Talking World War III Blues: the music and the meaning behind Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

In the spring of 1963 Bob Dylan returned to the studio to remake part of Freewheelin.  This was for two reasons.   First, there was the problem of Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues which had been rejected by the Ed Sullivan show and then had worried CBS whose executives thought that the John Birch Society might sue.    And then second, since there would have to be some re-working of the album, the chance was taken to remove certain songs and replace with more recent works.

The John Birch replacement is easy to spot – for it is another talking blues – this time the Talking World War III Blues.

Dylan played with a whole variety of talking blues songs during this period, including Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues, up to Motorcycho Nightmare and  I shall be free number 10, (both 1964) and Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (1965)

In this song we still have the issue of the paranoia and hysteria surrounding communism, but we have it at about the time when it can be argued both sides were pulling back from the edge a little.  The hotline between the two main protagonists was set up and there was a partial test ban treaty.

The style of the music is exactly as was – there is after all only one talking blues style and it goes back to the 1920s.  It was also used several times by Woody Guthrie, and Dylan experimented with it in terms of the lyrics considerably around this time.

But perhaps the problem is that the musical form is fairly rigid – one can play musical games such as the “Something I learned over in England” on “I shall be free number 10” offers a slight variant, but that is fairly minor stuff, for by the time Dylan picked up the format, it had really had its day and was fixed in a rut.

These songs are amusing and ok, and for me the best one is the one he had to drop – the John Birch Society piece.  But it is not a format that extends Dylan’s talent in my view.  It just is what it is, allowing funny doggerel and quick silly humour to be set to a flexible pattern.

That doesn’t mean the songs are no good, just that if it were not Dylan writing and singing, I am not too sure they would be remembered.

The World War III blues was recorded in five takes, although Heylin insists the first four were effectively false starts.  And indeed there’s no reason to think that Dylan would not be able to perform it straight through.  It as after all a fairly straight forward song.   Heylin calls it a surreal flight of fancy, and praises it for that, but when it comes to surrealism, Dylan’s monuments to the style were, for me, still a little way off in time.

But when he got there, he would invent a form that shook popular music.

For now however the singer has dreamed he was in World War III and is worried about his own mental state so he goes to the doctor.   The doctor or psychiatrist (it’s not quite clear) asks the singer to explain, and the song goes through its surreal pathway….

He comes out of the sewers to find the streets empty, and most people are hiding in the shelters, except for a guy who runs away frightened and a woman who warns the singer off thinking about starting a new population.

In the end it turns out everyone has been having the same dream.  Dylan then misquotes the famous Abraham Lincoln line about fooling all of the people all of the time, and ends with what is one of the lines that best encapsulates Dylan’s muse over the next 50 years or so, “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”

All the songs reviewed on this site

Dylan’s songs in chronological order

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