Dylan: the music and the lyrics: Sign on the window

by Tony Attwood

This series tries to look at Dylan’s songs from the point of view of the music and the lyrics in equal measure, rather than (as seems to me to be the normal approach in literature about Dylan) focussing primarily on the lyrics, and if considering the music at all, considering it as an afterthought.

And in returning to “Sign on the window” something like eight years after I first wrote a review of the song for this site, and now looking to consider the music and the lyrics as equal partners in the song, I find “Sign on the window” a most curious case in many ways.

One point is that I think Dylan got the accompaniment wrong in his recording of the song, and another is that I think everyone else has got their arrangements wrong too.  So if you want a piece of arrogant writing – here it is, for I am arguing “I am right and they are all wrong.”  So if you feel that no one has the right to criticise Dylan’s work in this way, this article may not be for you.

But maybe Bob also has his concerns about this piece.   After all it is a delicate and beautiful piece that deserves a wide audience – and it got it in “Girl from the north country” and indeed even in that show, there was a feeling that much of Dylan’s original musical creation needed to be kept.  And those guys know a thing or two about music.   So maybe this is just me…

But I’ll keep going, and if you are still with me, let me try and illustrate, using the original album version.

The opening line is delicately performed.  The singing is restrained, the piano is merely the chordal accompaniment – and a simple chordal accompaniment at that – with a wonderfully extended pause after the first line.   This continues into the second line, but then incomprehensibly the piano plays multiple repeats of one note after the word “allowed”.

OK that is not right for the mood of the piece, but it is not too bad.  But the we get it again after the next line.  OK after that thankfully it is gone – and we get the band coming in and playing in sympathy with the sadness of the lyrics, but there are still those moments of repeated notes.

And I keep wanting to know why?   Was Bob trying to express what was wrong with his feelings – that agony was pounding away in his head?   Or did he just not like the drift into silence at that point?

But still worse is to come.   For after that there is the middle 8 – in which extraordinarily he changes key – which hardly ever, ever happens in a Dylan song, and from a musical point of view is absolutely not needed here.  The song is written in F# (F sharp) which as the Dylan Chords site says is “possibly the worst conceivable guitar key”.  And I suspect every amateur guitarist would agree.   However, it is not that awful for a pianist – one ends up mostly playing the black notes and I take it this is Dylan at the piano.

But then suddenly the music in the “middle 8” (the section starting “Looks like nothing but rain”, jumps to B flat which is musically as far removed from F sharp as it is possible to imagine – and then keeps meandering around.

I wonder if Bob was thinking he could express the distress shown in the lyrics, within the music as well, by using these chords which really make no musical sense?  Maybe that’s it, because I can’t think of any other reason for doing what he did to this most beautiful piece of music (up to the point of the middle 8 at least).

What actually happens through those repeated notes and the sudden jerk into a new unrelated key for the middle 8 is that we get a deep sense of unease about the whole thing he is singing about.   And (and I know, here I am criticising the greatest songwriter of our time) I think he is trying too hard.  It really doesn’t work.   The lyrics are simple, poignant and heart-wrenching,

Sign on the window says “Lonely”
Sign on the door said “No Company Allowed”
Sign on the street says “Y’ Don’t Own Me”
Sign on the porch says “Three’s A Crowd”
Sign on the porch says “Three’s A Crowd”

and the melody fits perfectly, but expressing the anguish through repeated piano notes and sudden jerks of the key into something else really isn’t right.  Yes the heart may be hurting and pounding, but that is not best represented by this in the music.

I think it is possible to understand what Bob was wanting to do – expressing the pain and anguish in his heart through the music, but in doing that he makes the song much harder to appreciate.

Of course, at this point, I am on my own.  “Girl from the north country” used it as Dylan wrote it and the handful of cover versions have done so as well, but if you can imagine the song without the repeated notes and without the sudden jerk into another dimension for “Looks like nothing but rain” you get a wonderful expression of the sadness and pain of lost love without all these artificial musical constructs which in my view are absolutely not needed.

