Bob Dylan: The lyrics AND the music: Abandoned Love

By Tony Attwood

Bob Dylan set himself quite a challenge in turning “Abandoned Love” into more than just an interesting song – for it consists of one of the standard pop motifs (lost love), is quite long (eight verses), and (as is inevitable with verses within popular music) has a melody that repeats and repeats across four and a half minutes.

Of course, the lyrics are really engaging, although they don’t actually follow a logical sequence or make obvious sense.   Rather they are an ongoing reflection on a relationship which the singer is about to end.  People and situations seem to appear and then vanish from the song as if in and out of the fog, so what we are left with is an overall vision of unhappiness but no certainty as to what is going on.    The song lyrics are the musical equivalent of an impressionist painting…

But against this the music is rather jolly and is the same verse after verse.   And therein lies the challenge – how to keep up the musical interest, so that the listener does not end up thinking only of the words – which actually don’t tell us the story we might expect.

One option would be to give the listener interesting and unexpected chords, but Dylan doesn’t let that happen.  The chords used are absolutely standard and can be found in hundreds of thousands of songs, although the actual sequence of the chords is slightly unusual (but hardly unique) when the second and third lines are taken as a whole

G                           Em
I can see the turning of the key
         C                               D
I've been deceived by the clown inside of me
 Bm                                     C
I thought that he was righteous but he's vain
G                  D                       G
Something's telling me, I wear the ball and chain

So how can our interest in the piece be kept?   Partly this conundrum is solved by having the violin played exquisitely by Scarlet Rivera, as an ever-evolving counter melody – indeed it is a part that keeps going even when the harmonica comes in.  Had anyone performed a violin / harmonica duet before?   Possibly, but certainly not very often.

But what actually happens thereafter is that the music is so beguiling, with the slight variations that the violin adds throughout, that we keep losing track of what the lyrics are telling us, and so we want to come back again to have another listen to what the storyline is – if it is anything at all.

And beyond that there is the overall feel of guitar, drums and violin that gives us a floating romantic feeling (emphasised by the opening line “My heart is telling me I love you still”) that offers a sense of continuity.  Which is interesting because if we do pick up on any of the lines in the song this is not what we hear.   We hear the lover leaving, the lover who is left behind being tied down by the ball and chain, abandoned by those who might help (the patron saint for example)…

Indeed put together, none of the lyrics really make sense – after all what are we to make of

Everybody's wearing a disguise
To hide what they've got left behind their eyes
But me, I can't cover what I am
Wherever the children go I'll follow them

In fact, we don’t make anything out of it because the music carries us along.   And this is my point here – this is a drifting stream-of-consciousness set of lyrics that could become dull or laughable through their lack of obvious meaning and the lack of context.  But the engaging melodic line Bob sings and the beautiful counter-melody of the violin keeps the song going, along with a regular but relaxing beat, which gives us a feeling of a strange, but actually not frightening world.

There is no pain in this breakup, only bemusement at all the things happening around – and that is a very unusual context for a popular song.  And thus it needs an unusual accompaniment which is what the violin brings.  Indeed I would go so far as to say that without the violin’s improvised part, the recording would be far, far less interesting and might never have been kept, let alone released.

In fact so powerful is the musical accompaniment in terms of its emotional content, that when we get to the denouement we don’t feel a sense of end at all.   Rather we want to go back and hear it all again.

So one more time at midnight, near the wall
Take off your heavy make-up and your shawl
Won't you descend from the throne, from where you sit?
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it

It is an amazing recording, which with a less interesting melody and/or without the violin part, would probably hardly be remembered at all.   And yet for many of us it is an essential part of the Dylan collection.   A perfect example of Dylan using music AND lyrics as equals to create a set of images and a storyline, neither of which make sense, but make us feel that if we listen just one more time, will reveal more of their secrets.

There are cover versions of this song, but none of them seem to be able to take the music anywhere else – it only works in the form that Dylan laid it down.  The music and the lyrics have to co-exist as he set them out.  No other way is possible.


  1. Because Tony finds the lyrics of the above song problematic, he expects everyone else to so find as well

    Then who, like himself, must seek salvation of the song (a unity)through the music ….

    It may be a structuralist syndrome of some kind that some listeners suffer from, but it’s certainly not common to everyone, and should not be assumed to be

    The fragmentation in lyrics and music above is well intended and goes way back to the days of early ballads – utilized by the modernist Lorca in his poetry

  2. Great music, and some of the most beautiful and meaningful song lyrics ever written (other than by Orpheus) and beautifully sung by Bob Dylan!

    – condemned above as “really making no sense”.

    An unnerving critique to say the least.

  3. Tony

    I would just say, the verse you cited makes easy sense…

    “Everybody’s wearing a disguise”

    This is pretty self explanatory in the world we live in. Everyone’s pretending to be something, wearing a mask.

    “To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes”

    to hide what missing, what’s disappeared behind their eyes, in the brains, their minds

    “But me, I can’t cover what I am”

    again, simple, he has to be genuine to himself

    “Wherever the children go I’ll follow them”

    why? because children are always genuine. If you want to find truth, ask a child.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *