How Dylan writes songs part 3: “”I didn’t think I was doing anything different.”

By Tony Attwood

In the earlier articles in this series I put forward an idea for categorising the types of songs that exist, and the origins of Dylan’s approach and style

In that latter article I drew from the speech Dylan made at the MusicCares awards ceremony, and I continue to draw from that because it seems to me to be one of the few occasions in which Dylan is spelling out a detailed, consistent and above all prepared message.

As the article “The Language and influence of the Early Bob Dylan” (Oxford Dictionaries; Oxford University Press) points out,

“Bob Dylan seems to enjoy joking with reporters and interviewers. He has claimed to have grown up in New Mexico (he didn’t), and that he changed his name to Dylan because his mother’s maiden name was Dillon (it wasn’t). He has said that at the time he changed his name, he hadn’t read much Dylan Thomas, and if Thomas had been that influential, Dylan would have put his poems to music. In other interviews he has confirmed that Dylan Thomas was indeed the reason behind the name-change. Dylan leaves us to speculate.”

So we need to take care with what Bob tells us.  But the MusiCares Gala was a landmark, for several reasons.  One is that it was recent (2015) and thus invited Dylan to look back across this lifetime of achievement in songwriting.  Another was that he expressed in his speech a deep regard for MusiCares and the way it helped musicians.  As he said,

“Anyway, I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I’m honored to have all these artists singing my songs. There’s nothing like that. Great artists. Who all know how to sing the truth, and you can hear it in their voices. I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I think a lot of this organization. They’ve helped many people. Many musicians who have contributed a lot to our culture. I’d like to personally thank them for what they did for a friend of mine, Billy Lee Riley. A friend of mine who they helped for six years when he was down and couldn’t work. Billy was a Sun rock & roll artist.”

And also, this was a 30 minute speech, not a throw away set of lines to individual question, and Dylan read his speech – he had thought about and prepared his answers.

And finally, in the audience was American President Jimmy Carter, whom Dylan personally thanked for being there.  I don’t think Bob messes around where President Carter is concerned.  Indeed it was President Carter who quoted Bob Dylan in his “Our Nation’s Past and Future” address made when accepting the Presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in New York City on 15 July 1976.

My vision of this nation and its future has been deepened and matured during the nineteen months that I have campaigned among you for President. I have never had more faith in America than I do today. We have an America that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying.

Bob Dylan

In his speech Dylan very strongly made the point that the music that he wrote was influenced by the music that he heard and the music that he then sang.   Thus at one point he says

“I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too  many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my trouble on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins a lad we all know well / The fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”

“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.”

“If you’ll gather ’round, people / A story I will tell /  ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”

“If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”

“You’d have written them too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all I sang. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense.”

In preparing and presenting this web site with all the reviews that have accumulated over the past few years I do take this to be a most significant statement.  Dylan is proclaiming that he didn’t work out deep or secret meanings within the phraseology of his songs; the lyrics and the music came to him out of all the songs he had been singing.

Dylan then cited the opening of Deep Ellum Blues (a traditional song popularised by Grateful Dead) which celebrated the arts and entertainment region of East Dallas.  It was the area which in the 1920s was a major centre of jazz and blues musicians, with Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Huddie Ledbetter, and Bessie Smith performing thereabouts.

Dylan commented, “When you go down to Deep Ellum keep your money in your socks / Women in Deep Ellum put you on the rocks. Sing that song for a while and you just might come up with, ‘When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too / And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through / Don’t put on any airs / When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue / They got some hungry women there / And they really make a mess outta you’.”

“All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary.”

So Dylan is saying, that lines such as When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez simply came to him after listening to the music in such intensity, rather than the lyrics having a specific meaning.  He didn’t sit down to write about a specific thing, but the connections and ideas appeared in his head, making the songs at times real at times abstract.   I believe that when it comes down to it, it is how many people write.

Dylan continues,

“I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down. You’ve just got to bear it.”

Now I don’t think this is an explanation for every song Dylan has written, not at all.  In particular it doesn’t tell us much more than we can guess about the trilogy of mainly Christian songs, but it does tell us a fair bit about the songs that are more difficult to understand.

If we take a song like Farewell Angelina, Dylan is saying that a subliminal process emerging from having listened to and sung so many songs before the moment of writing, is what influenced the words, rather than Dylan having plotted specific meanings.

I’m not saying this is a total explanation of what has gone on in the writing of all these songs that are analysed here, but it is an explanation that must be taken into account, given the context I outlined above.

I’d also argue that it fits in well with Dylan’s long-term habit of writing and developing songs in the studio – often simply leaving the musicians hanging around while he writes and re-writes and changes songs.  And it reveals why some songs are abandoned even after recording, as not being worth continuing with.   All the previous music and lyrics subliminally mixes together into a new song.  Because Dylan is a brilliant songwriter, quite often that turns into a song that works.  But sometimes not.  And because there was no clear plan – just an evolution of a song from past thoughts – he never knows until the end whether it has worked or not.

This view also offers an insight into why some songs are included on albums which most commentators think are throwaways which really shouldn’t be there: Dylan can “hear” the history of the evolution of the songs which we can’t because we don’t know all the antecedents and we were not there.  Plus it gives us some thoughts on the fairly free and easy way in which Dylan has used other songs as source material for his own – in his view every past song mixes together in his head and comes out in a new form.

And finally I’d suggest we get an insight here into some of Dylan’s more confusing songs like Tangled up in Blue, in which time and perspective seems to shift throughout the song.  Read the song line by line and there is confusion.  Accept the song as itself an evolution of thoughts that have arrived at different times from different directions, and suddenly it makes sense.

To be prosaic, it is the difference between reading a novel from start to finish, and looking at all the ingredients of a cake being mixed up in a mixing bowl.   Dylan’s interest, quite often, has been in that swirling mixture, not in the linear progress of a story.

If you see what I mean.

All the songs reviewed on the site, in alphabetical order

Dylan’s songs in chronological order of writing.


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