By Tony Attwood
“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was recorded in the autumn of 1967 by Bob Dylan and released on the John Wesley Harding album.
Before we get anywhere near the analysis of the song it is worth noting two facts. First this is one of the most recorded of Dylan songs (I don’t have details of exactly how many covers there have been, or which song is the most covered – maybe someone could tell me).
Cover versions range from Robert Palmer and UB40 to Burl Ives, The Hollis, Linda Ronstadt, Maureen Tucker of Velvet Underground, Bobby Darin and Norah Jones. Plus many many more.
Second if we put this song in the context not of John Wesley Harding, on which it appeared, but of the 1965 to 1967 era, we have the Bob Dylan who in that period wrote Rainy Day Women, Visions of Johanna, One of us must know, I want you, and Just like a woman. Go back a little further and there is Desolation Row, and Like a rolling stone.
Amidst all those songs where did this one come from? Musically there is a relationship with “I want you“, although the lyrics of that song take us on an utterly different journey and I want you is less tuneful. “I want you” is Dylan’s version of a love song in a strange surreal world. I’ll be your baby is, by comparison, utterly suburban. This is as close as Dylan gets to a 2 minutes 30 second popular ballad.
Close your eyes, close the door
You don’t have to worry anymore
I’ll be your baby tonight
Shut the light, shut the shade
You don’t have to be afraid
I’ll be your baby tonight
It is simple, it is sweet, it is a love song. It is melodic, and for just about the only time I can recall Dylan has the hint of a vibrato in his voice. Could anyone who heard “Blowing in the Wind” or “Visions of Johanna” imagine the composer of those masterpieces writing…
That big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon
In short it is a song for everyman to sing to his lover. It is a cosy up by the fireplace and watch the shadows of the flames dancing on the walls, kind of song. It is comfortable, easy, convivial.
So what was Dylan doing when he wrote it? Most likely simply saying, “hey guys I can write simple love songs too.” Or, “you do have to be surreal all the time to tell a story.”
Following this thought it is interesting to compare “I’ll be your baby tonight” with, for example, “Visions of Johanna.‘ No comparison, of course. Except, each paints a picture. Compare…
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet
Close your eyes, close the door, You don’t have to worry any more
Add the music and each paints its own unique picture. In Visions the world of mist and mystery is all pervading, as the music is edgy, uncertain – listen to the bass and harmonica – something is out there and whatever it is, it ain’t good. The music stretches, the lines are long, the verses extend…
In “I’ll be your baby” we have the reverse. Everything is fine. The harmonica is the most tuneful Dylan ever played – in fact I sometimes wonder if it really was him playing. Each verse is short, each line is short, the message is short: hi, here I am, everything is fine. You could show the scene on TV at 7.30pm.
In Visions the radiator coughs, Louise is entwined with her lover, Johanna goes missing, and poor Little Boy Lost “takes himself so seriously”. The lights flicker… This is late night reality TV, if it is ever allowed on TV at all.
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, is important in the Dylan genre not because it is a masterful song – it uses a simple chord structure in which the supertonic (II) is turned into a major chord (nothing very unusual there). But because it is excellent at what it wants to be – a simple love song. The man puts his arm around the woman and says, “I’m here”. In Visions, Johanna vanishes and all hell is breaking loose.
The mastery is in the fact that Dylan wrote both within a couple of years of each other.
The site is developing its own theoretical approach to the music of Bob Dylan. You can read about that approach as it evolves here. There are details of the author, and the context of these reviews here. The index of all the songs reviewed is here.