The lyrics and the music. An attempt to show that analyses of Dylan’s music that focus just on the lyrics can miss the point. An index to previous articles in the series appears at the end. Today: Shelter from the Storm
By Tony Attwood
It is of course a temptation in this little series considering the music and the lyrics of Dylan as two sides of the same coin, to focus as most people do on the lyrics, and see the music as simply a vehicle upon which the lyrics travel. In short to reject the standard notion that the lyrics are everything and the music is incidental, and replace it with the idea that the music and the lyrics are equal partners in each song.
And if we were looking for a song that would act as evidence for this notion we would surely hit sooner or later on “Shelter from the Storm”. Not least because the song consists of verse after verse without any musical variation and with each verse consisting of four lines of two bars of music that does not vary at all.
If one can imagine never having heard this song before it must seem quite ludicrous that this song with its minimal musical content and a quarter of the lines being a constantly repeated chorus line, can maintain any interest. There is no clear story line (athough of course as with so many Dylan songs a story line can be put together if one works at it for a bit, and ignores the odd moment where lines seem to be totally out of place).
Also if then a potential story is found it never really quite gets resolved: she has welcomed him in from the wilderness and shelters him, and then… well we are not quite sure.
And yet against this the music is as conventional and standard as it can get. The chord sequence, which controls where the melody can go, is repeated endlessly and is as simple as it can get…
D A G D
And that is all we have. That same sequence over and over again. Four times in each verse and that’s it. Ten verses, and not only are all the verses the same, so every line is identical in terms of the chord sequence, which of course controls where the melody can go. 40 identical lines in terms of chord sequence, with lines two and three being similar and the last line of each verse always being identical to the standard format laid down at the end of verse one.
Thus the music sets a very clear scene: this is a world of unchanging continuity, it goes on and on and on. But what we learn from the start is that the song is about “another lifetime, one of toil and blood, When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud.”
Which is certainly strange – for this seems to be in total contradiction of the gentle world portrayed by the music. This is a simple musical land, and yet it portrays a world of “the wilderness,” and the character singing the song was “a creature void of form” who was welcomed in by a female entity and who says, “I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.”
So what is the storm? We don’t know, and no attempt is made to tell us. It is whatever we want it to be.
And even more confusingly we immediately seem to be at the end of the adventure for the second verse begins, “And if I pass this way again,” which surely sounds like the end, not verse two of a 14-verse song.
In effect what we have got is…. Well, what have we got? A very confusing song lyrically, with a very, very simple musical accompaniment. And that is the musical / lyrical secret of Dylan’s work. The two can fit together or they can contrast. One can illuminate the other or seem to be pushing against the other. He tries every way of doing it.
This contradiction, or perhaps one might say “this contrast” (but I do hear it as a contradiction) is pointed to, with the third verse…
Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved Everything up to that point had been left unresolved Try imagining a place where it's always safe and warm Come in, she said, I'll give ya shelter from the storm
And that notion of everything being unresolved is utterly clear, for the lyrics resolve nothing, while the music doesn’t have to resolve anything, because it is already as simple as it could be.
What is interesting however is that few commentators note the torment that the singer is in – the exhaustion, the crocodiles etc – from which he is rescued before she walks in, removes the Christ-like crown and helps him out.
In short what we have is a world of total trial and tribulation in terms of the singer, and the peace and tranquility of the rescuer. The lyrics thus become the torment while “she” is tranquility.
Now at this point it must have been very tempting to give the two characters different music, but no it is calm, and gentle all the way through, as if it is the world that is calm and gentle and is always so, it is just human kind that turns it into torment.
For it doesn’t matter what happens to the singer – he can be exhausted, buried, poisoned, hunted, ravaged, and always she says “I’ll give you shelter.”
Thus it becomes clear that whatever else, the music is the continuity (as noted it doesn’t change; it is the same chord sequence over and over) and the continuity is the gentility and well-being of the world. And that world of gentility and grace is always there, no matter what. Like the never changing chord sequence, it is eternal.
Indeed even when “somethin’ there’s been lost, I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed,” she is there offering shelter from the storm.
In fact, as we progress through the song the message is ever more clear – the gentle world portrayed by music is always there. The turbulent every ever-changing world is also there, but it can be calmed by the music. The music always triumphs over the turmoil of the lyrics.
Thus we can see now where we are. The lyrics portray a world of doubt and uncertainty. The melody however remains unchanging.
But for the seeker of peace and tranquility and harmony it all feels “livin’ in a foreign country” in which “Beauty walks a razor’s edge,” but ultimately there is no need to worry or suffer. Because the music doesn’t change, and although the lyrics take us through torment and tribulation, ultimately the Goddess will be there offering “shelter from the storm.” And she is there because the music has never changed. In the world of total turbulence, she is still there, still offering to “give ya shelter from the storm.”
The message is clear, the harmony and gentleness of the world is within the music – it is always there if we wish to take it. Or we can choose tumult expressed in the words. That too is eternal so it is up to us. For she is there, hands out.
“Come in,” she said “I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.” Not just today, but always.
The lyrics and the music: the series…
- Series intro: 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
- Foot of pride
- It ain’t me babe
- Not Dark Yet
- Sign on the window
- High Water, a rise, a fall, a bounce, a flood