Dylan: the lyrics and the music. Caribbean Wind – Dylan’s musical exploration of evolving uncertainty

Details of earlier articles in the “lyrics and the music” series are given at the end.

By Tony Attwood

What most Dylan fans remember from Caribbean Wind is the chorus (because it is catchy and repeated) and the opening line… because it is the opening line…

She was the rose of Sharon from Pradise Lost

But what, if anything, does it mean?   No one is quite sure and to get an answer one has to indulge in a sport of literary jiggery-pokery (to use the technical musical term) and come up with an answer which others might well disagree with.

But… if we take a step back for a moment and listen not to the opening lyrics, but to the music, something else catches the attention.

However, the trouble here is that if you are not a musician, it is easy to miss what it is that Dylan does in order to catch our attention.  Here are the opening lines with the chords the guitar plays as provided by the Ultimate Guitar website

G                               Bm
She was the rose of Sharon from paradise lost
         Em                           C
From the city of seven hills near the place of the cross.
      G                 Bm            Em         D    C
I was playing a show in Miami in the theater of divine comedy.

And the clue we get in terms of what makes this such an intriguing piece of music is right there in that chord sequence.   Even if you don’t play an instrument I’m hoping you might have seen a few chord sequences, and if you have you might realise that this is really is quite a complex sequence in terms of rock n roll.   Not the most complex by any means, but not your run of the mill normal pop and rock.

Now all the chords in this sequence are not themselves the problem; they are perfectly normal and legit when playing in the key of G, which Dylan is, but what makes the sequence odd and gives us that momentary feel of strangeness is the fact that the sequence – indeed the last two bars of the eight bar sequence, ends on the chord of C major.

What normally happens is that a phrase ends up on the “tonic” the chord around which the whole song is based – the basic chord of the key that the piece is in.   This piece is in G, and it starts on the chord of G, all the chords used are taken from the key of G, so we expect the line to end of G, but then… suddenly Bob ends the opening section on C.

And this is not a one-off.   The next three-line section ending with “disappeared so mysteriously” does the same.  So does the next one (“long arm of the law could not reach”) and the next.

Bob really is making a point here – we are not going back home, we are left hanging in the air, both in terms of the lyrics AND the music.

Then we have the chorus (“And them Caribbean winds”) which also starts and ends its opening line on the chord of C.   So consciously or unconsciously we are now waiting even more than ever to get that resolution back to the chord of G, but no, the next line “Fanning the flames in the furnace of desire” ends on D.   And this pattern is repeated although the final line of the chorus (“nearer to the fire”) , finally, finally, finally gets us back to the basic chord of the whole piece: G.

Now I know this is all a bit techno so here’s the song – and I am hoping you may be able to feel that each section ends on a different chord from where it starts, giving us a feeling that we are still standing, waiting, at the edge of the cliff.

In short we are in a situation in which we are in one key, but we end each phrase on a chord that is away from the main chord of the piece – and this gives a sense of incompleteness – a sense that we are still pushing on.  In short a sense of uncertainty.

And to my mind this is fully warranted because of the lyrics, which are at the pinnacle of Dylan’s uncertainty in his writing.


Now this is how we carry on with each section of each verse, there is uncertainty piled upon uncertainty, and this, in a song where we have references to Jesus, whose position in relation to all questions is normally rather clear – at least when expressed by His followers.

But Dylan has offered us words that are hard to resolve, let alone comprehend, and has matched it with a chord sequence that ends, not on the key chord – the “home” chord, the chord where we started but on a different chord that hangs in the air

In fact only at the end of the chorus, after sixteen lines of music, do we actually come to rest on G, on the base chord of the whole composition.

But still Dylan wasn’t happy with this, maybe thinking we might still not have got the implications, because then he took this one final resolution of the song and removed it for the Genuine Bootleg Series Vol.1. version which has each verse ending on the even more uncertain A minor.

And them Caribbean winds still blow from Nassau to Mexico
Fanning the flames in the furnace of desire
And them distant ships of liberty on them iron waves so bold and free
Bringing everything that's near to me nearer to the fire

Meanwhile of course the lyrics go on changing and changing and changing and if you would like to see just how an ideal place to start is with the Dylan Chords discussion.

Now my point here is simple: Dylan, I think, wanted a very edgy uncertain piece, full of obscure references and as the piece evolved (for me at least) ever greater uncertainty.

I mean what exactly do we make of

Now there’s stars on the balcony, flies buzz my head
Ceiling fan’s broken, there’s heat in my bed
Street band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
She looked into my eyes, I hear the mission bells ring
She said, “I know what you’re thinking, but there ain’t a thing
you can do about it, so you might as well let it be.”

apart from the notion that “there ain’t a thing you can do about it”? as this song evolves and evolves and evolves.

Except what we can hang on to is the musical structure, which allows us to appreciate that this is a song in the form of a song, no matter what the lyrics are doing.

And it is with that thought that we get the clue.   The song is about uncertainty in a world in which the certainty of religion is preached – and the chord sequence reflects this dichotomy, constantly refusing to resolve the music by coming back to the tonic chord – the chord that we hear as being at the heart of the piece.  This chord (G) tells us that the song is “in the key of G” and the other chords flow from that knowledge.

My view, for what it is worth, is that in the end Dylan tried one uncertainty too many by ending the verse on A minor in that variation.   

When the piece gave us a more certain ending we could hold onto it as a piece of music telling us about life continuing, and there being uncertainty within life.   But ending the chorus on a chord that takes us away from the key chord which told us where we were, and adding even more uncertainty, was a step too far for me, even if no one else.
Of course such experiments are always worthwhile, and I think Bob learned a huge amount from such explorations, and there is no need to appreciate the technique to hear it in the music – but I do find it rather helpful to understand what was going on in the music, behind that constant flood of lyrics.

The lyrics and the music: the series…


  1. Surely, the analyst has heard of the biblical Song of Solomon and Milton’s Paradise Lost .

    So it can be said that Dylan’s music serves as a kind of “objective correlative” that augments the uncertainity found in the situation expressed by the lyrics.

    Being able to read musical notation’s a help but not at hand for the great majority of Dylan listeners ….which explains why books of lyrics with comments would far outsell more than ones full of sheet music and comments.

    It’s simply a practical matter of marketing.

  2. Weberman’s book on Dylan mentioned on Expecting Rain says Dylan ofen uses “metonymy” in his song lyrics
    which Weberman claims be words that sound the same (made/maid) – clearly an error

  3. Just to be clear, and as I understand it (so I could be wrong) metonymy is using the an attribute of a noun instead of the noun. The example that is often given in grammar books is “suit” for business executive.

  4. Yes, Weberman mistakenly refers “metonymy” rather than correctly to like-sounding
    ‘ homophones. ‘

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