Bob Dylan: the lyrics and the music – Gates of Eden

By Tony Attwood

In this series I attempt to show that analyses of Dylan’s songs that focus just on the lyrics can miss the point.  It is the combination of this music with these lyrics that makes the songs as memorable and important as they are.

Nowhere is this more so that in “Gates of Eden” for here, the nine verses of the song Eden are identical, musically.  What’s more, the first two lines of each verse are musically identical and rhyme with each other.   But then the oddness begins

Of war and peace the truth just twists, its curfew gull, it glidesUpon four-legged forest clouds the cowboy angel ridesWith his candle lit into the sun, though its glow is waxed in blackAll except when 'neath the trees of Eden

What happens is that the third line stands alone – different melody, different chords.  And then the fourth line then is repeated at the end of each verse – there is no attempt at rhyme for the last two lines and although the fourth line varies, it always ends “of Eden” – which gives us that anchor point before we venture into the uncertainty of each new verse.

And that is not all that is unusual.   The song has a lilting beat which musically is best described as 6/8, which means each bar of music runs 1 2 3 1 2 3, with the heaviest beat on the first “1” and a lesser beat on the second “1”

    12 3    1 2   3    1 2   3    1 2    3   12 3   12   3   123 123  
Of war and peace the truth just twists, its curfew gull, it glides

It is a persistent pulse that underscores the whole song and which holds the song together musically, along with that consistent rhyme which runs A A B C – another real oddity.

This is all very unusual indeed for anything in the folk or pop music genre, and it gives us a sense of unease because it is not what we expect (although of course if like me you have heard the song a thousand times or more, that disappears over time, but still leaves an edge).

For what we have is a fast 6/8 time, which is unusual for this type of music, a rhyme system of A A B C, which is very unusual indeed, plus a melody in the first line which is repeated in the second line, but then abandoned in the third line with its descending melody, and which in the fourth and final line of each verse is virtually lost totally as the title line is held on virtually one note.

Put all of this together and we have a most curious combination: words that at least at first don’t seem to make sense, the unusual 6/8 time signature, the unusual rhyme system, the repeating melody of the first two lines replaced in the last line of each verse with just the one note except at the very end of “of Eden”.

In my view, it is this musical arrangement of the lyrics that allows the song to work.  Because the lyrics are extremely obtuse we need both a certainty of where we are (hence the repeat of the music of the first line in the second line) and a regularity of the song (every verse is musically the same and ends with the same line).

But the song would not work at all if the music was commonplace and it certainly isn’t. What Dylan does is combine things we can recognise (the lilting 6/8 time, and the rhyme of the first line with the second, plus that repeat of “Gates of Eden” at the end of each verse) with words that pour out across the nine verses like wave after wave hitting us.

Thus we have a combination of things we can hang on to (the rhythm never changes, the first line rhymes with the second, the last line always being the same) and the unexpected (the lyrics are difficult to make sense of – at least without a fair amount of study).

It is this combination of approaches and effects that makes the song so successful and so enduring, despite what appears to be its complexity and bleakness.

To see this one might try to rearrange it as a 12 bar blues in which the lyrics would run

Of war and peace the truth just twists, its curfew gull, it glides
Of war and peace the truth just twists, its curfew gull, it glidesUpon four-legged forest clouds the cowboy angel rides

Of course, if it were a 12 bar blues the lyrics would be changed, but one can feel at once how hopeless the quest to make a song out of this would be using the 12 bar approach.  The oddness of the words need the bleakness of the melody, and the strangeness of the rhyme scheme.   But there has to be something in there that holds it all together, and that repeated first line of music, and the certainty of the fourth line gives us that.

This is indeed Dylan’s instinctive genius for how the song could be unbearable in its bleak lyrics, but bearable through the music.  Anything other than this approach would have left the audience floundering, and the song forgotten as an experiment that didn’t work.


  1. Not merely descriptive as in:

    The clouds , fore, forer, and forest, surrounded by sea gulls, were shaped like horses and each had all of their four legs, and it looked like they were being ridden by cowboys who had wings on them that made them look like they were angels that had flown down from Heaven.

  2. Minor point but when you say the lyrics are ‘obtuse’, I think you mean ‘obscure’ or ‘opaque’. Or at least, I hope you do!

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