“I’ll keep it with mine” – the meaning of the lyrics and the music.

By Tony Attwood

I suspect there are many people in England (as I am) who know “I’ll keep it with mine” as a Fairport Convention song, and fortunately for anyone who has never heard this version it is on the internet – at least at the moment I’m writing this.  To me this is the realisation of the song that we hear on Biograph.

Nico’s version is also available although for me the arrangement, by retaining the jagged edges of the song that existed in Dylan’s versions, loses the overall point of the lyrics.  There is also a Judy Collins version (the first version of the song to be released) which (again to me) seems to miss the mark – and that was unusual for Judy Collins.  She could take a song and invariably get straight to the heart of the matter.  Although to be fair the problem is with an awful arrangement behind her voice – particularly the organ, where I guess the producer said, “make it sound like on those Dylan tracks”.

The awkwardness of Nico’s version is perhaps particularly surprising since Nico was with Dylan in Greece when he wrote the piece, and the song was particularly “reserved” for her by Dylan – at least according to Heylin.  Maybe she was trying too hard – maybe she was ready for the Velvet Underground, and was trying to make it sound like the Underground.   Although to be fair the Velvet recordings don’t have this problem at all.

So what’s the song all about?   The Franciscan Sisters of Charity, on their web site, say that

The lyrics console the searcher—“how long can you search for what’s not lost?”

Which bemuses me from the off, since I don’t see the line as meaning that the singer is consoling the listener.  To me the singer is saying, “stop doing this – stop beating yourself else – nothing is lost – it is all a state of mind”.

Our purpose, our way is never lost in God’s sight. If following is a burden, if finding the right route is beyond us, He can handle it—“Come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine.” He’s keeping us all despite all the “helpful advice” that sometimes only marks a detour on the journey. Faith tells us He’ll be back tomorrow, same time again. Thanks be to God!

“Discover what you set out to find” for me is the focus of this song. We all search, at least at one point in life, until we know what it is we are searching for. What is the need of our heart? Ultimately we all seek to love and to be loved. This is an amazing song if you see it as God speaking. He waits for us to find Him so that that need can be filled! He was never lost!

So is it God speaking, or simply a guy giving the lady some advice – something that Dylan seemed to do a fair bit of during that time in Greece preparing for the album.   He did after all write Plain D there which really is a song based on the notion that he knows everything and it is about time he laid the information clear and simple on the line.

I suspect he is offering advice, but I understand you could hear the song otherwise.

Of Dylan’s versions, the Biograph recording which was contemplated for Bringing it all back home, or at least being the basis for a song for that album, and is the one really worth studying in my opinion.

Indeed If we just focus on the opening lines

You will search, babe
At any cost
But how long, babe
Can you search for what’s not lost?

it certainly could be gentle advice to a lady who is certain where she is going somewhere, but just needs to get the fine details sorted.  Her career had taken several turns in different directions so searching was probably on her mind.

However then instead of the standard message of the era, as in “don’t follow leaders”, just work it all out for yourself, there is instead a different two-pronged message.

Everybody will help you
Some people are very kind
But if I can save you any time
Come on, give it to me
I’ll keep it with mine

So everyone is going to offer you advice, but if you come over to me, I’ll do more than that.  I’ll take your problem from you, and put it with my problems and work on them all together.  The wonderful British author Douglas Adams had fun with this notion in his book “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” many years later – where the character of the monk takes over all your issues, so they are not your issues any more.  Of course I don’t know if Adams had the song in mind, but he certainly did use Dylan occasionally in his work, as when the mice in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, lacking any deep question about the nature of the universe to ask, settle for “How many roads must a man walk down.”

But back to Dylan.  As we move on there is an honest romanticism in the awkwardness of the second verse – it is not crafted and arranged – just a guy saying what he feels.

I can’t help it
If you might think I’m odd
If I say I’m not loving you for what you are
But for what you’re not

There is incidentally a difference of opinion over what that third line actually says.  The alternate version is

If I say I’m loving you not for what you are, but what you’re not

And the singer suggests he is constant, always there but also flexible, while others around might be stuck in one fixed way of seeing the world.

