The Lyrics AND the Music: Every Grain of Sand

By Tony Attwood

In this little series I’ve been trying to explain why I sometimes write as much about the music of Dylan as the lyrics: something that most commentators don’t do very often (or at least that is how it seems to me).

And one song that demonstrates perfectly why one should comment on the music is “Every Gain of Sand”.  The lyrics are of course beautiful and elegant, and it is perhaps because of this we can easily forget how superbly simple but utterly elegant the musical composition is.

Indeed the number of utterly different cover versions of the song should keep us aware of just how much there is in the music.  Which is interesting because the verse of the song opens with three lines based mostly on one note.

What we have is a song that can be performed against a variety of different rhythms, but no matter what rhythmic device is used the first four lines seem to have little to offer in the way of melody, although many arrangers have played around with the percussion to provide some extra interest.

But really all that we have is the end of the second and fourth line to give us variation.  The same music phrase that we hear with “In the time of my confession” is indeed repeated three times, and only “flood every newborn seed” brings us relief.   But as soon as we have that we are back to the original brief and hardly varying melody with a “dying voice within me”.

Indeed if you consider the opening verse that same musical phrase that we hear accompanying “In the time of my confession” crops up no less than nine times.

In the time of my confession, [1] in the hour of my deepest need [2]
When the pool of tears beneath my feet  [3] flood every newborn seed
There's a dying voice within me [4] reaching out somewhere [5]
Toiling in the danger [6] and in the morals of despair

Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment [7] I can see the master's hand [8]
In every leaf that trembles [9], and in every grain of sand

Yet two things save the song.   First the music and the lyrics seem utterly at one.   “Deepest need,”  “Pool of tears,” “Dying voice,” “morals of despair” – these and other brief phrases all are in keeping with the slow repeating music.

But then what happens, after the fourth line, just as we might be feeling (or at least would be feeling on first hearing) that we are going to hear that mournful music forever more, both the music AND the lyrics change at once with

Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break

Suddenly there is not only hope in the lyrics, but also in the music which rises up and just falls back slightly at the end of the line ready to be taken up again.

Now at this point the composer has a problem.  The music has risen above the despair – so what happens now?   A lesser composer might well carry on taking the music up as the chain of events is broken, but no, Dylan takes us back to the original simple line of music to accompany, “In the fury of the moment I can see the master’s hand,” before gently rounding the verse off musically and lyrically, with the line “In every leaf that trembles, and in every grain of sand,” which in both the musical and lyrical sense evokes resolution and calm.

The point is that the lyrics of the song speak of the simplicity of perceiving the Master’s creation – it is there in every grain of sand.   But actually finding a musical accompaniment to such thoughts is hard.   Clearly the music cannot be complex because that would contradict the thought of the words.     But on the other hand if the music is repeated too much it will become too tedious.

Indeed if there is any one moment that shows more than anything Bob’s craftsmanship in handling the music it is with the line “Don’t have any inclination…”

If anyone gets this absolutely spot on in terms of understanding the role the melody is playing here it is Emmylou Harris who changes the way she handles the lines with the “Don’t have any inclination” line, in order to make the final line “every grain of sand” a resolution of certainty.

It is a musical composition which is utterly simple in its construction, but within that has the opportunity to express both a simple and complex idea – the simplicity of the grain of sand and the complexity of creation.

But more than that, this is a strophic song – there is no release from the format of identical verse following identical verse with repeated of musical line interrupted only occasionally.

And this is where this version stands out, although there are many others that can really be appreciated.    If you can, set aside the words just this once, and listen to this as a piece of music without any meaning in the lyrics.   What we have here is a very simple musical offering which works beyond perfection – and that takes genius.

The lyrics and the music series…

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