Tears of Rage: the meaning of the music and the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

I have to confess I find it hard to listen to Tears of Rage these days knowing that the co-writer, such an incredibly talented musician, became an alcoholic and drug abuser and committed suicide.   The waste of every human life is so awful – but it seems to hit my consciousness harder when I can listen to the man’s work and perceive such overwhelming ability.

But I guess the work of a critic is to separate such thoughts from a review of the song – a song in which Richard Manuel wrote the music to Dylan’s words (which Manuel indicated quite clearly were written out by Dylan first, but without any explanation for the meaning).

Indeed as Richard Manuel said in an oft quoted remark,

“He came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper … and he just said, ‘Have you got any music for this?’ … I had a couple of musical movements that fit … so I just elaborated a bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean, Bob: Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse?”

But for me the quandary is deeper than this.  Quite what “be the thief” means is never clear – is he stealing her life by doing that thing parents do in trying to get their children to behave as they behave, and think what they think?  Or was she very much a girl who was obedient in her younger day but then suddenly upped sticks and left?

Another very personal thought that crosses my mind comes from my own experience, which perhaps I may share at this point.  I have three daughters – now all grown up ladies leading their own lives.  The eldest two have families and live within half an hour’s drive of my home.  But the third lives in Australia – the other side of the world from England where I live.

That actually doesn’t bother me; she comes to England occasionally, and I can go and visit her when I feel so inclined, and those visits become completely memorable and stay with me for all the time we are apart.  Indeed the last time I was there I sat in her apartment during part of each day while my daughter was out at work, writing reviews of Dylan songs and staring at the beauty of the Pacific Ocean.

But I know some families can’t take it when one of the clan goes to the other side of the world, and actually say things like “Why is he/she doing this to us?” as if it is a deliberate act by the offspring to hurt the parents.  And I wondered whether this was the implication here.  We nurtured you, you were always such a good girl, so now why do you want to hurt us so much by leaving?

Or is it that the “false instruction” is conversion to a religion that takes her away from the family?  Or the reverse – a love of money and pleasure in a very well paid job, as with the lines

And now the heart is filled with gold
As if it was a purse

It is hard to disentangle but the chorus lines do endlessly make us sad, and I always end up thinking of the parent who just so desperately wants to see his child again…

Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief

As we all know, this is one of the songs that was recorded at the Big Pink, just before the John Wesley Harding recordings were going to happen, and is most certainly one of the songs from the collection that gets the most attention.  The Band’s version on their first album has the composer on lead vocal and is very highly regarded throughout much of the pop and rock world.

So it clearly is a song of great merit, for the musical construction, the ambiguity of the words, the remarkable version on the Band’s album.

There is a commentary by Andy Gill which speaks of the vocals being “Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.”   He also sees the song possibly commenting on the betrayal felt by many American Vietnam war veterans.

But when we start going down that route much depends whether you interpret Independence Day as being a coincidence – it just happened to be Independence Day when she was born or christened or baptized or … or whether you see that as the heart of the symbolism of the whole piece.  Or whether, and this is where my thought pops up – Dylan just happened to come up with those opening lines

We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day 

and thought, “that’s interesting” and worked on from there.

But many commentators do like to hold to the view that Dylan generally puts secret messages into the song, so there are comments that the “life is brief” theme takes us to the Old Testament once again.  Or maybe we are in the arena of Ars longa vita brevis – “Art is eternal, life is short”.  Which is why the song’s chorus is so utterly desperate – please come now, I’ve not got much time left.

I guess the problem that I have is I don’t really see how a father can be betrayed by his daughter short of her handing him over to the enemy during an uprising.  One bring’s one’s children into the world, one gives them all one has to give, and then one gives them their freedom.   When we have a family we create free spirits who can go their own way and do their own thing.   And just as a parents love has to be unconditional, so is the gift of freedom to make their own choices.

To try and unravel this sort of conundrum of the meaning I’ve been turning increasingly to the notion of what Dylan was actually writing about around the time a particularly problematic song arose.  In this case the chronology (with the briefest possible summary of each song) is…

These little comments of mine after each song are of course just snippets from the review, but to me they are the essence of the whole series of songs – being trapped, and if there is a chance of release from the entrapment it occurs only by chance.   Aside from the theme of being trapped there is also a certain theme of the randomness of society running through all these songs culminating in the way the Drifter gets out of jail free…

Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while everybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

Of course these are just my explanations and I do recognise that a thousand other explanations are possible.  But if you follow this line, you’ll appreciate the randomness of events – the father has done everything right (as he sees it) and then she’s off.  How can she do this to him?

