Dylan: the lyrics and the music. Chimes of Freedom

by Tony Attwood

When I started this little series dedicated to considering Dylan’s songs from the point of view of the music and the lyrics together (rather than, as many people do, just focussing on the lyrics) it was to put forward the idea that the music of Dylan is of as much importance in many cases as the lyrics.

What I hadn’t really thought about was the fact that sometimes Bob has created a song with the most astounding lyrics but with music that doesn’t explore the full potential of the lyrics.

So to be clear this is not to put forward the argument that sometimes Dylan’s music making is no good – rather than on at least this one occasion (Chimes of Freedom) – he simply didn’t see the potential within the music of the song, and instead focussed mostly on the lyrics.

True he did perform Chimes 47 times (according to SetList– for some reason I can’t get onto the official Dylan site today to check that number but I guess it is right) but others have performed it more.   And if we take this version below, with the Grateful Dead, we can hear that at this point Dylan seems actually to be reducing the musical content of the song rather than exploring it and developing it.

And yet when others have taken up the song they’ve had no difficulty in understanding its musical possibilities far more than Dylan.   And so in this article I want to present three other versions of the song which I have brought forth before, to show just how much musical potential the composition has.

If we go back to the original we can hear that there is of course a melody that is part of the song, although there is also quite an emphasis on the same note sung over and over, as with such lines as

An' midnights broken toll We ducked inside the doorway, Struck shadows in the sound Seeming to be the chimes 

An' for each an' every underdog soldier

Each of those lines is fundamentally sung on one note, and since the song is strophic – which is to say it is verse, verse, verse without any break for a chorus or middle 8, we get that repeated one note pattern in each of the six verses, which of course means 18 times.  18 lines of just one note – which really is quite a lot.

Now this is not to suggest the song is imperfect – the one note lines make for a powerful message, and that I think was clearly Dylan’s intention as the solo folk singer he then was.

But the interesting thing from a musical point of view is what happened when others got hold of the song.   And I write “others” deliberately because if we listen to Dylan playing the song much later with the Dead, although the melody is changed, it is still not developed.  Rather the song becomes a declamation of the lyrics.

Now what I am going to do below is set out three versions of the song which I have cited before – so if you have been kind enough to read my “cover a day” reviews (and rather amazingly, remember the series) I am sorry, I’m repeating my examples, but I feel I need to do this to make the point.  And I chose those examples then, because in my view they are the best covers.  Or at least the best of those I can remember.

So, I think Dylan himself focussed on the lyrics – and indeed he has every reason to do so, because they are brilliant and forceful.  But in doing this he has not realised just how much potential those lyrics, combined with his chord sequence, actually offer.   And I believe this happens because having composed those lyrics, he would have known he had created a masterpiece.   Plus since he probably had several other masterpieces bubbling away inside him at the time, why spend hours thereafter on a melody, when it was clear that the song was one that already had enough in it to be remembered?

To back that point up, we might recall that the song was written at the start of 1964.   In 1963 he had written 31 songs (an astounding feat in itself) including multiple masterpieces from Masters of War to Restless Farewell.  In 1964 there were 20 compositions, of which this was the second.  It was followed by Mr Tambourine Man, another masterpiece of course, but also one which is a much more melodic song.

So the masterpieces were pouring out of Dylan one after the other, and there’s nothing in the rulebook that says each one should have a stunning melody, or indeed realise the potential of every element within it.  All I am trying to point out is that Dylan chose at this point to let the lyrics do all the talking, and leave the melody stark.

And yet, and yet… as I think can be seen in retrospect, all that potential was there.  And indeed I guess this is why I have so happily plodded along with the Dylan Cover a Day series (there’s a list of the songs covered at the end of each article), which I started to write during the covid lockdown when the regulations where I live were that there could be no gathering of people together (except as it turns out, parties for members of the government – but that’s a different matter).  So the series helped me pass the time of day.

Thus I presented these three cover versions of Chimes of Freedom.  I’m offering them here again to make the point that the potential of a really interesting melody often exists within Dylan’s songs, even when he does not choose to explore it in his own original recordings – or indeed with later re-workings on stage.

So here we go, one more time… each is very different so if you play one and it is not to your taste, I would beg you, please do go on and try the others, if you don’t know them already.

Starry-eyed and laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time and we watched with one last look
Spellbound and swallowed ’til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, 
                                 strung-out ones an’ worse
And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Yes indeed.

The lyrics and the music series…

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