Bob Dylan’s “Dignity”. A work of genius, or neat but unfinished idea?

By Tony Attwood

And what are we to make of Dignity? Raved over by many Dylan fans, it didn’t turn up on the mainstream albums, but appeared on the Essential album, and twice on the 2008 outtakes album. 

The Essential Bob Dylan version is presumably to be considered the definitive version – although so many recordings of Dylan and band it contains errors by the backing musicians, who clearly have not practiced the piece enough.

It is one of the “long songs”, and it almost works. But not completely. “Have you seen Dignity,” the recurrent theme doesn’t quite make sense in each version. Prince Phillip at the home of the blues could well be a clever reference to the blue blood of the British royal family, except the remainder of the lines (money up front etc) doesn’t quite fit.

But this is not to say it is not a fabulous piece of music that for any other writer will be the crowning glory. It is a song that you instantly recall, and yet it is also a song which the histories tell us was recorded and re-recorded and Dylan was never satisfied. 

The reason is, in my opinion, because although it is a brilliant conception, it is flawed by the notion of Dignity itself. Dylan has written many songs in which the same line or part line ends the verse – here it is the endless set of allusions to Dignity as the finishing touch each time around. And yet the concept of dignity just doesn’t fit into the surreal set of pictures the song paints, nor into the way the song happily putters along. You can have that sort of melody, that sort of descending bass for “land of the midnight sun” etc, that sort of I IV chord interchange through the verse, and those sorts of surreal images, all mashed up into one song. But they don’t have anything to do with dignity.

In fact the way to hear this song is at a distance, not taking in the lyrics, not really knowing what Dylan is singing about, not feeling ill at ease about the moralistic point about the worth of humankind that he somehow never succeeds in making.

A re-write of the lyrics would do it – a new theme to fit the tune – but as it is, it is great, but flawed.

Except of course the end, which is perfect.

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Try this incomplete version if you have not heard all the variants

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, links back to our reviews

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6 Responses to Bob Dylan’s “Dignity”. A work of genius, or neat but unfinished idea?

  1. Dan Sitongia says:

    makes all the sense in the world to me. He’s looking for dignity, can’t find it.maybe you need to ask a cop I studied and played professionally for a long time I think it sounds great no matter what track.if you try to read into Dylan you will never understand.

  2. George Clark says:

    I agree with Kees de Graaf’s biblical analysis.

  3. mick bell says:

    just an addition he goes to all the establishment places
    asking a cop (law)
    the church (poor man looking through painted glass)

  4. Hello there Tony, Yes another interesting song analysis. Join us inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/151/Dignity and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.

  5. Ray Giles says:

    The version he did on MTV’s Unplugged is excellent.
    Who cares what it or doesn’t mean? The language is interesting, the band rocks it and he sings wonderfully.

  6. Luke says:

    Good read but I do think the omission of the mtv version is an unexplored important point. Remember the unplugged album came out in 94 and Dylan headlined Woodstock 94. In typical Dylan fashion He didn’t play Dignity then but the album, song and appearance were a success. I was 16 at the time and he was relevant and cool in some part as a result of the effort.

    I don’t know if Dylan is or isn’t satisfied with Dignity but I can’t get over this song! And I some times wonder if Dylan is referring to Dignity as the concept and a person….sometimes at the same time….Somebody showed me a photograph and I just had to laugh Dignity never been photographed …just saying

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