How most analyses of Dylan’s songs mistake the essence of what the songs are

By Tony Attwood

From what we know about Bob Dylan’s creativity in relation to the world of song writing, for him, songs just happen – they emerge as songs, and then are, as often as not, subject to change, sometimes quite considerable change.

And a key point here is that they “emerge as songs”, not as poems to which music is added later.  Nor are they merely instrumental pieces to which lyrics are a secondary element.  For it seems that for the most part the various elements within the songs (melody, rhythm, chord sequence, tempo and lyrics) emerge together or in close proximity and then are varied as the song itself evolves both in the immediate writing stage, and then later as Dylan returns to the song in preparation for a new version offered on tour.

Of course Bob might start with a chord sequence and a rhythm, and then find a melody that fits over them, at which moment he might also find some lyrics, so in that sense there is a sequence in the writing.  But my point is that it is a sequence of events that happen in close proximity, as part of the complete evolution of the work as a whole.

Obvioulsy there can be exceptions – I am not saying every song is written in the same way, but by and large no matter how much I look into the subject, listening to all the recordings of songs that we have as they evolve before the final album version is delivered, and listening to them again as Dylan varies the works over time in performance, I always reach the same point: music and lyrics evolve together.  They are entwined and are of equal importance.  They evolve and develop as elements within the same work of art.

And yet when I come to read commentaries on Dylan’s work, despite the obviousness of what I have noted above, most of these commentaries focus almost 100% on the lyrics, maybe with just a note about which musicians are involved.

There are of course exceptions, and indeed there are notes about who is playing on the recorded tracks, and comments on verses missed out and lines changed, but for every 1000 words examining the lyrics and their supposed meaning, there is maybe one sentence on the evolution of the music or the music’s interaction with the lyrics, beyond noting changes in the personnel on stage or in the studio.

And yet Dylan writes songs, not poems, as is patently obvious.  Yet surely, if the lyrics were by far the most important thing to him, Dylan would write poems not songs.

Of course one could argue that the music is merely a vehicle to bring the poems to the audience’s attention, but if that is the case it seems strange that so much attention is paid to the “vehicle” by Dylan, with him re-writing the music regularly, changing the musical content of songs from one tour to another.  It’s not something that happens in a few moments – those re-writes need to be created and rehearsed, and it all takes time.

Now it could also be argued that as a songwriter Dylan can bring his verse to a broader audience than if he were just a poet, and that is the only function of the music.   And in the first regard that is undoubtedly true – Dylan as a poet would be less known than he is now as a songwriter.  But Dylan spends so much energy on his music, creating it and re-creating it over and over, I feel that any attempt to argue that his primary concern is the lyrics and that the music is just an add-on, really needs a lot of evidence to sustain it.

Indeed it seems to me much more likely that such an argument is simply an excuse for focussing on the lyrics.  For the obvious fact is that Dylan is a songwriter who gives us original music and original lyrics in equal measure.  It is the commentators who have chosen to focus on just part of what Dylan offers because of their lack of ability to comment on the music.

Thus I would argue that Bob Dylan writes songs in which music and the lyrics are of equal value.  It is the commentators who have chosen to ignore 50% of his work much of the time, focussing totally on the lyrics or the personnel in the band.  And I would argue that they do that either because that is because that’s what everyone else does, or because they don’t know much about music.

And thus I would suggest that these commentators have been kidding us, focussing only on the lyrics to hide their own profound lack of knowledge of music and their equal lack of ability to write about music as music.  In the end they are reduced to considering music as background, not because that is what it is, but either because that’s what everyone else has done, or because it is all they know how to write about.

Yet the obvious conclusion, in terms of considering what Dylan actually does, must be that in order to appreciate and understand Dylan’s work we need to consider both lyrics and music in equal measure.

My guess is that Bob Dylan, like so many creative people, has an inner need or drive to be creative, and that need is unrelated to fame, money, or wish to change the world.   Rather it is simply this overwhelming need to be creative – and for him that creativity is expressed primarily through the writing and performing of songs.  Not the writing of poetry.

This then is my starting point in understanding Dylan’s work, and it leads of course to a rejection of the validity of commentaries that focus on the lyrics alone.   For when one does this, one misses out on much of what is happening as Bob Dylan re-writes his songs.  For he often is re-writing both the music (changing melody, tempo, chord structure, and accompaniment at will) and the lyrics, (changing occasional lines, omitting verses, adding verses…)

As we know Dylan also engages in other art forms too – novels, physical constructions, paintings etc, and it is interesting that no one seems to feel that in discussing these art works, that the work can be considered properly by cutting the work of art into its constituent elements, focussing on one bit, and then drawing a conclusion from that.

And yet that is exactly what many writers do in considering Bob Dylan as a songwriter.  They focus on the lyrics, not on song.  A similar approach to Bob as a painter would be to focus on what he paints, or the colours he uses, rather than the paintings as complete entities.

From this starting point, I conclude that most commentators on the music of Dylan get it utterly wrong, because they consider one part of Dylan’s work (the lyrics) to be of primary importance where there is no evidence at all that this is how Dylan sees it.   As a result much of the commentary on Dylan’s work is in my view, utterly incomplete and because of that it misunderstands what Dylan is communicating.

In future articles, to illustrate my point, I’m going to have a go at writing reviews of Dylan’s songs which overcome this deficiency, and consider the music and the lyrics equally, and hopefully do so in a way which might be of interest to both musicians and non-musicians alike.


  1. I would argue that commentors who give little ink to the music side in favour of lyric side of Dylan songs are simply being practical –

    Not that some Dylan commentators (mostly of the Sound School) seem to be so ignorant of literary themes and figurative diction and therefore they concentrate only on the the music, ie,because they have studied that specific art but not the other….

    or vice versa.

    Most everybody has ears enabling them to listen to and appreciate music though they may not have studied how to play instruments, sing vocals, or read music …

    A book that just features musical notes, for example, would not have a wide audience whereas there are lots of people who can read, write, and speak English.

    To say people write about Dylan lyrics because of ignorance (as Tony would have it) is simply self-serving.

    As stated, Dylan is both a musician and a lyricist – neither merely a poet nor merely a musician.

    It only makes practical sense that more people would buy a book featuring Dylan song lyrics rather than one just presenting his musical scores to look at.

    Looks like putting Dylan lyric-commentators down in order to to build one’s own knowledge of music up is the game that’ being played here.

  2. Yes, Mr. Attwood. You get it. I have been waiting for someone to say that. Like refreshing a page on the computer, you bring new insight to a tired field of commentary.

  3. In my experience, most “analyses” of Dylan’s songs are actually all about the writer, and mostly ignore both the lyrics and the music. And it is truly tiresome. Not so much a problem on this site, I’m happy to add.

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