“Man Gave Names to all the Animals” – behind the Bob Dylan song

By Tony Attwood

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

So Bob Dylan, newly converted to Christianity, continues probing the Old Testement and this time is back with Genesis.

This is one of those songs that has been a hit in some places and voted one of the worst ever Dylan songs in others.  To me its just a song, a jaunty little piece but not one I’d ever particularly choose to put on to play.

Coming back to it today for the first time in many many years – probably the first time since a month or so after getting the album – I thought, “it’s ok” but had absolutely no desire then to go back and listen to it again.

Maybe for me the problem is enhanced by the fact that although I don’t dislike reggae, I don’t particularly care for it, and in fact the only reggae record I ever bought was “Breakfast in Bed” by Lorna Bennett – which is at the lyrical end of reggae.  (And I was pretty young when I got that).

So there’s not much here to grab me personally, not least because there isn’t much in the song.  We get the chorus six times, and the chorus itself has the line “Man gave names to all the animals” in it twice, and the phrase “in the beginning” three times.   So a Dylan song with the same phrase 18 times in the course of four minutes?  That’s not very Dylan, and by and large I end up feeling it is a bit of a waste of such a supreme talent.

As for the verses – they are ok in a “hear them once and smile” or “sing them to the children” type way (which is actually what I did and they quite liked the song as we did the sounds and signs along the way).

He saw an animal that liked to growl
Big furry paws and he liked to howl
Great big furry back and furry hair
“Ah, think I’ll call it a bear”

And why not?  There’s nothing to say Dylan has to be the presenter of works of artistic merit all the time.   And of course he can write what he wants.  But it just seems a bit weak to put on an album.

As I suggested at the start, different countries saw it in different ways.  The song was a chart hit in France and Belgium, while Rolling Stone made it the fourth worst Dylan song of all time.  The actual Rolling Stone list in case you are interested is

  1.  Wiggle Wiggle
  2. Gotta Serve Somebody
  3. Rainy Day Women
  4. Man Gave Names to All the Animals
  5. Joey
  6. If Dogs Run Free
  7. Lay Lady Lay
  8. Ugliest Girl in the World (with Robert Hunter)
  9. Ballad in Plain D
  10. It must be Santa


But the song itself has been covered by a lot of artists and become a children’s book.  And musically it is very simple with an easy tune based over E minor and B, with the A chord in the third line of each verse giving us that sense that we are going to get the revelation right hereafter – and up the fun bit pops in the final line of the verse.

Dylan played the song 155 times on stage over an 11 year period, and Michael Gray praised it as one of the standout tracks on Slow Train Coming.  So in the end it is a matter of taste.

As a children’s song it is good fun and children love to sing along and act out each animal, and why not?

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  1. This song says that evil is a force in the world and man cannot control it. To give something a name is to have power over it. The snake represents evil …..

  2. Snake…evil??

    “He saw an animal as smooth as glass/
    Slithering his way through the grass/
    Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake”…..

    The next line intended without doubt ‘Think I’ll call it a drake’…..That is, it’s a male duck that is considered evil by Dylan; not a poor little innocent snake for goodness sake….perhaps a cheeky reference by Dylan to the pot-smoking Canadian rapper known as ‘Drake.’ There is simply no need to be jumping to Biblical allusions all the time!

  3. I think one of Bob Dylan’s problems of regularly alienating his fans over the years is that people listening to him seem to demand that he create in a certain way. I find “Man Gave Names to All the Animals “ to be a delightful song, showing Bob to be as capable of light heartedness as anyone. Why should it have to be that an artist who has given us so much to dig into over the years can’t smile once in awhile. And it certainly fits with his inclusions of Biblical references that he’s used in his music from the very beginning.

    I have a classical education beginning with the study of Latin as a base in high school. I went on to college to study literature so I’m very familiar with many of Dylan’s influences. I did not go on to a masters because I had enough of academia. What worked for me once I had a broad literary background was to simply listen to Dylan. The music, his voice inflections, and just his sound and musical phrasing gave all to anybody who could absorb his music in that way.

    I am a visual artist and I know from my own work that an artist on the level of Dylan is not intending to put out a definitive meaning for everyone who listens to him. We all bring ourselves and our personal backgrounds to the art we encounter. If he or anyone like him intended for his art to be perceived in a certain way, he would be no different from the institutions that he chooses to break away from. And that’s my personal opinion.

  4. Joking aside, ‘slam like a drake’ from ‘Please, Mrs. Henry’ is street slang having both a sexual and a drug injecting meaning.

  5. Oddly, Robertson rhymes “lake” with “snake”:

    Little John was struck by a snake over by the lake
    (The Band: The Moon Struck One)

    ie, instead of ‘drake’ ……(lol)

  6. Bill Wither’s song “Grandma’s Hands” (1971) features these lyrics…

    “Might fall on a piece of glass/Might be snakes there in the grass.”

    Also, Esther Phillips cover of Bill Wither’s “Use Me” (1972) opens sounding a lot like the vibe in “Man Gave Name to All the Animals.”

    “Use Me”: https://youtu.be/kNhHIjr6Idg?si=hHoVyxWg_ITFzw3d

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