“Foot of Pride” is quite a problematic piece to tackle in terms of this series of articles on the music AND the lyrics. After all, the music that we have consists of a non-changing beat, guitar parts that only marginally change as the piece continues, and chord changes based on the traditional 12 bar blues with a couple of extra chords added into the “no going back” chorus at the end of each verse.
How then can this piece be considered an example of how Dylan’s songs can be best understood by considering it in terms of both music and lyrics (which is the essence of the articles in this series).
The point, I believe, is that the lyrics are either meaningless as a whole or difficult to disentangle from the allusions and references on which they are built. And to be clear I don’t mean that if the lyrics are meaningless then the song is no good; the notion that life is meaningless is, in my view, a perfectly rational and reasonable position to take
Certainly if we look at the opening lines…
Like the lion tears the flesh off from a man So can a woman who passes herself off as a male They sang "Danny Boy" at his funeral and the Lord's Prayer The preacher talking 'bout Christ betrayed It's like the earth just opened and swallowed him up He reached too high, was thrown back to the ground You know what they say about bein' nice to the right people on the way up Sooner or later you gonna meet them comin' down Yeah, there ain't no goin' back When your foot of pride come down Ain't no goin' back
… there is not much there that we can hang on to. Yes, we can evolve a meaning if we really want to work at that, but the meaning here, and in subsequent verses is not leaping out; we have to build our own meaning out of the lyrics – it does not seem to be inherent within them. But if the song is about anything, then surely it is about the chaos of life as everything tumbles around, and we are constantly pushed forward. And such an interpretation takes us back to the meaninglessness of life.
In these circumstances, for such a song to work, we need some certainty within the music and this is what the beat gives us. But we don’t need a melody because that would distract from the eternal chaos of the lyrics – for there is no subsequent clarification. After all, what are we to make of…
There's a retired businessman named Red Cast down from heaven and he's out of his head He feeds off of everyone that he can touch He said he only deals in cash or sells tickets to a plane crash He's not somebody that you play around with much Miss Delilah is his, a Philistine is what she is She'll do wondrous works with your fate Feed you coconut bread, spice buns in bed If you don't mind sleepin' with your head face down in a grave
It is because everything here is chaos that we need something to hang onto – in this case the rhythm. For if we were given a melody in the traditional sense, that would destroy the meaning of the words, for it would have to be in a major or minor key and relate to a series of chord changes that do all the traditional things that a song does.
So Dylan gives us the bleakness of the contradictory words which suggest that all around is chaos, while giving us a background beat and occasional chord changes, plus the “no going back” line which reminds us that everything is moving ever onward into more and more chaos. (Which incidentally is the cosmological view: the universe started as a singularity 13.8 billion years ago, and has been expanding ever since).
It is an incredibly difficult subject to write about in musical terms, and yet Dylan pulls it off, because he knows instinctively when not to use a melody and when to keep that pounding riff going all the way through.
Indeed writing successful songs is as much about knowing what not to do and much as what to do. More than in most songs, these lyrics would not be noticed without the music, and certainly the music would be nothing without the lyrics. The music seems incidental and repetitive, but it is fundamental to the successful delivery of this message within the song that everything is not connected, but is in fact flying apart.
Songs about chaos don’t appeal much to critics; after all how can one write about chaos in a meaningful way? But Dylan does it here, and through the integration of the accompaniment, the declamation and the chaotic lyrics, we get that absolute feeling of what it is about. From the story of chaos, through the perfect balance of lyrics, rhythm and melody reduced to almost nothingness, we get a superb piece of music. And indeed a possible meaning in the title: we feel ourselves to be in control of our lives, but really everything is just a chaotic expansion.
- How most analyses of Dylan’s songs mistake the essence of what the songs are
- Abandoned Love
- Ballad for a Friend
- Drifter’s Escape
- Blind Willie McTell
- Black Diamond Bay
- Can you please crawl out your window
- Chimes of Freedom
- Cover Down Pray Through
- Desolation Row
- Drifter’s Escape
- Early Roman Kings
- Every grain of sand
- It ain’t me babe
- Not Dark Yet
- Sign on the window