And surely it would make more sense not to have them in the song, for the song ends with a portrayal of idyllic country living.

The Wiki review of the piece says, “”Sign on the Window” expands on the joyous sentiments found in “New Morning”, applying it to domestic bliss.”   But Wiki reviews of Dylan by and large don’t comment much on the music – which is I guess why they leave it at that.   However for me, what the music in that “Looks like nothing but rain” section has to do with anything else in the song, I’ve no idea.

Reports from the time suggest that every song was recorded multiple times with Dylan changing his mind incessantly.  My guess would be that key change section from this song was one of those sudden mind changes.  And my guess as to why he has never performed the song live is exactly because of this.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  But really it wasn’t.

And that’s also why so few people cover the song.   Without the “nothing but rain” part and those repeated piano notes, it would be so beautiful.  But with them….


  1. ‘And surely it would make more sense not to have them in the song, for the song ends with a portrayal of idyllic country living.’
    No it doesn’t. Listen.From my essay, published a little while back, ‘Dylan’s Arcadia’:

    With New Morning the feeling I have is that Dylan is struggling to keep up the pretence, the pastoral game that he’s indulged in for a year or two now. We’d heard it in his singing and his song-writing, and also in his public manner, from the white-suited gent genially addressing the audience at the Isle of Wight concert ( a sixth former at his first ever festival and eager to grow up and be a hippy, I was bemused by his soft-spoken manner, celebrating Manfred Mann as ‘ a great group, a great great group’) to the polite interviewee in ‘Rolling Stone’ or ‘Sing Out’ seemingly no longer playing games – or, perhaps, and more likely, playing another game.
    On New Morning, with its newly roughened, or re-roughened voice, the most interesting and revealing song – for me – is ‘Sign on the Window’, particularly its closing moments, where a quavering, plaintive yearning struggles to assert a certain certainty. In place of Nashville Skyline’s sweet, rich confidence, we hear a quiet desperation as Dylan aches to convince himself:

    Build me a cabin in Utah
    Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
    Have a bunch of kids who call me “pa”
    That must be what it’s all about,
    That must be what it’s all about

    The smiling Nashville Skyline persona cracks or crumples: he’s not smiling – or waving – but drowning. He can’t ‘pretend’ any more – at least, not convincingly. It’s a perfect example of how the voice, the performance can matter so much in Dylan’s work. On the page the words are simple, unadorned, the repetition almost banal, but the poignant fragility of Dylan’s delivery adorns it, lending ironic weight to that repeated refrain, ‘must be’.
    Contrasting with Nashville Skyline, New Morning has an edginess, a restlessness that undercuts the apparently benign mood, calling to mind Timothy Hampton’s comments on Dylan’s earlier hectic activity, and his noticing, too, that on this album’s most interesting songs there’s an urge to be elsewhere, from ‘the black hills of Dakota’ to ‘that little Minnesota town’.

  2. Indeed, the song’s narrator does not sound that he’s actually ready to pack up his fishing gear and settle down in the countryside with a house full of kids while singing a song, with appropriate accompanying music, about finding a home where the buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day.

  3. I do agree with Bob Jope here.

    Listening to ‘One more weekend’ and to ‘Time passes slowly’ gives me this same vibe. Bob was ready for ‘live on the road’ again, or kind of yearning for it, actually.

    PS: Sorry for my English here. I’m from Brazil, and it may be not that good.

  4. ‘Home home on the range’ type of music is not intended…
    the narrator’s not ready to pack up his fishing gear and settle down where the buffalo roam!

  5. This article is inane. The key change is joyously glorious. And the repeated notes don’t detract at all. I’ve never noticed them until you pointed them out and now that you have it has not changed my enjoyment of the song.

    And, yes, Mr. Fyffe–“home on the range” music. We get it. Was it really worth making that comment three times in a row?

  6. Doobey Joe, what I don’t understand is why an opinion which is different from yours is inane. Surely if you are going to make that comment you ought to explain why the article is inane rather than just something you happen to disagree with.

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