Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream part 8 (final): The historians’ delight

by Jochen Markhorst

XIII       The historians’ delight

Well, the last I heard of Arab, he was stuck on a whale
That was married to the deputy sheriff of the jail
But the funniest thing was, when I was leavin' the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin', they were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn't drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus, I just said, "Good luck"

 In August 2021, The Journal of Neuroscience publishes the article “The Music Of Silence” by French researcher Guilhem Marion. It is a fascinating study that explains the effect of  both imagined music and music actually heard, on our mood, (among other things). And it might explain Dylan’s bright mood and infectious burst of laughter on Wednesday, January 13, 1965, when he sets out to record “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” during the first Bringing It All Back Home session.

Marion and his colleagues build on a phenomenon described earlier, the phenomenon that listening to music activates the reward system in the brain. While listening, our brain tries to predict the music, anticipates the course of the melody, and “rewards” this with dopamine. It does not matter whether the prediction is correct; the surprise after an incorrect prediction (for example: the next note is higher than expected) has the same, pleasure-inducing, effect.

The remarkable thing is that the same thing happens when we just imagine music, playing it in our heads; the same brain areas become active, dopamine is released. For Dylan a fairly permanent state of being, if we are to believe his words in the interview with Hilburn (Amsterdam 1984) for the L.A. Times:

“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

Which song Dylan is playing in his head on that Wednesday in January ’65 is not hard to figure out: his own “Motorpsycho Nitemare”, which he taped seven months earlier in this same studio. Same chords, same melody. He plays the song in his head, “at a certain point, some of the words will change” and Bob’s your uncle. And the by-product is, as explained scientifically in August 2021, feelings of happiness and pleasure – because “imagery induces the same emotions and pleasure felt during musical listening because melodic expectations are encoded similarly in both cases”, after all. Hence the susceptibility to a fit of laughter, as Dylan demonstrates in that first run-up to “115th Dream”. Apparently Dylan starts playing unexpectedly. The band, in any case, doesn’t react – the infectious laughter of Dylan and producer Tom Wilson might be triggered by the startled reactions of the shaken musicians.

Anyway: the song begins, and the first line promises that it will be a kind of “When First Unto This Country”, the song Dylan will perform twice on stage a quarter of a century later. At this point, in January ’65, Joan Baez’s version is probably in the back of his mind (later released as a bonus track on In Concert Part 2, 1963, Baez’s first record to feature Dylan songs). The promise only holds one line, obviously, and thematically “115th Dream” is otherwise incomparable. Yes, one plot twist is similar: in that old folksong, the main character also ends up in prison;

Sheriff's men, they'd followed and overtaken me
They took me away to the penitentiary
They took me to the jailhouse and then they shoved me in
They shaved off my head and they cleared off my chin

Undoubtedly Dylan also knew the song from The New Lost City Ramblers, who performed it regularly in the early 1960s. But the closest thing to it is the adaptation by Phil Ochs, presumably 1963, who turns it into an anti-war song. Like the 115th dream, the protagonist travels in time from 1776 via Napoleon to the 1846 Mexican-American War, to the Civil War, the Spanish-American War of 1898, via the World Wars to Korea. There is a photograph from about 1964, in which it seems that Ochs is playing a song to Dylan – but the assumption that Ochs is playing “When First Unto This Country”, thus sowing the seed for “115th Dream”, is a bit all too romantic, of course.

Ochs’ song perhaps also demonstrates why, despite all his talent and all his skills, he has never achieved the same status as Dylan; Ochs’ “When First Unto This Country” is craftsmanship from a politically inspired idealist. Chronologically correct, inner logic in order, indestructible rhyme scheme, no alienating nonsense like I asked how come he didn’t drive a truck and half-successful one-liners like

And when that war was over there was no one left to fight
So we turned and fought each other--to the historians' delight

… where that arduous, sought-after historians’ delight illustrates the pitfall: humourless and preachy. Jude Quinn, Cate Blanchett’s Dylan character in the remarkable movie I’m Not There (2007), expresses it a bit too sharply at the press conference scene, but the tenor of the criticism gets right to the point:

“There’s… there’s no one out there who’s ever going to be converted by a song. There’s no Phil Ochs song that’s going to keep a movement moving nor the picket line picketing. His songs are acts of personal conscience, like burning a draft card or burning yourself. Doesn’t do a damn thing except disassociate you and your audience from all the evils of the world.”

Which, as if to make Jude Quinn’s/Cate Blanchett’s point, is exactly what the narrator in “115th Dream” does in the last lines. He takes off, minutes before America is discovered – he disassociates himself quite literally from all the evils of the New World and wishes good luck to the unsuspecting suckers who are about to dock.

An act of personal conscience. Still, one that releases enough dopamine to make us all feel good.


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:



  1. Music without doubt affects a listener’s mood, and the Sound School Of Dylanology has a scientific study on dopamine to back it up.

    But the composer still chooses the words that go with the music if s/he chooses not to leave the notes all to themselves.

    Language has a structure all it’s own, and though somewhat flexible, it cannot be dismissed out of hand that any words will do, and that meaning does not really matter.

    Even a Sounder finds himself grasping for meaning within the words of the lyrics – they are not merely splotches of paint on a canvas.

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