Dylan’s songs of meaninglessness: Series of Dreams and Drifter’s Escape

By Tony Attwood

In my post “Obscurity and Clarity” I was seeking to make the point that songs don’t have to be about anything, and hinting that attempts to force meaning into songs might on occasion be doing the artist a disservice.  He or she might not have meant there to be a meaning at all.

Dylan elucidates this point with the song “Series of Dreams” – a song that if it has any meaning, has the meaning that dreams don’t have meanings.  To hear the whole piece you need the track from Tell Tale Signs The Bootleg Series Volume 8 Deluxe Edition, which doesn’t exist on the internet as far as I can see, but which available on Spotify.  But the shorter version is available online.

There are many clues in this song about meaningless with lines like

Wasn't thinking of anything specific,
Like in a dream, when someone wakes up and screams.

and

And there's no exit in any direction
'Cept the one that you can't see with your eyes.

I would particularly note the lines…

Wasn't thinking of anything specific,
Like in a dream, when someone wakes up and screams.
Nothing truly very scientific,
Just thinking of a series of dreams.

Now I know it is stretching things to suggest that we can put a number of Dylan songs into the category of “abstract songs” just because of one song about dreams, and really I am not trying to do that.  Instead what I am wanting to suggest is that it is a perfectly valid approach to the work of Dylan to suggest that while most songs are about something, a number of songs that he has written are abstract and not full of meanings, hidden or overt.

In such abstract songs it is the images in the lyrics and the music that make the song interesting; the meaning is not part of the show.

Take a song that I have oft commented upon in the past: “Drifter’s Escape”

The song opens with something that appears meaningful in the first two lines but then reality begins to drift away from our grip.

But there are tricks within this meaninglessness.   The opening verse for example appears to be quite meaningful.   The drifter, who we can understand simply from his title (we know what a drifter is) is caught up by the legal process that applies to all citizens but which seems irrelevant to his lifestyle…

Oh, help me in my weakness
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away

And indeed in the second half of that first verse, there is still a meaning – highlighting the disconnect between the lifestyle of the drifter and the process of law

"My trip hasn't been a pleasant one
And my time, it isn't long
And I still do not know
What it was that I've done wrong"

And then… everything falls apart.   At first we can cling onto reality, because we can perceive the judge understanding that this outsider can’t grasp what the culture of the majority is all about

Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
"You'd fail to understand", he said
"Why must you even try?"

But this turns out to be the tip of the iceberg.  It is not that the drifter and the judge come from different backgrounds, and have had different lives, but rather there is something far more weird going on

Outside, the crowd was stirring
You could hear it from the door
Inside, the judge was stepping down
While the jury cried for more"

We might look for an understanding, an explanation perhaps, or some other insight into why the jury would take leave of its collective senses and start demanding more.    More what?  A heavier sentence?  More cases for them to hear?  More likely they would then be arrested en masse and find themselves on trial.

I have served on juries twice in my life (obviously both times in my home country of England) and in my experience juries do not behave in this way!   This is seriously odd, and that oddness is before we get to

"Oh, stop that cursed jury"
Cried the attendant and the nurse
"The trial was bad enough
But this is ten times worse"

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

Of course, it is possible to make meaning out of this, to see it all as an allegory of something or other, but it is much easier to understand it as meaningless.  And here Occam’s Razor surely applies: the rule that says the simplest explanation is always the best.

OK you could go a step further and say the meaning of the song is that at times life is meaningless, or in a clash of cultures (the legal process vs the drifter) the ways of each are incomprehensible to the other.

But it is still much simpler to say there is no meaning.  Instead there are a set of images which clash and rebound and don’t have a meaning, any more than many abstract paintings have a meaning.  “Drifter’s Escape” is in fact an abstract song – one of many in the world of Dylan songwriting.

And I make this point because it seems to me that seeing part of Dylan’s songwriting as being songs without meaning is generally missed by writers discussing Dylan’s work.  Everything has to have a meaning, no matter how convoluted the logic is to fit that meaning into the lyrics.

I’ll try and take this a step further in another article shortly.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dylan’s songs of meaninglessness: Series of Dreams and Drifter’s Escape

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    As a rather strict structuralist, Atwood demands that songs have meaning, meaning at least that he can relate to.
    Taken to extremes , the ideology bars other listeners from garnering any meaning from them, engendered therefrom by feelings emoted, music, tropes, symbols and so on.

    By analogy, Attwood demands that a jigsaw puzzle comes already put together.

    One can even contemplate what an abstract eye-painting ‘means’, but to place an ear-picture composed of words and music in the same category is stretching matters a way too far…even scrambled up words will not stop the mind searching for meaning – a word itself that is not that easy to define.

    The pressure to conform to the norms of society leaps out from Drifters Escape like a tiger clutching a bolt of lightning.

    An underlying theme in many of of Dylan’s pieces is the artist’s struggle against the ‘proper’ established way of constructing them…,under the the demands of the music industry, for example…,and Tony when he’s befuddled.

  2. Bob Jope says:

    Good piece – but ‘oft’? You’ve been reading too much Heylin!
    TS Eliot said famously that great poetry can be enjoyed before it’s fully understood- that certainly applies to his own, and I think it’s pertinent here.
    Bob J

  3. Patrick Andrews says:

    The jury in Drifter’s Escape doesn’t behave like juries Tony has served on. This must indeed be proof positive that the song is meaningless.
    Just one little niggle. If Series of Dreams is meaningless how can Tony conclude that the line: ‘wasn’t thinking of anything specific’ means that the song is meaningless. Surely he has interpreted the face value meaning of that line to suggest that it means that the song is meaningless. Do you get my meaning?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.