Bob Dylan – The lyrics and the music. God Knows

by Tony Attwood

This series of articles represents an attempt to understand the importance of the music as well as the lyrics in Dylan’s songs both when it comes to appreciating the recordings as works of art, and in terms of understanding the meaning of the lyrics.

And “God Knows” is a perfect song to consider from this point of view, both because Dylan introduced an unusual chord change into the music which symbolised the monumental events the song was about.   But then he changed the song between the two album versions we have (the abandoned Oh Mercy version and then the reprised Red Sky version,) and in the second version that use of one particular chord which was there to emphasise the chaos of the overthrowing of the old order is abandoned, making the whole piece much smoother, as if to signify that the change that will take place at the Second Coming will be much more peaceful than imagined in the first version.  The chaos and the anger have gone, and in the later version, the Second Coming is portrayed musically as much more gentle affair.

Thus in the original version the chord structure is hard to ignore even if you don’t know anything about music, because that unexpected chord is so clearly just there, unexpected and knocking you sideways each time.  But by the time of the second version, everything is much smoother as if the Second Coming can be achieved just by arriving and moving the furniture around.

In that way the second version is still a good piece of music, but the connection with the fulsome meaning of the lyrics as derived from the Book of Revelations is simply not there.

To go back to the Red Sky version, the music makes it clear musically around the 25-second mark that there is something very odd going on (at the “ain’t anybody”).  It is not very clear in that first verse but you can hear it again in the second verse with “no more water, but fire next time.”

After that, the song is incredibly conventional in its chord sequence using an approach that can be heard in hundreds of songs, until we come back to the third verse – before the instrumental break where again the music makes it clear that everything is falling apart, while at the same time being rebuilt.

And that was what Bob was up to introducing a chord change that he had never used before or since (or at least as far as I can remember).  He was giving us the music to symbolise the Second Coming, just as the lyrics did.

Apart from that, basically, the song is a straight rock piece but, originally it accommodates the lines

God knows it's terrifyingGod sees it all unfoldThere's a million reasons for you to be cryingYou been so bold and so cold

by having a chord change which symbolises the change expressed in the lyrics.  Dylan gives us a musical edge to match with the power and terror of the words.

But by the time the version that appears on Tell Tale Signs was recorded, the power and certainty of the original recording had gone.   As a result that augmented chord has gone.   The message is softer, as is reflected in the music.  OK there is going to be a Second Coming, except that well, really, that’s no longer such a big deal.

Fortunately, we can still compare the two approaches on “Under the Red Sky” and the “Tell Tale Signs” (the version originally recorded for Oh Mercy).  And here is the chord sequence.

Bb                   Eb
God knows you ain't pretty
Bb             Eb
God knows it's true
Bb               Bb+
God knows there ain't anybody
G               Bb
Ever gonna take the place of you

The unusual chords – the ones that make the whole song sound so utterly different are the Bb+ and the G.   Neither chord appears normally in pieces in Bb.   Bb+ is the regular Bb chord of Bb, D and F but with the F changed to an F#.   It adds a real clash to the music since the note of F sharp (F#) has nothing to do with the chord of Bb.

Then to make matters more strange that clashing chord is followed by the chord of G major which is not normally found in pieces in this key either.

Now even if you know nothing about music, and haven’t a clue what all this Bb+ stuff is about, I suspect you can hear that the music does something different at the end of the third and start of the fourth line.

But this is not a composer just throwing in a new chord to liven up what would otherwise be a fun, but not particularly outstanding, piece announcing the end of the world as we know it.  It is there to emphasise that this song is about making a difference – and not just any old difference but a difference made by the Almighty.

Using such an out-of-place chord is not something that Dylan has done very often, and it was clearly introduced here to give the musical emphasis to the words.  Indeed if the music had been much more conventional and without any unexpected almost jarring chord in that third line, it would have been much harder to make sense of the whole piece.

But what is so different with this song from those of a decade previously is that Dylan is no longer telling us that if we don’t accept God as our lord and master in all things, then no matter what good deeds we do along the way, we are going to burn in eternal torment when the Second Coming occurs.  The message in the earlier era was clear and simple: if we have not admitted that God is omnipotent, omnipresent and desiring of worship, then we’ve had it.

There are other differences of course, not least the fact that Red Sky’s version has a very odd fade out during the performance of the verse.  Artistically it is very odd, to the point of being weird, but in terms of making the music reflect the meaning of the lyrics it is perfect.   Because with the Second Coming, there is now eternity in a perfect world.   What better way to symbolise that, than by not having an ending to the music.

I have to admit I didn’t realise that when I first reviewed this song for Untold Dylan, and my original version proclaiming that there was no artistic reason for the fade-out mid-verse is still on the site if you want to find it.   But then, I’ve always tried to admit my mistakes – and my mistake there was to ignore the fact that this was a piece of music and a religious proclamation in the lyrics.  Once we have that, all is clear.


