Dylan: the lyrics and the music. Caribbean Wind

By Tony Attwood

As we all know, Bob was never satisfied with Caribbean Wind.   It got one public outing in November 1980 and that was it.  It turned up on Biograph, and a recording of the live version have circulated.

I’ll put the live version at the end, but here’s the one other version we have

I’ve quoted this comment from Dylan before on the song, but it is worth repeating…

“I couldn’t quite grasp what [‘Caribbean Wind’] was about, after I finished it. Sometimes you write something to be very inspired, and you won’t quite finish it for one reason or another. Then you’ll go back and try and pick it up, and the inspiration is just gone. Either you get it all, and you can leave a few little pieces to fill in, or you’re trying always to finish it off. Then it’s a struggle. The inspiration’s gone and you can’t remember why you started it in the first place. Frustration sets in.”
– Bob Dylan (to Cameron Crowe)

I get the impression from that quote that it is the lyrics that have disturbed him, not the music.  And of course he is the composer so he knows what’s what.  But I do think that if we consider the music and the lyrics together the song moves toward being a composition that can be seen as an absolute masterpiece.  The problem with it (and I do agree there is a problem) is the instrumental break between the verses – and possibly the unexpected A minor chord at the end of the chorus – of which more in a moment.

So, there are two musical structures in the song: the verse which musically is repeated four times and the chorus which starts “And them Caribbean winds still blow”.

What distinguishes one from the other is the music rather than the lyrics because, and so I am on dangerous ground now, because I am saying Bob got it wrong.  The lyrics are wonderful; it is the music at the end of the chorus that goes wrong.

Of course we take Bob’s word for how he felt, but for ourselves as outsiders, listening in to the finished song and focussing on music AND lyrics there is something very special here – and the problem with it becomes clear because that section of the music that is wrong is the section that removes itself totally from the lyrics.

The point is that the lyrics are phenomenally complicated – so complex indeed that Bob himself doesn’t know what the piece is about. But the music is simple in structure (standard chords in the key of G for example as shown below taken from Dylan Chords).

So in the verse, there are no unexpected chords, no blues chords (such as F or Bb – chords which are not part of the classical structure of a song in G), and a musical presentation which again is a fairly standard approach for a song.  It is in the classic 4/4 time that almost all popular songs use.  It has a descending bass line in the third line which Dylan loves to do (think “Sad Eyed Lady” for example), but the whole verse is bought to the fore by the way the standard chords are mixed in the opening lines, followed by the more classical use of the chords in the chorus.

But there is that very strange instrumental section after each verse, which comes after the very fluid and classic blues construction, which starts with “nearer to the fire” which itself is slightly odd, as it leads into the next verse.  It is a section which is very unDylan and completely unexpected.  Indeed even after listening to the song multiple times, that instrumental section still sounds very odd and indeed ill-fitting after the perfectly constructed chorus.

So I am arguing that the bits between the verses are completely ill at ease with the rest of the song and I suspect that if Bob had ever returned to the piece he might have dealt with the last line of the chorus and ditched the instrumental section.

So what makes the song so interesting is the combination of the music and the lyrics.  The lyrics are indeed mysterious throughout, but the music bounces us along using standard chords, but has a real distinction between the two parts in the structure.

The verse runs

G  Bm
Em  C
G  Bm Em D C (F C)

While the chorus runs

F  C  C  G
F  C  C  G
F  C  C  G
F  C  Am

and everything is fine until theAm.

What is Dylan trying to signify between the verses?  Mystery?  Strangeness?  We don’t need it, in my view, because we already have that in the lyrics.   Why do we need a break at all between the verses?   Bob isn’t saying, and I’ve got no idea.

And indeed I would, with temerity, argue that Bob has made a mistake.  What he has is a song with hard-to-comprehend lyrics against a fine melody and two chord structures (one for the verse and one for the chorus) which fit perfectly together, but each signify their own part of the structure of the song.   The musical intermission between each verse is, in my view as a listener, just not needed.   I am fascinated enough by the atmospheric lyrics, the gorgeous musical and lyrical contrast between verse and chorus, plus the interesting melody line.

So why did Bob not think of making any changes later, as he clearly thought there was something wrong.  I suspect he may have tried to fix it by the instrumental section at the end of each verse, and the contrast between verse and chorus.   But for me, he doesn’t need to do anything.  We don’t need to be taken to another world by the instrumental section because the lyrics have already taken us there.

In short, the contrast between verse and chorus is already perfect – it is just that strange instrumental section that makes the whole thing fall apart.

Possibly because of my own musical background I can play the song in my head without that interim musical part (although I find it so jarring it is hard to get it out of my head) which I can also perform with myself singing and on piano (although you will be relieved to know I am not going to force that upon you).   So I have got my version of the song, with the changes that I think Bob would have made if there had not been another song heading into his mind, immediately behind.

Here are two more versions.  The first is a cover, which changes the inter-verse solo, as I’ve argued should happen, and the second is Dylan’s live version.

For the live version the music starts around 2 minutes 30 seconds.