Maybe this was the world that Dylan saw when he suggested that “Everybody must get stoned”.

But which ever way we go, the notion that the parent is grieving over the path that his offspring has taken, seems to be the most viable one. It’s also the simplest, and that generally means it is the right one.

The chorus sums up all that heartache into four majestic lines, including that beautiful final declaration of the brevity of life, delivered with the assurance of someone who realizes how easy it is to forget that when you’re young and how hard it is to forget as you grow old.

As for why this works so well as a piece of music, for once that is not hard to explain.  The song is in G major, and starts with a melody built around the chords you might expect: G, Em C.   Then in comes A minor (on the word Day in the first verse).

That’s unusual – not impossible, obviously, but unusual.   Now a lesser composer would say to himself, ok, I’ve pulled my trick rabbit out of the hat, you have had your surprise extra chord – the A minor, so let’s go back to G and keep the song moving along conventional lines

But no, off we go to the chord of F.  Completely unexpected.   There are songs that will run through the sequence G, Em, C, G.   There are songs that run through F, C, G.

So not only have you got both in these opening four very short lines, you’ve also got that intervening A minor in there as well.

These chord changes force the melody to take on unusual twists and turns, and that is what causes it all to happen – and in such a very short space of time, and without any feeling of guile or attempted cleverness

And then you’d think, wow, but that’s enough playing around for one song.  But you’d be wrong.  Because suddenly we are with the chord of B, which takes us into another key before leading us back to G.   And then just in case you didn’t get it, he does it again, and only then takes us back home.

I certainly can’t be the only musician who on first hearing this, without any background notes as to who wrote what, simply said, “Dylan never wrote that song.”   The words yes, but not the music.  It just isn’t him.

Anyway, a beautiful but desperately sad song, with a very, very sad associated history.

To finish, here’s a totally different version.  Not really to my taste, but I include it in case you like it.  Joan Baez’ solo version.


All the songs reviewed on this site

The Songs in Chronological Order 1962-69

Articles about Bob Dylan on the site


  1. I think it’s worth considering the song as a dialogue between two speakers — one character sings the verse, the other the chorus.

  2. Thanks Tony. Carrying her in their arms on Independence day might suggest that just by being born she has already become an independent being, and what the parents suffer later on is just the logical fulfilment of that fact. Also ‘What dear daughter ‘neath the sun’ has Ecclesiastes overtones. So, since there’s ‘nothing new under the sun’, the parents shouldn’t be surprised at their daughter’s wanting her independence. I wonder if the father shouldn’t be accepting some responsibility too if he’s had his daughter ‘wait upon him hand and foot’. Rather than accept this, he just moans that she ‘puts us all away’ – an exaggeration of what he really cares about (that she’s put him away).

  3. Mr. Attwood,
    I Have studied Bob Dylan ( I am only an minor Dylanolologyst at best, having read only about 30 of the hundreds of books & etc.about him and his works) over many years may I make this observation of “Tears Of Rage”: perhaps he is talking about himself. After all so many of his songs are of a personal nature and when you consider his life around the time of the song’s writing it’s not improbable that he was still feeling the affects of the crushing weight of his fame, his last tour of England and France, and the motorcycle accident. Also, his father had not been pleased with his choice of careers at first and maybe there were lingering family issues over that. Just some food for thought.

  4. I think the song is written for a cranky tired child. He himself said “I’ll be your baby Tonight” was about an actual baby! “oh what dear daughter neath the sun would treat a father so? To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him “no!” That’s a tea Party!

  5. Bob Dylan’s father had a heart attack in 1966 and died of a second heart attach in June 1968. Tears of Rage was written in 1967 between these two dates. Is this song the voice of Dylan’s father/parents talking to him expressing the anger/grief they felt that he appeared to them to have rejected his religion/background [‘you went out to receive all that false instruction’]? ‘Come to me now, We are so low and life is brief’ is a heartfelt plea from his father to return to the fold made in the knowledge that he [his father] might not live much longer. Could the reference to a ‘dear daughter’ be a device to divert the reader away from the real subject – the ‘dear son’ – Bob Dylan?

