All Directions at Once: Bob starts the 70s… slowly

By Tony Attwood

This is part of the “All Directions at Once” series which looks at the ebb and flow of Dylan’s writing across the years, rather focusing entirely on individual songs.

There is an index to the whole series of articles here.

The previous article in the series was All Directions: did Dylan really change in the Basement?

Having watched the ebb and flow of writing step by step from the earliest days up to the moment when Bob suddenly changed and started writing only about one subject,  I’m now summarising that period by looking at the topics Bob considered in his songs.

By the end of 1969 Bob Dylan had written around 260 songs which can be classified as being on anything between 23 and 40 separate topics (depending on how you want to do the classification). As I have noted a number of times before, I am not asking anyone to accept my list of topics or themes, but rather I recognise that if anyone else were to undertake an analysis of Dylan’s themes within his music, the names might be different and the groupings might be different, but one would still be struck by the variety of the themes.

However I’m not sure I’ve seen too many articles on the way in which Bob moved from subject to subject in his songwriting, and it strikes me as interesting as we consider his creative journey.

What comes across is not just the variety of topics that Bob wrote about but the way in which he was willing and able to experiment, moving onto themes he had never tried before, and back again to his mainstream topics.

For example by the end of 1969, 13 of the themes I’ve identified were only used once, 14 themes were used between two and five times each, and 12 themes were used six or more times.  In short he had his favourites, but throughout the 60s he was never afraid to look elsewhere for topics.

Here is my list of themes in the order of the number of songs used in relation to that theme

  • The city: 1
  • Disaster: 1
  • Escape: 1
  • Gambling: 1
  • History: 1
  • Homage: 1
  • How we see the world: 1
  • Leaving: 1
  • On the run: 1
  • Relationships: 1
  • Self interest: 1
  • Sex: 1
  • World weariness: 1
  • Art: 2
  • Do the right thing: 2
  • Future / eternity: 2
  • Justice: 2
  • Religion: 2
  • Protest / hurting / despair: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 3
  • Change: 4
  • Death: 4
  • Modern life (the tragedy of): 4
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Kafka: 5
  • Civil rights/ social commentary: 6
  • Disdain: 6
  • Women in control: 6
  • Individualism: 7
  • Randomness/stream of consciousness/ surrealism: 8
  • The Blues, being world weary: 10
  • Life is a mess: 11
  • Dada: 12
  • Protest, rebellion: 17
  • Humour: 22
  • Love, desire, lust: 26
  • Lost love: 34
  • Moving on: 43

Of course many of these descriptors are contentious both in the words I have used and the allocation of songs to each group, so I have now tried to put the songs into broader categories which might be a little less contentious.

But before that I would make the point that around 40% of Dylan’s songs of the sixties are songs of love, lost love and moving on.  Not protest songs, not the blues, not the need to do one’s own thing, but those old traditional popular song favourites love and lost dance, and the old blues theme (if not the blues musically) moving on.

To make this whole list a little easier to grasp I have gone back and with the hindsight of knowing what my categories are going to be I have tried to reduce the number of themes to make the list easier to grasp.  However I still end up with 23 separate categories.  But at least this way, 215 songs are in categories with ten or more compositions

  1. The city: 1
  2. Disaster: 1
  3. Gambling: 1
  4. History: 1
  5. Homage: 1
  6. Art: 2
  7. Future / eternity: 2
  8. Religion: 2
  9. How we see the world, world weariness  Self interest: 3
  10. Patriotism: 3
  11. Death: 4
  12. Do the right thing, justice: 4
  13. Disdain: 6
  14. Women in control: 6
  15. Change / nothing changes : 8
  16. Individualism, Party freaks: 10
  17. Humour: 22
  18. The Blues, being world weary, life is a mess Modern life (the tragedy of): 25 (10% of all songs from this era.
  19. Dada, Kafka surrealism, randomness, stream of consciousness: 25 (10% of all songs from this era.
  20. Protest, rebellion, hurting / despair, Civil rights/ social commentary: 25 (10% of all songs from this era.
  21. Love, desire, lust, Sex, relationships : 28 (11% of all songs from this era)
  22. Lost love: 34 (13% of all songs from this era)
  23. Moving on:  On the run: Escape leaving 46 (18% of all songs from this era)

So the period up to the end of the sixties has been the era of Bob Dylan the protest singer – a time in which Dylan wrote 260 songs.  But only 25 at most can be put into the expanded category of protest, rebellion, hurting / despair, civil rights and social commentary.

Thus we can clearly see the huge variety of Dylan’s songwriting output and his desire to cover a multiplicity of themes in his songwriting.

But we’ve also noted the way in which the simplest measure of Bob’s output – the number of songs he wrote changed year by year.  As Dylan varied the themes he wrote on, so he also varied the number of songs he felt he could write in a year.

