Dylan’s opening lines (revisited): the top ten (so far)

By Tony Attwood, based on an article written with Dearbhla Egan

About eight years ago Dearbhla and I concocted the idea of noting down some of our favourite opening lines from Dylan songs.  I think at the time the idea was that we would then go further and maybe even make an index of all the opening lines of Dylan’s songs, just because…. well, just because we could.  Perhaps just to see if there was any pattern, or just to see if Dylan was particularly brilliant at opening lines, or whether the lines we all remember come from later in the songs.

Of course, at first it is easy to think of the opening lines that stay with us because they start our favourite songs.  Like the first song on the alphabetical list of opening lines below “Ain’t it just like the night…”   We all know that one.  Brilliant song, brilliant first line.

Anyway, I stumbled on this work that we did and which we published here, but then never went back to, and I wondered if there were more gems to be found.  So I went through all Dylan’s compositions that begin with A or B and added them to the list, just to see what I got.  And really…. it was a little disappointing.  Dylan can do exquisite first lines that stay in the memory forever, but often the first line is just an opener, like the chord played at the start to get us in the mood.    In short, the opening line doesn’t seem to be that vital to Dylan when writing a song.   Which is probably why Dearbhla and I stopped making our list.

But since no one else seems to have done an index of Dylan’s opening lines, I thought maybe I would re-publish what we did, and then go on and gradually finish it, so there is an index of Dylan’s opening lines on the internet.

Mostly I wanted to look at this again because even in this list of just about one sixth of Bob’s full list of compositions that have lyrics, there are some gems.   Such as that first one (Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?).   I mean, how can one write a more amazing first line than that?

Now in pondering all of this I thought I would develop my own list of Dylan’s ten best openers, as I remember them at the moment.   And then see if by building a complete list of Dylan’s opening list (complete in the sense that I am for the moment only considering songs where the lyrics have actually been published).  Here is my list for now.

  1. Darkness at the break of noon.
  2. Far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toll.
  3. I can hear the turning of the key
  4. If you see her say hello.
  5. My love she speaks like silence.
  6. Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside.
  7. Shadows have fallen and I’ve been here all day…
  8. The pawnbroker roared also so did the landlord.
  9. Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances.
  10. You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend.

I’m going to plod on through the rest of the songbook and pick out some more favourite opening lines and publish one or two more updates on “Dylan’s opening lines” – if you would like to add any, please do make a comment and I’ll put them in the list.

So here we go…

Dylan’s opening lines… from a list that will be continued.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?  (Visions of Johanna)

All the early Roman kings in their sharkskin suits bow ties and buttons high top boots (Early Roman Kings)

All the tired horses in the sun (All the tired horses)

Are you ready, are you ready? (Are you ready?)

As I went out one morning ( As I went out one morning)

As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden, the wounded flowers were dangling from the vines (Ain’t Taking)

At the time of my confession, and the hour of my deepest need (Every grain of sand)


Band of the hand (Band of the hand)

Been so long since a strange woman slept in my bed… (I and I)

Beyond the horizon, behind the sun, at the end of the rainbow, life has just begun.  (Beyond the horizon)

Black Rider Black Rider you been livin’ too hard (Black Rider)

Buckets of rain, buckets of tears (Buckets of rain)

Bye and bye, I’m breathin’ a lover’s sigh (Bye and Bye)


Come around you rovin’ gamblers, and a story I will tell. (Rambling, Gambling Willie)

Crimson flames tied through my ears, rollin’ high and mighty traps (My back pages)


Darkness at the break of noon (It’s all right Ma, I’m only bleeding)


Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing (Up to Me)


Far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toll  (Chimes of Freedom)

Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel (Dignity)


Go away from my window, leave at your own chosen speed (It Ain’t Me Babe)

God said to Abraham “Kill me a son” (Highway 61 Revisited)

Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride (Dirt Road Blues)


He sits in your room, his tomb, with a fist full of tacks (Can you please Crawl out Your Window)

Hollis Brown he lived on the outside of town (Ballad of Hollis Brown)

Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun  (Romance in Durango)

How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? (Blowing in the wind)


I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you (All I really want to do)

I can hear the turning of the key (Abandoned Love)

I crossed the green mountain, I slept by the stream (‘Cross the green mountain)

I hate myself for lovin’ you and the weakness that it showed (Dirge)

I ain’t looking to compete with you (All I really want to do)

I love you more than ever, more than time and more than love (Wedding Song)

I love you pretty baby (Beyond here lies nothing)

I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze (Balled in Plain D)