  6. Perhaps the juxtaposition of carrying someone on Independence Day is the introduction necessary for a parent to grieve upon seeing the outcome of a child they felt they had nurtured in their youth only to find that they took away the child’s freedoms for whatever reason and although now successful, the woman could have been something more if left to be herself throughout her life.

  7. …am I strange that I always thought of this as a song about slavery and the civil war? If you think of the opening as being about Thomas Jefferson’s death and hold in mind his conflicted life as a slave holder and author of “…all men are created equal”. I would then extrapolate the dialoge to be between the North and South. It’s not a clean, neat interpretation but it’s what I’ve always felt listening to (particularly The Band’s version) this song.

  8. Mr. Atwood, as far as i know he didn’t have a daughter ‘of age’ When this song was written. It seems it is not to be taken literally, that’s what makes his poetry interesting and multi dimensional. Thanks for this Web site.

  9. Am I the only one who hears this song as a complaint by a father committing incest that his daughter isn’t cooperative enough? I find it horribly dark.

  10. As an American, the issue of slavery and the civil war is hard wired in our brains. The current political climate is merely an extension of that war. I have always felt that this song was a reflection on that war and the Battle of Gettysburg which ended on Independence Day, 1863.

  11. Maybe it was just the enormous amount of hash I was smoking in those days, but the whole album seemed metaphorical; but, especially this song.

    I always took it to be an anti war repast; “We”, the opening word meaning the salt of the earth, everyday American, who in Revolutionary days carried the daughter nation they had created in their arms. And now the same people, both the soldiers and the anti war crowd were being pushed aside by this now (grown up) very daughter. Who wouldn’t shed “Tears of Rage”? I’m Canadian, and was too young to be drafted anyway, but I had freinds whose older brothers left home and went down to the States to join up. It was an incredible time. This might be my favourite track of the album

  12. Sorry my dear, you’re looking at this through post sexual/pornographic revolution glasses…..we weren’t so corrupted by it yet in the late 60s. Oh we were getting there, but all we wanted was a sweet girl to love and take drugs with and some great music to listen to. And we wanted to stop the wars. Bob Dylan did not want to have sex with his daughter.

  13. I understand your position, but there was more to the story than drug abuse. Inexplicable depression and unsolicited fame undoubtedly played a larger role in Richard’s story than the simplistic explanation of such a weighty decision. Sometimes there isn’t an easy story arc attached. No offense intended, not trying to stir the shit pot. But no one who attempts suicide does it without consideration of the absolute finality of their decision.

  14. Perhaps Bob was grieving the loss of a parent and was putting himself in the position of an aging parent who had experienced the scorn of a child they felt they had done everything for as the relationship changed to the child caring for the parent but not being patient. Tears of rage tears of grief being the feeling and the guilt when the parent passes.

  15. I’d just like to say that Tony Attwood is very lucky that he doesn’t understand the pain of a parent as described by Dylan. Some of us are only too clear about the meaning of this song, and how the pain of rejection from the baby you brought into this world with nothing but love to clothe them is worse than even death.

  16. On the opening line, without wanting to deny any of the symbolic echoes (from a child achieving independence to salt of the earth parents failing to understand the youth with their “false instruction”), it seems to me that its force lies in being a very concrete observation. Americans celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, and outdoor meals, so the scenario of a tired or sleeping child being carried home is a common one. It is not a matter of highly allegorical coincidence (like being born or baptized on that day), but of an event that gets easily lodged in one’s memory. In fact I can remember carrying my own son on Independence Day. In any case it’s not a line Manuel would need to run upstairs to ask Dylan about.

  17. On the remastered basement tapes released in 2017 Bob Dylan sings “Why am I always the one who must be the thief ” instead of the Richard Manuel “Why must I always be the thief”. The second scans much better.

  18. Elizabeth,
    Thank you for pointing to Jeremiah as source material. It made me realize that Dylan was, more likely than not, referencing Israeli Independence Day. Perhaps the song is entirely about the Jewish experience and the daughter is the city of Jerusalem. May g-d bless and keep you always.

