Viewing “Lonesome Day Blues” with “20/20 Vision”

by John Radosta

When Dylan started singing the song that followed “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at the City Coliseum in Austin, Texas, fans might have been forgiven for thinking that they were listening to an acoustic version of “Lonesome Day Blues.” It had the same vocal rhythms, the same rhyme scheme. The two long lines to start each verse, both with that characteristic pause, before getting resolved in the second half of the verse. It was all the same. But the lyrics would have confounded them. There was that one line, “Since she’s gone and left me” but it didn’t seem to fit in to the rest of the stanza.

Except they couldn’t have confused it for “Lonesome Day Blues,” because the date of that show was October 25, 1991, almost exactly a decade earlier than the release of “Love and Theft.”

As Tony Atwood noted on this site in July, Dylan was singing a Gene Autry tune for the first, and perhaps only, time ever, called “20/20 Vision.” Dylan’s arrangement and phrasing bear no resemblance to Autry’s recording, though “Walls of Red Wing” and some of his late ’60s country songs, like “I Threw it All Away” and “Waltzing With Sin” (on the Basement Tapes Complete collection) have recognizable echoes. Instead, he’s taken a composition stored in that vast warehouse of his mind, and transformed it entirely.

Here’s Dylan’s version:

And here’s Gene Autry’s:

After taking it for a spin, Dylan put it back on the shelf, but clearly never forgot it. In keeping with the blues tradition of recycling elements such as riffs, rhythms, and rhymes, when Dylan came to record tracks for “Love and Theft,” his one-off performance was still rattling around in his brain.

“Lonesome Day Blues” incorporates all of these particles. As I mentioned above, only a single phrase, “gone and left me” connects this song with Autry’s. Instead, Dylan used the structure to combine any number of other bits of literature—it’s this song that famously includes lines from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza, Virgil’s Aeneid, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and others. Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, provides a rack on which to hang many hats.

Here’s Dylan singing “Lonesome Day Blues” at Madison Square Garden, just a few weeks after its infamous release on 9/11:


This isn’t the only time Dylan has stored away a tune for use many years on (I’m putting aside completed songs that got repurposed, such as when “Phantom Engineer” became “It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” or “Danville Girl” formed an early draft of “Brownsville Girl,” or “Dreaming of You” donated lines to “Standing in the Doorway”).

On The Cutting Edge, the collection of tracks from his epic mid-60s trilogy, Dylan sings the fragment “Lunatic Princess.” It was recorded in January of 1967, during the Blonde on Blonde sessions. The frantic lyrics are tossed off vitriol of a lesser vintage of “Positively 4th Street.” But Al Cooper’s driving organ riff is extremely familiar: it forms the backbone of “Dead Man, Dead Man,” recorded in the spring of 1981 for Shot of Love.

Here’s a side by side comparison:  first Lunatic Princess.

If you are not able to play that video try here.

and now “Dead Man, Dead Man” in London, 1981:

Again if you can’t play that one try this


It’s a cinch that there are hundreds of tunes swirling through the mind of Dylan; his encyclopedic knowledge of American music across two centuries or more, demonstrated in his one-offs, and snippets of lyrics scattered across his catalogue, prove it. It’s why we keep listening, storing away the bits for future illumination and fascinating connections.

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  1. Except that “20/20 Vision” and “Lonesome Day Blues” don’t have the same vocal rhythms or rhyme scheme. “20/20 Vision” was a waltz in Gene Autry’s version. Dylan plays it in 4, but the lyrics are still in a dactylic rhythm (ONE two three), with four beats to a line. “Lonesome Day Blues” is a shuffle, with the lyrics in an iambic rhythm (one TWO) and five beats to a line–iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme of “20/20 Vision” is AABB, with the fourth line the same throughout and the third line rhyming with it. The rhyme scheme of “Lonesome Day Blues” is AAB–a standard blues. And the phrase that supposedly links them–“gone and left me”–is actually “died and left me” in “Lonesome Day Blues.” (And it’s his pa that leaves him there, and his woman in the other song.) There’s no resemblance between the songs.

    That’s neat about the riff from “Lunatic Princess” being recycled in “Dead Man, Dead Man.” But you’re assuming that Dylan came up with it himself, and told the musicians to play it. Maybe, but I think they were familiar enough with basic blues riffs to think of it on their own.

  2. Sorry, I should have said the basic rhythm underneath the lyrics is dactylic and iambic, respectively. The rhythm of the lyrics is more fluid–“Today has been a sad and lonesome day” is a perfect iambic line, while “My pa he died and left me, my brother got killed in the war” shifts from iambic to dactylic. Because of course in a song you don’t write to a meter, you write to the rhythm you’re singing on top of; it’s the beat that matters, not the number of syllables.

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