I woke in the mornin’, wand’rin’ wasted and worn out (Black crow blues)

If I had wings, like Noah’s dove  (Dink’s Song)

I’m walking through the summer nights, jukebox playing low (Standing in the Doorway)

I’m walkin’ through streets that are dead (Love Sick)

If today was not an endless highway (Tomorrow is a long time)

If you find it in your heart, can I be forgiven?  Guess I owe You some kind of apology  (Saving Grace)

If you see her say hello (If You See Her Say Hello)

If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait (This wheel’s on fire)

In the lonely night, In the blinking stardust of a pale blue light (Born in Time)

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need (Every Grain of Sand)

I’ve just reached a place where the willow don’t bend (Going Going Gone)

I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land (115th Dream)

I woke in the mornin’, wand’rin’ (Black Crow Blues)


Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement talking ’bout the government. (Subterranean Homesick Blues)



Like a lion tears the flesh off of a man, so can a woman who passes herself off as a male. (Foot of Pride)


Man thinks, cuz he rules the world, he can do with it as he please (Licence to kill)

May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true (Forever Young)

My love she speaks like silence. (Love Minus zero / No Limit)

My name is Donald White, you see (Ballad of Donald White)


Nobody feels any pain (Just like a woman)

Now the ragman draws circles up and down the block  (Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again)


Of war and peace the truth just twists, it’s curfew gull it glides (Gates of Eden)

Oh I’m sailing away, my own true love. (Boots of Spanish Leather)

Oh, the benches were stained with tears and perspiration (Day of the Locusts)

Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside (Dark Eyes)

Oh, help me in my weakness  (The Drifter’s Escape)

Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble, ancient footprints are everywhere. (When I Paint my Masterpiece)

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?  (Hard Rain)

Old man sailin’ in a dinghy boat (Apple suckling tree)


Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night  (Hurricane)



Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams (Ring them Bells)


Sad I’m a-sittin’ on the railroad track (Ballad for a friend)

Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying this land is condemned (Blind Willie McTell)

Shadows have fallen and I’ve been here all day,  (Not Dark Yet)

She’s got everything she needs she’s an artist she don’t look back (She Belongs to Me)

Sometimes I’m in the mood, I wanna leave my lonesome home (Baby I’m in the mood for you)

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.  (Idiot Wind)

Some of us turn off the lights and we live in the moonlight shooting by (Red River Shore)

Something there is about you that strikes a match in me (Something there is About You)

Standing on the waters casting your bread while the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing? (Jokerman)

Stake my future on a hell of a past (Silvio)


Ten thousand men on a hill (Ten Thousand Men)

The air is gettin’ hotter, there’s a rumblin’ in the sky, (Lucinda Williams Tryin’ to get to Heaven)

The pale moon rose in its glory out on the Western town (Tempest)

The pawnbroker roared also so did the landlord (She’s your lover now)

The river whispers in my ear, I’ve hardly a penny to my name (Tell Ol Bill)

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief (All along the Watchtower)

There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain, tears on the letter I write. (Where are you Tonight?  (Journey through Dark Heat))

There’s guns across the river aimin’ at ya (Billy 1)

They’re selling postcards of the hanging (Desolation Row)

They say everything can be replaced, yet every distance is not near (I Shall be Released)

Twas another lifetime, one of toil and blood (Shelter from the Storm)

Twilight on the frozen lake (Never say Goodbye)


Up on the white veranda, she wears a necktie and a Panama Hat  (Black Diamond Bay)



Well, if I had to do it all over again (All over you)

Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances (Angelina)

Well, the Lone Ranger and Tonto they are ridin’ down the line (Bob Dylan’s Blues)

Well, there was this movie I seen one time about a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck. (Brownsville Girl)

Well, my nerves are exploding and my body’s tense (Til I fell in love with you)

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it (Absolutely Sweet Marie)

What’s the matter with me, I don’t have much to say (Watching the River Flow)

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime too (Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues)

While riding on a train goin’ west I fell asleep for to take my rest (Bob Dylan’s Dream)

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carrol with a cane that he twirled round his diamond ring finger (The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol)



You been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe  (Baby stop crying)

You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand, you see somebody naked and you say “who is that man?”  (Ballad of a Thin Man)

You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend (Positively 4th Street)

There is an index to our current series and most recent posts on the home page.


  1. How could VoJ not be first (Ain’t it just like the night)
    How could IaonBB (You must leave now, take what you need) not be on the list when it probably should be second.

    There are so many good choices, but those two…

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