Bob Dylan: the lyrics AND the music – Ballad for a Friend

by Tony Attwood

When I wrote a review of this song in 2015, I noted the piece as one of the forgotten Dylan masterpieces and made a few passing references to the music – which (re-reading them now, eight years later) I find are fair enough as far as they go, but… they miss something rather important.  In fact, I find now that I missed out the key issue which is the way the chords work as a background to the melody.

My defence for that error is that although the song was recorded in 1962 hardly anyone has noticed it, and even when I came to write about the song in “A cover a day” I only had one cover version that I could find.  And to my shame I have to admit that I satisfied myself by saying little more than the fact that I thought the band had missed the point of the song.

But there is something else that the cover (linked in at the end of this piece) misses and which helps explains why (in my view at least) the cover doesn’t work.  In the original (above) there is no regularity as to the way Dylan plays the guitar.  Even when he is just playing alternating chords he keeps changing when those two chords alternate in each line, while the melody proceeds over the top.

Now most people, when they play a solo guitar accompaniment to themselves singing, keep the guitar part steady and regular, letting the variation of the song exist in the ever-changing lyrics.

But Dylan keeps on making subtle changes to the length of time he holds onto each chord.   Quite often these are very subtle changes – just a beat or two – but it gives a real feel in the song for the randomness of life which is really at the heart of the song.  As for example in the simple details of the cause of the friend’s death…

A diesel truck was rollin’ slow,
Pullin’ down a heavy load.
It left him on a Utah road.

Now I doubt very much that Dylan actually thought about this consciously.  In my experience when talking to songwriters about the way a song evolves and is played, the answer to “why did you play it like that?” is, as often as not, “I don’t know it just came out like that.”  In short, the great talents feel the music and put in subtle variations, while the regular musicians play the music regularly, making each verse pretty much the same as the verse before, letting the lyrics be the heart of the evolution of the song.  By and large they don’t change the way the chords work.

But it does show that this notion of making the music respond to the lyrics (and sometimes vice versa) was there from the start, albeit (in this song) in a very subtle way.

Now, as I did manage to note before, what we also have here is a clash between the notes played on the guitar, and at times the notes used in the melody.   That itself is something that does turn up in a lot of blues-related songs, so in this regard Dylan is not being particularly unusual – although those subtle clashes do have an emotional impact.

However, when added to this additional set of changes in the way Dylan plays the rotating chords, the music gives us an extra feeling of disconnect, which is what is at the heart of the song.  And this in fact compensates for the fact that, as I did manage to note before, the melody is based around the notes of the chord of A major (A,  C#, E).

So what we have is a melody that doesn’t change that much, and the use of just two chords on the guitar, but a constant variation in the way those two chords are played against the melody.   But then to give constancy, as I did manage to note in the first review, “…his foot is tapping throughout, tapping out the unchanging rhythm of the truck rolling down the road.”

Thus there is this most unusual mix of a regular beat, changing lyrics, regular chords but changing at different times, and regular melody (with variations as we go along).

I’ve always loved this song, right from the moment I first heard it, but never actually worked out before what it is within the song that keeps drawing me back to it.    Yet what we find here is a key to Dylan’s musical world: that ability to take any element of the song and vary it, in the most unexpected ways.

A lot of the commentaries written about Dylan’s songs focus on this effect in terms of the lyrics.   Here we see him doing it in a very, very early composition, within the music too.  I’m rather pleased I have finally understood what makes this song so attractive.

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