But moving on, I’ve never been sure how to view the final verse – I suspect the lady in the song is so troubled she is thinking of leaving, while he is saying, don’t worry I will be here for you.  But I also suspect it is a disconnect – an observation – a piece of background that isn’t integrated into the story as a whole.

The train leaves
At half past ten
But it’ll be back tomorrow
Same time again
The conductor he’s weary
He’s still stuck on the line
But if I can save you any time
Come on, give it to me
I’ll keep it with mine

Any interpretation at this point is pushing the meaning far too far.  Indeed the more I have written of these reviews the more I reach the conclusion that Dylan’s songs shouldn’t be interpreted line by line – or at least not always.

Indeed in his 2015 MusiCare speech Dylan suggested very strongly that the source of many of his songs is listening to the phraseology of other people’s songs.  As when he said in the speech that he listened to “How high’s the water, Mama?” and then wrote “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.

In fact it was in that long speech that Dylan offered everyone like me who wants to write about Dylan’s songs the greatest challenge.   He says

“Big Bill Broonzy had a song called Key to the Highway.   I’ve got a key to the highway, I’m booked and I’m bound to go, Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow. I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,

“Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there’s only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol’ Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61″

In such a world of writing, it is the phrases, and the overall conception of the thing, not the detailed explanation of line by line – that gives us the clues, and I guess that really applies here.  It is also a big challenge to the way I have approached this whole web site, and was a prime reason as to why, after a couple of years work on the site, I introduced the chronology and started to approach songs in relation to the other songs written around the same time.

To give but one example, the sequence of writing around this song was, more or less…

The friendship espoused in “All I really want to do” and the notion that one learns not to be so judgemental as one gets older “My back pages” are both to be seen within “I’ll keep it with mine”, I feel.

Musically, on the piano version of the song Dylan seeks to add additional elements to the chords, and it is these that are stripped out by most other artists (although not Nico who adds more of her own).

Indeed if you look at Eyolf Østrem’s “Dylanchords” site you’ll find an overwhelming mass of chords that look like ”

C/e     F    C/g  F/a  C/g



  1. Great read, I have always thought this was one of Dylan’s under appreciated gems. He obviously liked it too as he unearthed it during the Blonde on Blonde sessions. I seem to recall reading that the song might have been about Nico’s young son, who would have been 2 at the time he wrote this. I might be wrong though, as you say Dylan was spending a lot of time with her at this point. I like how you pointed out that the best way to read and listen to Dylan sometimes is to look at he phraseology and not necessarily every line separately. I think Bob was much more than a great songwriter, his biggest talent was making songs that were powerful both because of the words and how he could make them sound without having to intellectualise them too much. Anyway, I’m definitely going to check out some more of your stuff, you have a great way of writing about him.

    I have also written about a couple of Dylan’s songs in depth on my blog, would love your thoughts! http://thisisnotourfate.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Dylan%20Dissected

  2. i have always heard this not as a song of leaving but of a come hither type song. he is not, and has not been with, this person. Yet. But if she joins him she will find that all of her good and bad will be so important to the singer as to make them his own.

  3. mysterious ditty performed by nico on her first solo album. the nature of Dylan’s friendship (relationship?) w/ nico is virtually unknown. rumors (legends?) that the two were scag buddies for a bit could be borne out by the last verse: is the conductor really a dealer, a missed connection who will be back tmw. same time again? man, I don’t know. preceding verses, I think, unfold Dylan’s emotional/ professional support of nico’s nascent singing career. it is a very pretty song. I first heard d.’s version on 1973 bootleg, nico’s 2 yrs. later, very different arrangements, slightly varying melodies but both struck a chord in my heart.

  4. This is what the song is about IMO:
    It can take a long time for her to realize that he is who she is looking for.
    He wants to save her time, but she leaves again, on that same train, again and again. He can do nothing but wait and sing about it.
    Dylan tells this story over and over, in a different form.

  5. Whatever the hell it’s about, Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny’s vocal interpretation, as in so many of hers, is ethereal. Dylan’s essence.

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