  19. I don’t believe that everything that’s possible to be said about this song has been said, here or anywhere else. For certain, though, it is the intergenerational conflict that is dumped on us all at one time or another. It can never be resolved, not even when the child becomes the parent or when the speaker must in future remember being the child. The child can not look forward–cannot even imagine looking that far forward– and perceive the world through the parents’ eyes. It is the parent/speaker, then, who bears the entire burden. The rejection experienced by the parent mirrors the parents’ rejection of the child–from the womb, the bed, the room, the house when the time comes. My own precious daughter, whom I held in my arms for a year and whose cries I comforted, and whose back I rubbed and whose stomach I rubbed, all to get her through a painful condition–that daughter. The daughter I carried, who survived unscathed because of my efforts. She can look at me now with the face of rage when I disagree, tell me I don’t understand. I don’t know anything. The only justice there can be is for her to have her own child.

  20. For me this is a commentary on our country. So divided. Wracked by a tragic war that could not be won. So much death and destruction and our leaders were lying to us while our brothers died and millions of civilians were killed. The image of the young girl screaming, naked, on fire from bombing. It was all so unacceptable. TEARS of RAGE!!

  21. Exactly. Dylan wrote a lot of songs about that time period, at that time period. That date is central to this song’s historical mystery setting. What’s left out, and makes it more mysterious, adds to it’s literary charm.

  22. There are wars that can’t be won, like Vietnam.

    But in our Civil War, The North did win, and the South surrendered. Some people refuse to accept it, but it’s the truth and the facts. The only divisions that remain from this, are fomented by pathetic, neofascist, southern identity freaks. Nobody else wants slavery, or separation of races, nor any of that other pride covered claptrap. We long ago resolved those issues, and moved on.

  23. Surely, Dylan had Shakespeare’s King Lear raging at his daughter Cordelia in the back of his mind.

  24. I caught the irony of the opening line “We carried you in our arms on Independence Day” the first time I heard this great song when I was 20 years old. It’s a father mourning the departure of his daughter and attempting to instill guilt in her by reminding her that he carried her in his arms on Independence Day. The true meaning of independence has escaped him, as if it’s just the name of a holiday.

  25. The genius of the song is that it was a counter, counter culture song in 1968. I don’t see that in your review. I have this opposite interpretation.

  26. This is about America my friend, and how the soft patriots feel when they are rejected by any current zeitgeist.

  27. Hi Tony: well, like everyone else here, short of the poet telling us otherwise, it’s speculation. But, the first couple of lines sets the stage; and Dylan then along with many contemporaries, was a master of the metaphor. Listen again, with that motif in mind, and you may like the idea. Great site you have here, by the way!

  28. He picked her up all in his arms
    And kisses gave her one, two, three
    Saying weep no more, my one true love
    I am your long lost John Riley

  29. I’d echo Firannion’s observation that this is a song from the perspective of a father committing incest. It’s a testament to a writer’s skill to project themselves into the mindset of the their subject and portray it for the rest of us, without having to commit any of the actions described. I know several women who’d been abused by their fathers, and one immediately felt that’s what the song was about. And yes, this was in the “60’s,” with the war, riots and everything else.

  30. Deaths from drug use and overdose were much less in 1967 than now, but those of us from that generation had already lost friends and heroes to the darkness of drugs and alcohol. I’m sure Dylan had many such losses from his time at the Chelsea and with Allen Ginsberg. The song has a taste of Howl in it but so much more personal. Anyone who has lost a beloved to drugs, alcohol or any other form of self destruction, and loved and lived with them while they were justifying their self destruction, knows just how central the combined tears of rage and tears of grief are.
    In the ever worsening drug death epidemic, every parent, friend, child and lover of someone lost to self-destruction beyond their control should know this song intimately. It is a kaddish as one perceptive listener wrote.

  31. I think the Tears of Rage analysis may go a little overboard. Carrying a young child to the beach on the Fourth of July is pretty straight forward, and any parent who has taken food or a toy away from a child after it fell in the sand has heard tears of rage. And yes every time I pulled a dirty toy out of a grubby hand before it got to a mouth, I did feel like a thief.

  32. The lyrics seemed obscure to me when I first heard this song in my teens. Now that I’m a father with two grown daughters who live 3000 miles away, it makes much sense to me. It sounds like a father expressing his loneliness and some bitterness now that his daughter is grown and leading her own life. He feels ignored and unappreciated as she moves on from childhood to adulthood. As Tony says, this is not an uncommon feeling for fathers who watch their daughters fledge. Hopefully there isn’t always bitterness, but always some sadness. The heart is filled with gold, as if it were a purse? The gold is a father’s love for his daughter. I know the feeling!

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