  1. The chord change is not nearly as startling as it’s made out to be as far as I can tell, ie knocks one sideways!

    A hyperbolic nursery rhyme, an analogy-in-waiting, perhaps

    Little kids burning up like black crows in a pie.

    Seems more like facts are shifted around by the analyser, said smoothed out, to fit the theory ad hoc that a slight change in music makes a big difference to the overall meaning.

    That is, prsented it could be said instead is that a theme of secularized recurrent change (good times , followed by war and famine) ~ not a spectular Second Coming, – there is no mentioned Christ around to save everyone from, say, nuclear war, including the crows.

    The ‘message’ remains unclear, open, chord change or no.

  2. For the last 15 years or so, I had always assumed that “God Knows” was among Dylan’s good old kiss-off songs, along the lines of “Don’t Think Twice”, “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way”, and so on. I suppose my assumption was candidly based on a literal interpretation of the first verse. The recurring phrase “God knows” would be there merely as a reinforcing testimony for his statements, perhaps to add some theatrical solemnity to them. From that viewpoint some lines seemed indeed a little bit weird to me, but then again, if I have always loved Dylan is because of the surrealism (which doesn’t mean absurdity, but unconscious association of thoughts and feelings) of his lyrics.

    Therefore, reading that the song is about the Second Coming has been kind of a shock to me, although I now feel less guilty for thinking this is damn good song, since the subject turns out to be much more interesting and deep than I previously thought.

    However, some things are still not clear to me. If I compare the first verse from the two extant versions, the “Oh Mercy” version (“God knows I need you / God knows I do / God knows that there ain’t nobody / Ever gonna take the place of you”) seems, at least at first glance, to belong to a song clearly about a love relationship (either requited or unrequited), while the “Red Sky” version is deliberately more ambiguous. By juxtaposing “God knows you ain’t pretty” with “God knows there ain’t anybody / Ever gonna take the place of you” he is opening the field for different meanings and interpretations that escape his control. Most likely that is precisely what he wanted as a poet.

    Therefore, perhaps he just wanted to keep the ambiguity between the religious reading and the love relationship reading. That wouldn’t be really surprising at all. In many of his good old kiss-off songs, you can’t be competely sure whether (or, perhaps more exactly, to what degree) he is dismissing Edie Sedgwick, Joan Baez, the folk scene, journalists, music critics, American society at large, himself or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm, during the 60s Dylan’s songs managed to mingle his feelings to specific love interests with his feelings to broader sectors of society (some of the best examples would be “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” or “Pledging My Time”), and perhaps later on they managed to mingle his feelings to specific love interests with his feelings to the transcendent (maybe something close to the “Eternal Feminine”, as Goethe put it and the complete discography of The Rolling Stones unintentionally expresses).

    Be that as it may, I think that the key to decipher the real meaning of this song lies in the pronoun “it”, which appears repeated several times. “God knows it’s a struggle”. Yeah, but what exactly is a struggle? “God knows it’s a crime”. Sure, but what exactly is a crime? In my original reading of the song, I assumed that “it” was the relationship between the narrator and his love interest, or perhaps some specifically significant incident within that relationship. But, if the song is to be about our escathological prospects, what is “it” that was supposed to last a season and that could snap apart right now? Life itself? Life is certainly fragile and terryfing, but what’s the point of stating that “God doesn’t call life a treason”? The first appearence of the pronoun “it” is in “God knows it’s true”, so are we talking all the time about my (moral? existential?) ugliness? Or perhaps there isn’t a single reference for all the “it” occurrences? This may be true, but doesn’t help a lot. Well, I will keep on listening.

    P.S.: By the way, I think we should not be discussing “what did Bob Dylan really mean when he wrote this and that”, but rather “what was Bob Dylan trying to express when he wrote this and that”, or in other words, “what did the Muse really mean when he told Bob Dylan this and that”. I think Bob Dylan is trying to understand the messages he delivers exactly like we are trying to, and perhaps we can be of some help to him through our interpretations. If he had wanted and been able to say something else, perhaps something more striaghtforward, he would have said something else, perhaps something more striaghtforward. “I got my black dog barkin’ outside my yard, I could tell you what he means if I just didn’t have to try so hard”.

  3. I forgot, concerning the somehow odd fade out of the song, to me it conveys the impression that the narrator is already starting to walk that million miles by candlelight, so that his voice is moving away from me, which perhaps I should take as an invitation to move along with him. I’m mostly sure that wasn’t on Dylan’s mind at the time of recording or producing the song, but then again I’m mostly sure that doesn’t matter very much. When listening to a song, reading a book, watching a film, or whatever, the question should not be “what was the artist saying?”, but rather “what can I learn from myself when my soul is briefly reflected in here?”

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