The Lyrics and the Music: Tangled up in blue


By Tony Attwood

Tangled up in Blue from Blood on the Tracks is the fourth most played song by Bob Dylan on tour, having been played over 1600 times on stage between 1975 and 2018.  And I suspect most of us would say, “quite right too”.  It is a staggeringly brilliant song, and a unique composition.

But as ever with Bob Dylan, most reviews of the song have focussed on the lyrics, and here again I suspect most people would say “quite right too” in terms of its acceptance and longevity.

Now the lyrics are attractive not least because they are so confusing from the off…  If I may remind you…

Early one morning, the sun was shiningI was laying in bedWondering if she'd changed it allIf her hair was still red

Her folks, they said, our lives togetherSure was gonna be roughThey never did like mama's homemade dressPapa's bankbook wasn't big enough

And I was standing on the side of the roadRain falling on my shoesHeading out for the East CoastLord knows I've paid some dues getting throughTangled up in blue

We have of course moved within the space of one verse from laying in bed early in the morning with the sun shining, to standing in the rain at the side of the road, without any attempt at explanation.

The question is how can the music reflect these seismic jumps without doing the obvious and having huge bumps in the music?  If you need reminding of the original and want to play it while reading it is here.

What Dylan does musically is set us up for this alternating vision of life by opening with the rocking two chords played very gently.   This opening really does reflect the relaxed lying in bed – and there is a very gentle percussion in the background.  We could lying in bed too…

But then as we get to the jump where he is no longer lying in bed but standing on the side of the road, the percussion ups it a gear to announce we are in a different scene.  Dylan’s voice takes on a greater level of urgency too.  And in this way although the musical background stays the same there is enough change to give the music a sense of that jump from one place to another.

Then we have the instrumental pause, which is a sort of retreat into the earlier reflections and we are back with the first part of the next verse and the reflective “She was married when we first met”.  The pattern is then repeated throughout the song.

But now his voice rises with “We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out west” (which is a pretty dramatic thing to do – at least for most of us who have worked hard and saved money to get a car, and never ever abandoned one – I don’t know what happens in the States but in the UK, abandoning a car is a fairly serious offence, and with all the serial numbers on the engine and bodywork as well as the number plates, it is certain you will be caught).

So what Bob has done here is, he has taken us into the dramatic, in the first part of the verse, and now in the second part as the percussion ups its level once more, we get

She turned around to look at me
As I was walking away
I heard her say over my shoulder
"We'll meet again someday
On the avenue"
Tangled up in blue
The drama therefore is not the ditching of the car (which I think it would be for most people), but her simply walking away.   And walking away where?   Somewhere “out west”.  The image (at least to a UK resident) is this is somewhere remote – and a long way away.
Then it all happens again, although the difference between the two parts musically is reduced, it is still there.  The first part of the verse is
I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I lucky was to be employed
Working for a while on a fishing boat
Right outside of Delacroix
So he’s rambling on just moving from job to job.   But now the second part of the verse gives a suggestion of the slightest sense of… well if not menace, then uncertainty.
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind
And I just grew
Tangled up in blue
So it continues verse after verse – the verses in two parts, and the music subtly different between the two parts.   By the last verse, Bob is more energetic with part one.  He is determined, and he expresses that in the voice, but that relaxed music makes us think this is really just a change of vision, not a change of determination or willingness to get up and go.  He wants to go back again – but really is he going to do it?   I get the impression of a guy saying “This time I really am going to…” but we know he won’t.
So now I'm going back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They're an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter's wives
Don't know how it all got started
I don't know what they're doing with their lives
And then we find the final twist, because although the music once again energizes itself a bit more for the second part of this verse, we find out that for all his engagement in moving on, he hasn’t got anywhere.   He has moved on physically and that is reflected in the music, but in himself, he hasn’t changed at all.
But me, I'm still on the road
A-heading for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point
Of view
Tangled up in blue

Thus those two sections of the verses just keep us on keeping on.   The second part is where the action can take place… but in the end it doesn’t, which is why we constantly come back to the more relaxed, less energised part one.

The difference between the opening eight lines, and the last five, signified by the slight rise in musical energy and the percussive introduction of the last five lines, is subtle.   Had it been aggressive and overt it would never have worked.

But it does here.  It works brilliantly because the music so perfectly symbolises that the singer, for all his bravado about moving on, for all the upping of the energy, is still stuck.  The music always comes back to where it started.

Of course, the lyrics are excellent, and most of us I am sure can recite them by heart, but if Dylan had not got that subtle musical difference between the first eight and the last five lines of each verse, it would not have become the work of genius that many of us feel it to be.

And there is one final point: the relaxed section is eight lines, the energised section is shorter.  He really is tangled up in blue – most of the time.  It is just the occasional burst of energy that gets him going, but in the end he always slips back.

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