All Directions: Dylan before the basement

By Tony Attwood

This article follows on from All Directions at once: the first five directions which showed us that Bob exploded into the world of composition by writing not just many different songs, but songs for which the lyrics encompassed many different themes.  Indeed already by 1962/3, as Dylan established himself as the prime songwriter of the day, he was doing so not just by writing songs that became classics but also by moving seamlessly from subject to subject.

Indeed I would argue that it is his ability to write lyrics that take in so many different visions and subjects, that is a central part of his appeal and the reason he is so fully recognised.

For the fact is that there are so many superb, magnificent masterpieces in 1963 the question must have arisen at the time (at least among those who were aware of just how prodigious his output was), could he keep this up?   From “Masters of War” to “Times they are a changing” from “Girl from the North Country” to “One too many mornings” anyone appreciating this outpouring of genius could have been excused from thinking he was suddenly going either to explode or implode.

And I do want to emphasise both points that I am making here: that he wrote so many of his classic works very quickly, after only a few years experience as a song writer, and that then as throughout most of his life he kept changing his subject matter.

But of course such an amazing outpouring of great works meant that Bob became central to people’s awareness of new ways of writing, which meant that the pressure on him to carry on doing more of the same must have been enormous.  And yet he was able to resist and continue the “all directions at once” approach with songs focusing on social protest, surrealism, humour, love and lost love, blues, individualism and saying goodbye.

I do believe this is a point that is sometimes missed.  Dylan was not just a brilliant songwriter who was highly prolific, although that would have been enough to keep him in the public eye and to give him recognition at the highest level.  He was, from the off, finding new themes and styles.

The change in musical styles across the years from 1959 to 1966 are obvious – everyone is aware that he moved from traditional folk and blues to contemporary rock.  But there was far more to his musical shifts than that, although I am going to leave my commentary on the changes in musical style for another article.

But let us take just one year: 1964.  For me it is the sheer variety of Dylan’s output in 1964 that is the marker of that year.  From “Chimes of Freedom” to “Motorpsycho Nighmare” from “It ain’t me babe” to “To Ramona”.  From “My back pages” to the “Gates of Eden”.  What an amazing tour de force.  And that was just one year!

And then having had the relatively light year of “just” 20 songs in 1964, Bob came back with an absolute bang in 1965 with 29 compositions.  If we note that the first composition of the year was Farewell Angelina and the last was Visions of Johanna, we can see at once what an incredible year this was.

Then, as if that were not enough, 1965 seems to have been the year of everything, from the delicacy of “Love minus zero” to the insanity of “115th dream”,  from the disdain of “4th Street” to the sad farewell of “Baby Blue”.  But looking at the full list it really does look as if this was the year when Bob fell out of love with being in love.  (If you have not found it before, we have a list of all of Dylan’s compositions of the 1960s in chronological order of composition on this site).

To take a detail from within this extraordinary period in which, at the very opening of his career, he wrote 170 songs, there is a sequence of compositions part way through the period which really shows a troubled mind, a mind centred on discord and disdain.

These are songs of moving on, confronting society, being tired, feeling nothing makes sense, feeling disdain, seeing life as a jumble, and there being no escape. He’s moved on, but still the world now makes no sense.  We cannot look at that list of songs written in a very short space of time, exactly in the order above, without recognising that this outpouring must have both reflected on Dylan’s inner turmoil, and also expressed his genius ability to move from subject to subject.

But we can also see the changes that happen.  For example, 1966 saw the interest in dada fade and be replaced by surrealism, with the songs of “lost love” still proclaiming themselves as Dylan’s dominant feeling.

I have several times set out to try and put all the songs into a classification of content and each time the answer comes out differently, and I would never claim that my classification is absolute, but I think the general trend does nevertheless become clear through each year.  Thus the table below is my latest attempt to classify Dylan’s songs by subject matter, year by year from the start to the Basement Tapes.  There is a more detailed review of 1959 to 1963 in the previous article in this series.

Theme 1959/63 1964 1965 1966 Total
Art 2 2
Blues 7 2 9
Civil rights / social commentary 6 6
Dada 12 12
Death 4 4
Disdain 4 2 6
Do the right thing 2 2
Future will be fine 1 1
Gambling 1 1
How we see the world 1 1
Humour 15 3 18
Leaving 1 1
Protest / hurting / despair 2 1 3
Individualism 6 6
Justice 2 2
Lost Love 12 3 5 20
Love & desire 4 2 1 6 13
Modern Life (tragedy of) 4 4
Moving on 17 7 2 27
Nothing changes 4 4
Patriotism 3 3
Protest/rebellion 16 1 1 17
Randomness/surrealism 4 4
Religion 2 2
Surrealism 3 3

25 different subject categories, the most prolific of which were

  • Moving on 27
  • Lost love 20
  • Humour 18
  • Protest / rebellion 17
  • Love and desire 13
  • Dada 12

Of course some of these subject areas can be contested – no sooner do I put one song in a particular category than I am told that a) it is obvious that it should be in another category, b) I know nothing of Dylan’s work and c) categorising Dylan’s work is pointless because he is uncategorisable.

And of course everyone can decide if they would prefer to have no chart which explores Dylan’s evolving styles and approaches, or a different set of subject titles.  But if I may, perhaps I can point out that having a consistent set of themes is not as easy as it looks.  The one example of “Times they are a changin'” as a protest song is a perfect example.  The general listener has learned to hear it as a protest song, but in reality the lyrics say nothing of the kind.  They say, times change, and there is nothing you can do about.

Now from that point you can argue that this whole process of categorising Dylan is a farce; he’s a one off, he’s unique, he can’t be categorised.  And I’d even go along with that.  But, I find that by going through this exercise of trying to understand and list what Bob was writing about, helps me understand Dylan as not just a writer of individual songs that so many people admire and even love, but also as a man who has evolved and developed over the years.  Indeed my hope is that by sharing my thoughts on this, you too might see the value of exploring the subject matter of Bob’s writing, not in terms of each individual song, but in terms of an on-going process.

And the key point I take from these first eight years is that the title “All Directions at Once” is valid.  Bob does move around from topic to topic.   He has a range of topics within each year and he jumps between those, but then within a year or two he has moved on to other topics.

Plus what this little chart above shows is that there is no gentle ebb and flow in the normal sense.  Subjects appear and then vanish.  For every topic such as “Love and desire” which continues year after year there are several that appear and then just stop dead.

The question is, would he, beyond the period covered by the chart above, continue to travel in all these different directions, or would he find new themes that would suit him and which he could focus on.  I’m looking for the creative flow of his work at this point.

Certainly he slowed down, coming down to 20 songs in 1964, instead of 35 or more in the previous year.  So would he slow down again?

No, of course not.  This is Dylan, he never does what we expect.  Next came the Basement Tapes.

The series continues.  There is an index to the whole series here.

What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years.  Series we are currently running include

  • The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
  • The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
  • Bob Dylan and Stephen Crane
  • Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
  • All Directions at Once

You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site

If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to Tony@schools.co.uk with the details – or indeed the article itself.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down

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1 Response to All Directions: Dylan before the basement

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    I would not say Dylan is so simplistic and cynical that his “Times They Are A-Changing” says that there’s nothing people can do about change – rather, you can resist change, or you can get out of its way, or you can lend a helping hand –
    and depending on the circumstances, strides towards ‘progress’ can be made, or slowed down, or stopped – even driven backwards.

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