My original commentary, should anyone be interested, is here.   If you have been, thank you for reading.

There is an index to the most recent series on Untold Dylan on the home page.


  1. Rastas believe many of the descendants of King Solomon of Israel and the black Queen of Ethiopia, holders of the Ark of Covenant, get sold across the Atlantic Ocean as slaves to the New Babylon of America which includes the islands of the Caribbean.

  2. An interview imperfectly recalled by Paul Williams in the second volume of his Performing Artist trilogy is telling. Talking about ‘Caribbean Wind’, Dylan tells him that he’d written something ‘consciously with something of the songwriting techniques he’d used unconsciously in the mid-sixties’, something that ‘functioned on the level of complexity’ of his earlier songs.
    In the early 80’s, it would appear, Dylan was trying to find a way back to writing as he had in the past. In particular, I think, he was trying, or struggling to write as he had before his evangelical period, the songs from which were often rigidly moralistic in content, stripped because they had a didactic purpose and aimed at a directness that had no time or space for the kind of verbal pyrotechnics, for the lyrical freedom and risk-taking that he (and we) enjoyed. They had, in Keats’ words, ‘a palpable design upon us’ and that design meant casting off much of what characterised the greatest and, we might even say, the most ‘typical’ of Dylan’s earlier writing, even as recently as Street Legal. He couldn’t be ‘like [he] used to be’ as nothing could distract from that design.
    By the early 80’s things had changed and a number of most compelling and often exciting songs from that period see an attempt at a return to a more lyrical , uninhibited manner, no longer constrained or hampered by a need to teach, moralise or evangelise, but we sense, I feel, that it’s hard work getting there. On top of that they seem an attempt at writing about something else, but that too is proving problematic.
    The three significantly different versions of ‘Caribbean Wind’, never ultimately completed, suggest a frustrated determination to get things right. Of course Dylan has always worried away at songs to achieve a ‘final end’ but if we listen, to say, repeated attempts at ‘Visions of Johanna’ while rhythms and phrasings and emphases shift, the changes to the lyrics are minimal, whereas ‘Caribbean Wind’ is several times radically re-written.

  3. Not to be confused with King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the following verse from “I And I” by Dylan likely references King David and Bathsheba:

    In another lifetime, she must have owned
    the world, or been faithfully wed
    To some righteous king who wrote psalms
    beside moonlit streams

  4. “here’s the one other version we have”

    There are two more studio versions of Caribbean Wind, neither of which have the ‘Am’ at the end of the chorus:

    One was released on Biograph:

    The other (rehearsal with pedal steel) was released on the Bootleg Series Volume 13 ‘Trouble No More’:

    That Bootleg Series also included the Live at the Warfield Theatre version in improved sound quality:

  5. According to the Old Testament, psalm-writer King David gives thumbs up for his and Bathsheba’s son (Solomon) to become King of Judah:

    “… Assuredly Solomon thy son shall reign after me …” (First Kings 1:30)

    Claimed it is that Solomon goes on to unite south Judah and north Israel

  6. Dylan messes with biblical tales, mixing them together:

    Hear a voice crying ‘Daddy’, I always think it’s for me (Caribbean Wind)


    And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am; for thou didst call me
    And he answered, “I called not, my son …” (First Samuel 3:6)

  7. Mentioned before, there’s Hemingway’s existentialist “Hills Like White Elephants”:

    But it’s only silence in the butternut hills that call (Caribbean Wind)

  8. There be mentioned, as figuratively put by poet William Blake, the basic elements of earth, water, air, and fire:

    “And them Caribbean winds still blow from Nassau to Mexico
    Fanning the flames in the furnace of desire” (Caribbean Wind)

    Reminds of:

    Walk out in the rain
    Walk out with your dreams
    Walk out of my life
    If it doesn’t feel right
    (Walk Out In The Rain: Bob Dylan/Helena Springs)

  9. “Ever meet your accusers in the rain?” (Caribbean Wind) references the Holy Bible:

    …It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die
    Before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face
    And have licence to answer for himself
    Concerning the crime laid against him
    (Acts 25:16)

    Nevertheless, claimed it is, though not mentioned in the Bible, that Christianized Paul eventually ends up beheaded.

  10. “… where her brothers were slain
    By a man who invented iron
    And disappeared so mysteriously”
    (Bob Dylan: Caribbean Wind)

    According to the Old Testament, Tubalcain be the biblical equivalent to ancient mythology’s Vulcan, the forger of tools and weapons from a fiery furnace:

    And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain
    An instructor of every artifice in brass and iron …
    (Genesis 4:22)

  11. According Rastafarians, the Queen of Sheba, black like Jah, is referenced in the verse below:

    I am black but comely
    O ye daughters of Jerusalem
    As the tents of Kedar
    As the curtains of Solomon
    (Song Of Solomon, 1:5 )

    Taken as the canonized version, alluded to are Sheba and Solomon in the following song:

    She was the rose of Sharon
    From paradise lost
    (Bob Dylan: Caribbean Wind)

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