nothing” at least as the working title, while the text was being written. It means something, I am sure of it. I am just not sure what.
Of course I am drawn to the notion that Dylan uses phrases he happens to like, because he likes them, not because they have a meaning that fits into the song, because of my personal views. Which in turn implies that I am not claiming that anything I happen to mention here is definitive. My explanations and thoughts are simply references to how I see his work, not definitively how the work actually is, as measured by some universal set of standards to which I don’t have access.
This is exactly the same as the individual who sees Dylan’s songs as primarily religious in nature is offering his chosen explanation. We interpret art through the filters of our own preferences, our learning and our experiences. This is not a science with a definitive answer.
But it is helpful if we can find some evidence and some logic to support whatever theory we are putting forward – and in that regard what Bob has said about his own work counts as one layer of evidence. Then again, the theme of each song as expressed in the lyrics is more evidence. Also the way Dylan has moved through various different themes across the years is another set of evidence (in that if we find him writing about certain themes over and over again then we can take that those themes are very much on his mind at the time).
And this is interesting and useful for it turns out that going through all of Dylan’s songs and ascribing to them a brief statement of the subject matter gives us an insight into the beauty, elegance, power and longevity of Dylan’s work. It comes from the fact that he uses words in a way that can portray different things to different people, while regularly shifting from subject to subject. Indeed I don’t see how he could have achieved his staggering longevity and popularity as a songwriter if he had not moved through so many different subjects across the years.
Thus overall, what I am suggesting is that Dylan is able to create works that have multiple possible meanings in part because he has changed the subject matter and the perspective of his songs so regularly. In my view, and as I hope to show in future articles, if Bob had restricted himself to one subject only (such as the truth of the Christian message) he would not have worked in such a variety of musical and lyrical styles because they simply don’t lend themselves the lyrics portraying faith.
What’s more, because of this variety Bob does not try to give us the answer to life, the universe and everything (to use Douglas Adams’ wonderful phrase) because as he moves from style to style he finds there is no definitive answer. At least there isn’t “most of the time”.
Now this doesn’t mean that every Dylan song is obscure. “Day of the Locusts” has the giveaway line about the degree in it, so we can accept that it was about his getting his honorary doctorate. And whether, “Don’t think twice” is about an actual relationship or just about breaking up a relationship doesn’t really matter too much – it is a song of leaving, and that is the point which we can all grasp straight away. “Look out your window and I’ll be gone” is the giveaway, and besides songs of leaving are very common both in Dylan’s output and in the music that he obviously enjoys himself.
In fact the “look out your window” example is perfect for this discussion, because looking out your window to find that your lover has gone is exactly what you don’t do. You look in the house. The empty road outside says nothing until you’ve searched the house. But we don’t ponder that because we are drawn into imagining that she is looking around the house saying, “Bob where are you? Bob? Bob!!!” and answer comes there none. Then too late she looks outside. None of that is said however. We have “Look out your window and I’ll be gone” and the rest becomes understood.
“I’ll be gone” here is perfect in that it has the meaning, “I will have left long before you wake up and notice I am not there.” And thinking on that, what do you know, we are back with “Beyond here lies nothing” again. The empty road outside the house is not proof that he’s gone but rather is a symbol of the emptiness she will now feel. It is a way of saying “You’re going to miss me when I’m gone,” but a much more powerful way of saying it. It is a perfect use of language, and typical of the man who has written so many songs of moving on.
Thus Dylan picks up words, phrases and ideas, and re-uses them, quite often seemingly without too much thought. He then leaves us to be creative in the way we interpret them.
This is the opposite of seeing Dylan’s songs as predominantly religious, or indeed predominantly anything else. The religious interpretation suggests he is telling us (or indeed lecturing us) to see that “this is how it is”. The alternative – I should say the opposite – approach of moving in every direction at once gives the job of interpretation to us.
And maybe that’s what I find so wonderful about Dylan: he gives me the power to interpret his work. He doesn’t tell me how it is. He hints, rather like a Turner paining.