Bob Dylan’s sense of place

By Tony Attwood

Having written about Dylan as a protest singer, I returned to a much earlier theme of this site – and one that caused me no end of problems.  Trying to classify Dylan’s songs by subject matter.

I have made two attempts at such a classification in the past and abandoned both.  But having written about protest I wondered if I might have more success by choosing a theme, and looking for songs that fitted into it, rather than looking at songs and assigning them to a theme.  So here’s part two: Dylan and Places.

Take as a starting point, North Country Blues from 1963.  This song is in a sense a political song about cheap labour disrupting traditional industry, and how company owners can make decisions that wreck people’s lives.  A protest song, therefore. But it is the effect that hits us

The summer is gone
The ground’s turning cold
The stores one by one they’re a-foldin’
My children will go
As soon they grow
Well there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.

It is a place that is full of decay, decline and dissolution.

Now consider One too many mornings.

This is an absolute, overpowering, overwhelming  song of lost love.  There’s no blame – the singer and the woman he loved are both right.  There are regrets, although the singer suggests maybe there are not – but you just know he’s wrong.

So we can call it a song of lost love (one of the three main themes of pop, rock and blues through the ages) but it is more than that.

The first two verses of this three verse song are totally about place.  And that can be said without even emphasising the opening lines that give the listener an absolute sense of where you are and what the world is like.

Down the street the dogs are barkin’
And the day is a-gettin’ dark
As the night comes in a-fallin’
The dogs’ll lose their bark

And in verse two a second emphasis on place

From the crossroads of my doorstep
My eyes they start to fade
As I turn my head back to the room
Where my love and I have laid
An’ I gaze back to the street
The sidewalk and the sign
And I’m one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind

This is real talent.  The ability to give the audience an absolute sense of where you are, and what the place means.

That was 1963 as well, but let’s jump forwards.  A song that starts “There must be some way out of here.”  That line itself tells us the place is confused, mixed, unclear, and that is certainly the picture that emerges.

Here’s the opening to All along the watch tower

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”

and then in the last verse..

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

This is a really weird place indeed.  In fact it has been suggested to me (and I am always very grateful indeed for all the suggestions made, apart from the ones that tell me where I ought to go – which I tend not to publish) that Dylan himself is both the joker and the thief.  It is a theme I want to return to, but who else could handle this strange place we find ourselves in?

Time passes slowly  on the other hand describes a simple land, where nothing happens.  But the simple land is deceptive – the mountains don’t change but the thoughts and dreams of those who live here can change.  It is as if those thoughts create the world.  There is nothing real here at all… except of course there is.  This is the simple countryside isn’t it?  Streams and log cabins and stuff…

“Ain’t no reason to go anywhere,” however is a deceptive line it almost seems as if you need to keep shouting it to keep the demons at bay.   Dylan is trying over and over to tell himself this is how it is, he knows where he is, this is an ok place, but when you listen to those two inter-twining guitars, you start to wonder if it really is true, or not.  Have the demons been left behind, or are they merely locked behind to log cabin door?

You can win and defeat the demons if only you can be like the Zen monk on the hillside looking down, with the perfectly clear vision – for then time passes slowly and fades away.  But in doing that what you have done is removed yourself from the world.

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

It is a bit like the lines from Sign on the Window

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.

I’ve never been to Utah, but I get the idea.

In my pursuit of Dylan’s sense of place I am now going to jump forwards to one of my great favourite Dylan songs Tell Ol’ Bill

I haven’t got round to re-writing my review of this song, following my discovery (although I suspect everyone else knew it all the time) that the title of the song is taken from an old slave song – which gives a totally different meaning to the piece, but with or without that knowledge we know this is a man finding his place in the world that is far from right…

I could happily quote the whole song as an example of Dylan’s sense of place in songs but just take the opening three stanzas.

The river whispers in my ear
I’ve hardly a penny to my name
The heavens have never seemed so near
All of my body glows with flame

The tempest struggles in the air
And to myself alone I sing
It could sink me then and there
I can hear the echoes ring

I tried to find one smiling face
To drive the shadow from my head
I’m stranded in this nameless place
Lying restless in a heavy bed

And one section from a little later on

I walk by tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season’s dawn awaits
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate

Beneath the thunder blasted trees
The words are ringin’ off your tongue
The ground is hard in times like these
Stars are cold, the night is young

The rocks are bleak, the trees are bare
Iron clouds go floating by
Snowflakes fallin’ in my hair
Beneath the gray and stormy sky

I can’t think of many other songs that take us so deeply into the sense of place that the singer inhabits in this song.  It is one of the most extraordinarily powerful pieces of writing in popular music of all times.

One of the most, because I can’t really say which is the most.  But right up there has to be

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

I think that those of us who adore Visions of Johanna so much, from Poets Laureate to Heylin with his analysis of line changes and recording sessions to regular everyday commentators like me, all find ourselves drawn into this place.  I know this room, I know the view across the street, I know the sounds.

What is so extraordinary about the sense of place here is that it is so instant – one minute you are in your own real world, the next, there you are in that place.  Looking, watching, feeling.

Of course the place doesn’t have to be somewhere we recognise, or somewhere that makes any sense.  The Watchtower is neither.  Nor is Desolation Row

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlour is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

This is a multiplicity of places – the images fall across each other so rapidly that we can’t quite pin anything down except that we know from line one that this is the horror show of all times.   If there are mists circling around the Watchtower, they have all cleared here and now we see the nightmare and find it is right inside our heads.


I want to end what is little more than an introduction to the notion of Dylan’s stories of places with one of the most evocative “place” songs of all, Dark Eyes

Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside
They’re drinking up and walking and it is time for me to slide
I live in another world where life and death are memorized
Where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls and all I see are dark eyes

Just how much of another world do we want to enter?  How far beyond the “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks” can we travel?   How deep and dark can we get.   Dylan in fact suggests he can go as dark and deep as you want, into an underworld we hardly suspected existed.

This is not a good place at all, but it is part of Dylan’s stories of places.

Oh, the French girl, she’s in paradise and a drunken man is at the wheel
Hunger pays a heavy price to the falling gods of speed and steel
Oh, time is short and the days are sweet and passion rules the arrow that flies
A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes.

I’ve never explored this notion before of Dylan’s sense of place, and I am still coming to terms with it, but I hope you find something here that gives a further insight into Dylan’s writing.


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