Changing of the Guards: The meanings behind Bob Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

The original review was written in 2008, and then updated in 2013.  Coming back to it in 2018, I found myself very unhappy with what I had written, and thus decided to start again.

Changing of the Guards: first track on Street Legal, failed to make it as a single (presumably because Dylan fans buy albums), and yet turns up on Greatest Hits 3 and The Essential.   Someone who selects these things (Dylan himself?) either thought it was a great song or else thought, “hey, here’s one we haven’t done much to push.”

This song (and several others from 1977) seemed then and seem now to suggest a time when Dylan apparently wanted to write another epic song but didn’t quite see which epic issues he was writing about.   On the other hand he was clearly interested in the possibilities that arise from combining different and varied rhyming systems with images of great events that are never quite in focus.

In my original review I suggested that Bob did a cut and paste job with a load of lyrics that had something to do with the medieval period, and said to the audience, “make something of that.”   I think I was having a very bad day because in retrospect that is far too harsh, not least because there are some very interesting sets of images within the song, but hearing it again now does suggest that we are looking at a changing landscape with characters and events that not only never become clear but are in the future never going to become clear.   Rather like the remnants of a dream recalled in the morning.   We know there is something there, and recall some of the detail but can’t quite work out what it is all about.

Which perhaps is how we get to something so very unfitting by the third line: “Where the good shepherd grieves”.  OK he was about to go all Christian, but this doesn’t seem to be Christian, except in that it was a celebration of everything that was wrong about Christianity and the power of the priest at this time.

Unless (and this is just a guess from me) it is all about a reading of the tarot cards.  The clue to that comes at the very end, (“Between the King and the Queen of Swords”).

Heylin quotes Jacques Levy as noting Dylan’s fascination with all the possibilities of rhyme at this time, and that quite possibly is the heart of the matter – the song is about rhymes and how they can be manipulated in a five line poem.  The music is the same for each verse, but what happens in the lyrics changes, changes and changes again just like that half remembered dream.

In such a scenario, at the end the lyrics don’t really matter, what matters is the feel, and “feel” is what we get layered on with the sax and the chorus repeating certain words as we go along, for reasons that will never become clear.  Words picked out, just because they are there…

When I did my second attempt at making sense of this song in a review, in 2013, I noted that one couplet did catch my ear….

But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

For me “Eden is Burning” is full of such potential that I suggested in that review I wanted to think it through, use it in one of my own songs (not to suggest that I am even on the same compositional planet as Dylan, but it just catches me that way) and then think, oh, what a dull way to use it.

But Heylin has a quote from Dylan apparently made just before he recorded the song, which I failed to comment upon in the original review, but which now a few years later seems rather interesting and helpful, in which Bob said, “I don’t know where these songs come from.  Sometimes I’m thinking to some other age that I live through.  I must have had the experience of all these songs because sometimes I don’t know what I’m writing about until years later it becomes clearer to me.”

It rather fits in with the dream notion – Dylan has had these images from somewhere, and they don’t quite fit together but mix in that notion that at the time he was playing around with rhyming schemes, and we get this piece: a mix of images and rhymes that suggest a set of events might be being played out on a TV screen, but sometimes they fade and quite often we seem to have slipped into another channel.

Heylin’s conclusion, “What had begun as a conversation between two lovers the morning after their tryst at the dawn of battle has changed into a prophetic pronouncement of the End Times,” may or may not be right in its detail, but as the broad representation of what is going on in this song I think it gets to the heart of the matter.  There is a magic out there, expressed in a game of rhymes which we glimpse and are even part of sometimes but can never quite fully step into.

Here is the version you will remember.

and below a live version which suggests to me that Bob himself was still struggling fully to come to terms with the ever swirling mist of images and rhymes he had created.

In terms of the music there is (or was) a review on Wikipedia which suggests that the song ends on the dominant chord (that is the chord based on the fifth note of the scale the song is in.)  This is completely wrong – it is performed in A flat, and ends on the chord of A flat.  There is nothing odd about the chords used – A flat, F minor, D flat and E flat – exactly as you might expect.

In a very real sense the backing singers and the sax are there to help make sure that the relative normality of the music doesn’t take too much away from the lyrics.  But if you need the lyrics to mean something maybe take the medieval period (the poverty, persecution, disease, and belief that both the dead and living share the earth as everyone waits for Revelation to come to pass), and mix it all up amidst the shadows, and peer at it through half closed eyes, and then maybe you get the picture.  Or maybe not, but it’s still enjoyable.  Not a great Dylan moment, but still nice to hear it once in a while.

What else is on the site

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


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