Bob Dylan, obscurity and clarity

by Tony Attwood

Supposing you suddenly decided you wanted to write a song, I suspect the first thing you might do is ponder what it is going to be about.  For example you might want to write a piece about how wonderful your lover is, or how awful your ex-lover was.  Or maybe about your magnificent home town.  Or about a musical style that you like.  Or maybe about a dance form that “everybody’s doing”.

In fact a very crude analysis suggests that around 90% of songs in the popular and folk tradition are about love, lost love and dance.  But there is no rule to say you can’t write about something else.  “16 tons” – one of the most famous songs of all times, is about the unjust rewards gained from being a miner.

So any subject is on the table.  You might for example want to write about your belief and convictions, be they religious or political.  Or even your favourite city.   New York seems to have a number of songs dedicated to it.  Or maybe the Red River Shore, or Alberta or … well in fact there is even a website that lists of the places Dylan has mentioned in songs he has recorded.

And my guess is that whatever the topic of the song you were about to write, you’d probably try and be specific and clear, rather than obscure.  And this is indeed what we find with Dylan’s songs in 1979.  For although “I believe in you” could be a love song, “I believe in You” with its extra capitalisation is clearly a profession of religious faith – as are many of the 1979 songs.

And as we have seen, when you know the experiences of the performer it can become a profoundly anti-religious song

But there is an alternative approach: in writing a song, as in painting a picture or making a sculpture, one doesn’t have to be explicit.  This is an issue that is totally up to the creative artist; for it has always been accepted that it is perfectly legitimate to be obscure.  “Desolation Row,” I would argue, is clearly about the appalling state of humanity.   Some of the lines are not overtly about this, but “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” is pretty clearly a statement of disgust at the behaviour of some people – doubly so when one realises that it was a true statement and it is the opening line.

In a different artistic field we might think of Picasso’s “Guernica” for here you can see elements within it which are overt, and the overall impression is clear: the inhumanity of the Nazis in testing out the capabilities of their airforce by bombing a town without defences.   But perhaps not every line and shape is understandable as a representation of something.

Back to 1979 and we can see that Dylan was writing religious pieces.  Maybe not every single song, and that detail can be debated, but at least quite a few of his works that year and forward into 1980 were religious.  “Property of Jesus” is pretty overt in its message, for example.

But then what do we make of Caribbean Wind or Making a liar out of me?  Or come to that Trouble

We have published on this site a really detailed analysis of Caribbean Wind (an index to the series is here) which looks at the meaning of the song throughout.  But I have a worry, for if this was intended as part of Dylan’s religious ouvre, in which he was for a while trying to convince his audience that following the Christian faith was by far the best thing we could do with our lives, why did he make this song so obscure?   Because surely if you are trying to convert people to your cause, the best way to do that is to leave them in no uncertain frame of mind as to what your message is.

I find that an interesting point not least because if it was not part of the religious song collection, that does mean that Dylan’s religious period of writing overtly religious songs lasted under a year and a half.  Which in the context of Dylan’s career wasn’t very long.

However my point is not about Caribbean Wind as such but about the issue of writing songs for a specific purpose.   Surely if one wants to write about the truths within the Christian faith, one writes about that in a clear way, expressing that view so all can hear it and have the chance of being converted.  Why make it obscure?

Indeed why make any song obscure?

I think that is an important question, and it takes me to other art forms.  My house has a lot of pictures in it, ranging from rural scenes to Jackson Pollock and Bridgit Riley (although not originals I hasten to add, so no point working out where I live and then planning a break-in).  I find inspiration and depth in the abstracts, and if there is meaning then the meaning is that life cannot always be described in words. (Which now I come to think about it, is a pretty weird thing for a writer to believe).

And although I have for many years earned my living in writing advertisements, articles and books, which tend to be fairly clear in terms of what they are about (at least I hope they do, and I am told by those for whom I write advertisements that sales do go up) I also write songs just for the fun of it, and do share some of those with a few close long-suffering friends.

But before I pause in this contemplation let me quote a song that I mentioned above, but which is not normally the centre of much debate: Trouble.  Here are the lyrics

Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin' but trouble

Trouble in the water
Trouble in the air
Go all the way to the other side of the world
You'll find trouble there

Revolution even ain't no solution for trouble

Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin' but trouble

Drought and starvation
Packaging of the soul
Persecution, execution
Governments out of control

You can see the writing on the wall, inviting trouble

Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin' but trouble

Put your ear to the train tracks
Put your ear to the ground
You ever feel like you're never alone
Even when there's nobody else around?

Since the beginning of the universe man's been cursed by trouble

Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin' but trouble

Nightclubs of the broken-hearted
Stadiums of the damned
Legislature, perverted nature
Doors that are rudely slammed

Look into infinity, all you see is trouble
Yeah, yeah

Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin' but trouble

Trouble, ooh yeah
Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin' but trouble
Oh yeah, trouble

You could interpret this as a call for the troubled to turn to the Lord.  Or you could read it as simply a statement that our society is pretty awful.   And the point is that there is nothing in the piece that says “change your words and turn to the Lord”.  Indeed there is a line that says the opposite: “Look into infinity, all you see is trouble”.   No second coming in that perception.

But my point is not specifically about that one line, but rather, if you want to convert people to your way of seeing the world, normally the best thing to do is to be specific.  It is after all what everyone from politicians to preachers do.   So why not be clear?

And that is the question that I want to consider: why write songs that are not clear in their subject matter?

If I can clarify my own thoughts, I shall return to this in the near future.




  1. Hi Tony,
    Very interesting article. To answer your question I think that obscurity gives more possibilities to interpretation, it’s more mysterious. Everybody can see and hear in an obscure song something different, depending on his own sensibility, knowledge
    and imagination. And every time we can see something different.
    So for that reason such song is more interesting than straight forward love or hate song which you can hear only so many times
    after which it becomes irritating unless it has irresistibly beautiful melody that makes you want to listen to it again and again. But songs like Desolation Row, Love Minus Zero, Senor, or False Prophet and so many many others can be listened to over and over again and you can always find something new in those songs and they are timeless exactly because they are not specific.
    Anyway, when are you going for vacation and for how long?
    Just asking….

  2. Marta: in recent years my vacation destination has been Australia, to visit my daughter, and the next time I go, to visit my granddaughter too. But as for when…. I guess when the airports in England get their act together.

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