Dylan and the counter melodies: what is he up to?

By Tony Attwood

In the article Never Ending Tour, 1999, part 2 – Is everything as hollow as it seems? Mike posed a really interesting question:

“The oddest aspect of these 1999 performances of ‘Can’t Wait’, which Dylan regularly performed, is the disconcerting  ‘off key’ playing of Mr Guitar Man. Again, I have to ask, what does Dylan intend here, what does he think he’s doing? I ask the question because it’s clearly deliberate. It throws the song off-centre with guttural sounds. It makes its own weird sense but its relationship to the melody is problematic to say the least.”

Of course I don’t have any unique insight into Bob’s intention – oh to be able to call him up and ask him!   But I do have a thought that might be able to push us maybe part-way to a resolution of the question.   To see what I am going to try and argue, it is perhaps helpful to listen to the recording of “Not Dark Yet” from the album.  The one we all know.

Now this recording takes us in the standard approach through the four sung verses, plus an instrumental introduction, and instrumental verse, and an instrumental conclusion.

In all three of the instrumental sections, the band plays on, in virtually the same way as it does in the rest of the piece when Bob is singing.  There is no extra instrumental input, for example with a lead guitar extemporising on the vocalist’s approach.

Now compare that with the classic way in which pop and rock music evolved, with a couple of verses and then an instrumental verse.  In “That’s Alright Mama” (Elvis Presley’s first record, I think) you get two verses sung and then a verse in which the chord sequence is exactly the same as in the sung verses,  which is followed by an instrumental verse in which the lead guitar does something that is related to the melody verses: a variation in fact.

Also developed was an alternative approach in which instead of the song going through a sequence of Verse – Verse – Verse etc for as long as wanted (a form known in musical terms as “strophic”) there also evolved a structure in which pop and rock borrowed from the classical song structure in which the music ran

  • Verse
  • Verse
  • Middle 8
  • Verse

The “Middle 8” is a section of the song which has words and music, but in which both music and lyrics are different from the verse.  In classical form analysis of music it is known as “ternary form” and written in musical shorthand as A B A (with the understanding that the music of A is repeated at the start of the piece).

Dylan doesn’t use this form very often but he has to done.  Consider “We’d better talk this over”.   Here the B section comes after the first two verses in the classic form, and is just two lines (as compared to the “A” verse which is four lines long).

You don't have to be afraid of looking into my face,
We've done nothing to each other time will not erase.


(Incidentally it is worth leaving the above video running – there’s a couple of very different Bob versions after the example I’ve cited).

So Bob does use ternary form occasionally, and indeed does have an instrumental break occasionally in which the lead guitar or other instrument plays and extemporisation over the melody.

But from the earliest days his chosen form was strophic – think of “Times they are a changing” or “Blowing in the Wind” etc etc – they are verse verse verse.   And even when we get into the longer songs like “Gates of Eden” we still have verse verse verse.

When it came to the live performances Bob had the choice of just singing the song straight through, or instead putting in an instrumental break – which if nothing else gives his voice a break.   And when he does put in an instrumental break he takes the radical path of just having the music continue, without an improvised guitar or keyboard solo.

Now we also have to remember that in the early days Bob primarily played rhythm guitar, holding the band’s beat together – effectively taking on the role of the conductor in an orchestra or the 1st violin in a string quartet.

But over time I think he got a bit bored with that.  He didn’t want to change the structure of the music, because his way of performing suggested that the music and the vocal line were of equal importance.  But he wanted to experiment a bit.

By this stage the rhythm guitar was unnecessary – he knew the musicians and they knew him, so instead of playing the rhythm guitar (which is in essence just playing the chords) he started to play bits of the chords – odd notes taken from the chord, rather than the chords as chords.

This evolved into him playing individual notes during the instrumental verses, which then in turn evolved into him playing those notes while he was singing.

So what did he think he was doing?  Well, I think he was just following an evolution of the music.  I also think no one in the band would dare tell him it didn’t sound very good.  I mean, would you dare?  If it were me I’d just think “well, he’s Bob” and leave it at that.

But Bob is not alone among musical giants in regard of doing the odd thing that we might occasionally consider to be a bit naff.  For example, I wonder if anyone dropped Beethoven a note to the effect that Gratulations-Menuet” in Eb for Orchestra is actually not very good.

And no matter how tedious a piece might appear at first, it might still be rescue-able.  Personally, I never have been been able to listen to “Ballad in Plain D” which is plain indeed with its structure of verse-verse-verse etc ad infinitum, until I found this…

It just goes to show: no matter how naff it sounds to you, there might be something in there…

Publisher’s note…

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One comment

  1. Few artists are able to capture the essence of Bob Dylan’s songs in their covers. This is the best I’ve ever heard.

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