Dylan: the lyrics and the music. It ain’t me babe

By Tony Attwood

“It ain’t me babe” is a complicated song to write about from the musical point of view because Dylan himself has changed the chordal accompaniment to the song in various performances, and so have those who have issued cover versions.

But if we go back to the start, and the original album version, the song has a feel of tentativeness, uncertainty, and apology, all brought about through the music because at the start we are not clear what key we are in.  In terms of the chords, if you want more on this there is of course Dylanchords).

The opening chords are D and C, (although the D chord sounds to me incomplete) and this alternation of the chords along with the way the D chord is played, gives a sense of uncertainty which contradicts the forthrightness of the opening line…

Go away from my windowLeave at your own chosen speedI'm not the one you want, babeI'm not the one you need

It is a push out the door – but not a violent push, more a gentle edging outwards.  And as the lyrics say, it is presented as being in the lady’s best interests: “I’m not the one you need”.

For me this opening is a perfect example of how Bob Dylan can get the music and the lyrics to operate as one.  The gentleness of the persuasion and the feeling of issues unresolved in the music, since we have not heard the key-chord until the word “speed”.

Thus the music edges the lady along, across those first four lines, with just a touch of the tonic – the chord that is at the base of the music.

And just to make the point of the uncertainty Dylan moves 0nwards immediately taking us to the chord of B minor 7 – a chord of uncertainty – followed by A minor 7 (ditto)… and then the song rocks back and forth between the following lines until we get to the dominant chord of D at “each and every door”.   That is the resolution of what she wants, and the music finally “agreeing” (as it were) that this is where everything is building to…

And then bang, we are with the tonic chord of G around which everything else circles – the minor chords have gone and as the words become more strident (as in “No, no, no…”) we are hearing the three major chords of songs in G (G, C, D). You can’t get more forceful than that.

Now my point here is not that Dylan thought this through – I am not suggesting he said to himself, “Hmmm I am going to be more strident in the chorus in saying ‘No no no’ so I need chords that reflect that.”   Of course not.

What I am saying is that this happened just naturally as part of the composition, as it would for any talented and experienced song writer.   It is quite possible that as he first sketched out the idea of the song Dylan started with the “It ain’t me babe” line, and then built the verse around it later, but there is no doubt that this title line needs strength in the music.

The major chords of G C and D give us that strength, but just playing the chorus straight out wouldn’t make us feel the strength.   It is by having the rotating D and C chords at the start that we get the feeling of gentleness with which the “It ain’t me” line can contrast.

This is, I am sure, a highly talented instinctive songwriter simply coming out with the lyrics and the music, knowing as he plays the guitar in readiness for this song for the first time, that this contrast is what is needed.   And it happens in a way that just feels natural to us, because the minor chords (associated with unhappiness and uncertainty) contrast so clearly with the major chords of the chorus.

Then add in the fact that “No no no” naturally descends, indicating the end of the affair, and you have the whole picture.

Instinctive writing, I suspect it was.  But also instinctively right.  Music and lyrics at one.


One comment

  1. Are one?

    Surely, in this particulat song, the harsh vocal expression of the words in the lyrics “go ‘way”, “go lightly”, ‘go melt” are dominant to the ear.

    The effect of the soft music thaws the background.

    A great work of art achieved by the tension.

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