Why does Dylan keep changing his songs 4: Taking chances

“It’s always been my nature to take chances”

By Tony Attwood

In this little series, I’ve tried to look at the reasons why Bob Dylan has repeatedly re-written and re-arranged his songs, and it turns out there are a lot of historical and personal factors that have combined to allow and indeed encourage Bob to do this constant re-writing.  And among other things, they lead me to thoughts about which songs he has kept in the repertoire, and which songs he has abandoned, as much as which songs have changed and changed, and which have been left alone.

And I have to admit that generally I am bemused: why would he abandon this song (which I really do think is one of the greatest pieces he has ever written) while he insists on playing that song (in which I really can’t see anything at all)?

The answer to that question, as with the answer to the fundamental question of why he keeps re-writing is buried in the notion of process, and in the notion of being a chance-taker, an experimenter.

My point is that Bob is going through a process as composer and performer that is utterly different from the process we go through as listeners and audience.  He enjoys experimenting and taking chances: he is the man running the show.  We on the other hand have the fixed recordings: the only chances we take are in going to the shows and buying the recordings.

Additionally, among the factors in the background that I have previously noted is the point that this is how folk music was before the gramophone – constantly being re-written.  And the fact that with the level of touring Bob does, if he never changed the songs, he and his band would get bored stiff.  So Bob the chance taker, the gambler, does the re-writes, just to see where it takes the music.   And he does them because that’s what he likes doing.

Thus we have the point that Dylan makes changes because he can – he’s a superbly inventive musician, so undoubtedly in many cases the new versions of old songs come to him without hours or days of hard work.  My guess is he can sit at the piano or pick up the guitar, and find a new way to play each song in a moment or two.  It might take quite a bit longer to get it right in the studio, but that initial change probably happens quickly.

Indeed for experienced musicians, making changes it isn’t very difficult – no more than becoming a new character on stage is very difficult for the experienced actor.   What is more difficult is finding radically new versions of an old song that are really worth contemplating – and this is one of the many areas where Bob has always stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

Now it is true that in the field of rewriting, there are all sorts of things one can do – one can play the piece faster or slower.  One can move from a minor to a major key.  One can change the chords (something which may go unnoticed by the average listener who has no experience of playing music, but which can have a profound effect on the way the music sounds).   One can even change the time signature so that instead of the song moving along as 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4, it changes into 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3.

“Times they are a changing” for example was written in the 1 2 3 1 2 3 approach (known as triple time, although written as 6/8 as a time signature.  So we hear

Come gather round people where ever you roam

with the accent on the words and syllables in bold.   Try performing that in the more standard (for pop and rock) four beats in a bar and you get a very strange effect in the rhythm.   There are many ways to do it, but one that is most obvious musically is

Come, gather round people (pause)

Where, ever you roam (pause)

So you have an accent on the words in bold, and pauses are put in to allow for the fourth beat.  The effect is utterly different.

To do that would sound strange indeed, because the essence of the song is changed.   But consider just how Bob changed “Restless Farewell” for the Frank Sinatra concert….

As a reminder here is where he started

And then it was re-written as….


My guess (and of course since I have never had the overwhelming honour of being asked to play in Bob’s band, for the simple reason I am nowhere near good enough a musician to do so, apart from the fact that we’ve never met) is that when he starts re-writing a piece he takes one of these approaches: changing the chords, changing the melody or changing the time, and sees where it leads.

Now comes the problem: doing this sort of thing can take one so deep into the work that it becomes harder and harder to appreciate just how it will sound to the non-musical outsider.   One might feel as a fan that the re-write doesn’t work, but who is to say that feeling is reliable or indeed shared by the audience in general?

Of course, the same is true with writing the original song in the first place.  How does one know if it is any good?   Indeed one could say the same about a series of articles about Dylan.

Thus I think this question of why Bob keeps re-writing his songs is interesting, and indeed that interest of mine is reflected in the fact that when I have the chance as editor of this site to add the musical examples to an article, I really enjoy working through the cover versions to find one that works for me, and which maybe we haven’t featured very much.  But that’s not to say anyone else is bound to find it interesting.


So let’s pull this together.  Bob sits at the piano and plays one of his old songs, and starts amending it by changing chords, time, melody, rhythm – not all of them normally, but enough to make a difference.

He plays it through quite a few times, and rather likes what he has done.   Who then is going to criticise his work and perhaps say, “No Bob that really doesn’t sound right?”

Of course, I don’t know the dynamics of the band but maybe Tony Garnier, having been with Bob so long, could say something.  Or maybe Mr Garnier is in the band because he’s an excellent bassist who doesn’t say anything out of turn!   But the fact is, whether someone makes a criticism of not, in the end Bob has to make a judgment.   And he makes it not as we do, on first hearing, but having experienced the entire process of re-writing the song, perhaps over a number of hours, or perhaps over a number of weeks.

And let us not forget that this process is going on with a work that Bob has performed maybe hundreds of times, or indeed maybe thousands if we take into account the original creation of the piece, the recording rehearsals, the show rehearsals and so on.

It is in fact an incredibly complex process and one I had a go at explaining in a small way in my piece “Dylan re-writes Dylan”   And like all complex processes sometimes it will work and sometimes not.

So, what to conclude?

First, re-writing and re-arranging is a complex process with numerous possible outcomes.

Second, that process takes time, during the course of which endless possibilities will be tried and rejected.

Third, by the end of the process, the composer will have become totally engaged with the piece in a way that most of us will never achieve and cannot imagine, and will most likely make judgments utterly different from those of the fan or the critic.

And so by the time we get to the final re-write our judgments are made from utterly different perspectives.   Bob is judging what he has got, through the lens of countless hours of evolution with the piece.   We come to it afresh and judge it as a one-off, without any knowledge of the process involved.   We are, in fact, listening to and understanding totally different things.  Bob has the whole process.   We have the original and the new version.  No wonder our judgments are not the same.

Which, of course, not only explains the multiple versions of some songs, but also how come Bob creates what we might hear as masterpieces, but which Bob rejects as somehow not being worthy of keeping.

And maybe that is the best place to stop my rambling and conclude with a song which to me is an utter, total complete masterpiece yet which Bob recorded and just left on the shelf.

Something in it, was wrong for Bob – maybe he just felt it didn’t work, maybe he felt that it could work if only he could find that extra nuance that would make it the masterpiece he felt it could be.

Bob makes judgments of this sort with every album, just as we make judgments when we hear the music – but really we are listening to the same music from different ends of different galaxies.  No wonder we often can’t understand his decision-making.



One comment

  1. The hallmark of the Sound School of Dylanology is to equate the rearranging of the music thereof with ‘rewriting’ a song

    Even if a few words of the original are changed, the ‘essence’ of the song more often than not remains.

    Unless, of course, the mood created by the sound of the music completely contradicts that created by the original words.

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