  • 1959/60: 6 songs
  • 1961: 9 songs
  • 1962: 36 songs
  • 1963: 31 songs
  • 1964: 29 songs
  • 1965: 29 songs
  • 1967: 12 JWH songs + 64 Basement tape songs *
  • 1968: 1 song
  • 1969: 15 songs

*The lyrics from the notebook which were used for the creation of the New Basement Tape series with the music written by other artists are not included.  And of course we must also note that while many Basement songs were indeed complete pieces of great merit, there were quite a few that were just one-off experiments.  I suspect that if we had access to recordings of all the jam sessions that Dylan engaged in with fellow musicians in the years prior to the Basement, we would probably have many more songs along the lines of the Basement collection.

But even without these imagined extra songs, or indeed even if we were to decide to cut out 75% of the Basement songs as being little more than incomplete ideas and sketches, there is still only one songwriter in the world of western popular music that I can think of who consistently wrote songs of such merit on this scale and that is Irving Berlin.

Berlin wrote about 260 songs in his first ten years of writing, although writing his first hit took a bit longer.   For  between his first song (“Marie from Sunny Italy”) in 1907 and his first hit (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”) in 1912 he wrote over 100 songs.  For Dylan between his first song and “Blowing in the wind” there were just 17 songs.

Both Dylan and Berlin have had their songs worked and re-worked ever since they were first written.  For Berlin, to take one example, the song “Play a Simple Melody” was written in 1914, but was a hit once again in 1950 when Bing Crosby recorded it, and again in 1966.

As for “God Bless America” (written in 1917 while he was serving his country in the armed forces), that song has lived ever since, just as “Times They Are A-Changing”.

The careers of these two men are obviously different, but they are the two great American songwriters producing endless masterpieces, and in both cases often performing the songs themselves.  Of course their way of writing was different, the style was different, but the songs of both men are songs of the America they inhabited and were interested in.

Walter Cronkite said of him he “helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.”

Thus my own view is that in years to come the two great songwriters of American history will be seen together, each writing music that reflected their own time, each having their own favourite themes.   But let’s for now return to the start of the 1970s.  Bob had written over 200 songs covering at least 23 different subjects (depending on how you want to arrange them) and through various parts of 1969 from April onwards, through to March 1970 he recorded Self Portrait and the early songs for New Morning.  In interviews he talked about wanting to be with his family, and about not wanting to be the symbol of a revolution or new way of thinking.

In 1970 the first three songs recorded were

  • Time passes slowly
  • Father of night
  • Went to see the gypsy

and none of them has (to my knowledge) ever been performed live by Dylan.

The recordings which were used for New Morning were made between June and August 1970.  Meanwhile there was a musical under discussion with the poet Archibald MacLeish and these early songs from this year’s collection were written for the production.   Indeed as Al Kooper has suggested the work for this commission, although unfulfilled, started the new process of composition again for Dylan.

“All the tired horses” was also composed at this time, and then the rest of what became “New Morning” was written in quick succession, although it seems the recordings took longer and were subject to a lot more debate.

In the review of “The Man in Me” on this site, I said, “so he were are, rocking along and feeling content with life, just as we are with Winterlude, New Morning, and One More Weekend.  The guy’s ok, the world’s ok, the woman with him is ok.  He’s a solid worker, he’ll just get on with it.”

And that still seems a reasonable way of summarising where all this had got to.  The intensity of the musical was probably too much, which was probably why it never got completed.  Instead Bob moved on to writing songs that were much more relaxed.

Of course sometimes the relaxation was maybe a bit too relaxed, and not too many good things seem to have been said about “Three Angels”, “If Dogs Run Free”, and “Winterlude” although each, like “Country Pie” two years before, has its advocates.

Dylan it seems however was not convinced of what he was writing, and seemed to feel the muse was not at its height.  So he simply used all the songs he composed.

The final song from the series was created after the main thrust of writing, after Dylan accepted an honorary doctorate in music from Princeton University early in June and subsequently wrote “Day of the Locusts”.

My prime concern on this website is always with Dylan the composer, but here it seems that Bob’s personal view of the world was causing problems for his ability to write and record.  It appears that there were arguments with Bob Johnston the producer, Dylan had just produced an album with the intention of making people forget him, and in creating New Morning he struggled to achieve the quality of writing that had been his hallmark up to the time of JWH.

Reworking the album continued through summer, and Al Kooper said of the era, “When I finished that album I never wanted to speak to him again…He just changed his mind every three seconds so I just ended up doing the work of three albums…”

This is a reflection of a mind still in turmoil – David Crosby’s commentary on the events at Princeton University add to this feeling of a very angry Bob Dylan.   And yet some of the songs of this year written for New Morning don’t reflect this.  It is as if Dylan were able (at least on occasion) to turn away from the anger, artistic disputes and uncertainty and still produce more delicate pieces of music.

In the end however, the songs were written and the album generally got good reviews, and the work was to some degree an antidote to the emotions that had created the need for Self Portrait.

He had created an album which often speaks of family life and hiding away in the countryside, and that, it seems, was what he wanted.  As ever, for me that fulfilment of that vision comes in this one later recording…

About Untold Dylan…

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 at Once: Bob starts the 70s… slowly

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Yes, it’s good to simplify the categories of songs as with lots of sweat one could keep on keeping on and divide them into more and more sub-categories –
    if one were crazy enough to try that endeavour (lol)

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