Why does Dylan keep changing his songs?

By Tony Attwood

Mike Johnson opened the section of his magnificent “Never Ending Tour” series on 2009 with the comment, “We now arrive at what must be the most frustratingly brilliant, difficult, disastrous and contentious year of the NET – 2009.”

Many of the comments within the article refer to the re-writing of Dylan’s own songs – as indeed has been a theme through the series.  And if you are a regular reader of Untold Dylan you may have realised that I’ve also got a particular fascination with the way other people change Dylan songs – some for the better some for the worse.  (See for example, the index at the end of each episode of Dylan Cover a Day).

And it got me to thinking: why is all this re-writing and re-arranging happening, and what does it tell us about the songs, and about Dylan?

Of course, one answer is fairly obvious.  Most artists in the field of pop and rock, go on tour and play their songs pretty much as they are to be found on the records.   Over the years I’ve been to see a number of bands whose work I enjoyed in younger days, and in these gigs there are three near certainties.

First, they will play their best-known tracks, and that is indeed what much of the audience wants.  And they will play them pretty much in the original form.  If there is to be a bit of re-arranging it will be by adding longer and different instrumental breaks.

Second, one or two members of the original band will be missing, sadly either because they are no longer with us, or because although they are still on the planet they’ve no longer any idea of how to hold a guitar, let alone how to play it.

Third, not all of those who have survived and made it onto the stage will be in good health either mentally, physically or financially.

Dylan breaks all these rules.   He doesn’t always play his best-known songs.  The nearest he’s ever got to that is the playing of the Hendrix re-arrangement of “Watchtower” – which even then isn’t fitting in with the classic view of ending with a copy of the BIG HIT exactly as it sounds on the record.  He’s playing another guy’s total re-write of his own song.

Second, there is no original band as such, although third, those who do accompany Bob on stage are among the very best in their fields.

So from the very start, Bob is breaking all the rules of touring – and that is before we even try and count the number of concerts he has done.  (The fact that the latest edition of the Never Ending Tour series is issue number 98, and each episode relates to multiple concerts, gives an idea of how many gigs there has been.  Someone must know how many there are: if it is you, please write in and tell me.   In 2013 it was said to be 2500.)

So let’s consider the reality for Bob.  First he’s a man who has been interested in the way music changes, from the very start, realising that the songs we know from the great folk traditions of the UK and America are themselves simply versions of songs that have changed time and again across the years.

Second, when Bob decided to “go electric” as the phrase has it, that in itself changed the songs – just adding an accompaniment beyond the acoustic guitar changes the nature of the song, and when a whole rock band is put in, that again takes the music to another place entirely.

Third, Bob himself is interested in change.  That is self-evident from the way he has reworked his own songs in rehearsal and through the different versions of the songs on stage.   The CD made up of the various recordings of “Tell Ol Bill” shows this interest, and indeed this astounding talent that Dylan has of seeing all the possibilities within the songs.

So what is emerging here is the fact that Bob’s interest in the folk music origins of the type of music he creates, reveals to him that in the early days, the songs changed over and over again.  What we know as the definitive version of classic English folk songs, for example, are simply versions that happen to have been written down, usually by collectors such as Cecil Sharp in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who were notating the songs often hundreds of years after they were created.   And what Sharp found of course was that a song sung to him in one town, would sound very different when he noted it down in another town, 40 miles along the road.

Thus Bob’s entire vision of songs is one in which they can change, and so he does indeed change them.

And for Bob there is a benefit in this, because I can’t imagine how the Never Ending Tour could have survived, even with 600+ compositions of his own to choose from, if Bob’s vision had been to play each song as he had originally recorded it.

Thus the concept of changing the songs comes to us from all directions: from the traditions of folk music which obviously fascinate Bob so much, from his desire to keep on touring year after year (and the need to avoid the boredom of playing the same songs, in the same way, year after year), from his obvious deep-rooted creativity which allows him to invent more and more versions of each song, and from his interest in regularly changing members of the band.   It is after all, Bob Dylan & His Band, not Bob Dylan and the Bobbies (or whatever other ghastly word might have been invented if Bob’s Band had been given a permanent name).

So the reason for endlessly changing the songs comes at us from multiple directions, and when looked at like this, seems fairly obvious.   But why did the changes that Mike Johnson heard in the 2009 concerts sound so off-colour (if you see what I mean)?

For that question, I think I’ll have to start another article (not least because I need to stop and have one more cup of coffee).  Hopefully I’ll have it ready in a day or two.



  1. I agree with your explanation of why Dylan rearranges his songs. What amuses me is that a fair number of “fans” abhor these changes, yet celebrate many of the Bootleg Series of releases that have myriad versions of particular songs. I appreciate a window into the creative process even if some recorded or publicly performed versions do not always “do it” for me.

  2. Ive no problem with the rearrangement of songs its the vocal commitment to them at times that I have issues with.
    Listening to the countless “on auto pilot” versions of Watchtower or Rolling Stone
    and many other classics on the N.E.T since 1988 cannot be compared with the great
    rearrangements on tours up to 1981 where Dylan actually cared about his performance.

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