The lyrics and the music: Goodbye Jimmy Reed and the 13 bar blues

“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.


This is a genuine 12-bar blues with a very strange extra instrumental bar at the end of each verse which endlessly must throw anyone who is actually listening to the music, off balance.  It makes the song a 13-bar blues.  In fact, as far as I know, the only 13 bar blues ever recorded.

Just listen to the last line (unaccompanied) of each verse, and then hear that guitar solo – which means that the final line of each verse actually has five beats rather than four.  It really throws everything else in the song in terms of the music, into question.

And the fact is that even if one doesn’t know anything about the construction of songs, the balance and equality of everything within the song is perfect until that last little one-bar guitar solo.  It feels odd… as if one is walking along at a regular pace and then suddenly puts in one skip, but then keeps on walking as if nothing had happened.

The fact is that without that extra bar the song would have a lot less.  It would still be a Dylan song with some intriguing lyrics.  For example

They threw everything at me, everything in the bookI had nothing to fight with but a butcher's hookThey had no pity, they never lend a handI can't sing a song that I don't understandGoodbye, Jimmy Reed, goodbye, good luckI can't play the record 'cause my needle got stuck

but that extra moment, that extra edge, that extra something that throws us all off balance, would not be there.

In the live concerts Bob tended to hold the last note of the melody while the guitar plays the 13th bar, and that lessens the impact somewhat, but it is still there, still that something that makes the song feel slightly out of kilter at the end of each verse.

You're probably wondering by nowJust what this song is all aboutWhat's probably got you baffled moreWhat this thing here is forIt's nothingIt's something I learned over in England

There, you might recall, there is a strange instrumental moment at the end of each verse, which is what Dylan is commenting upon, saying that he just added it to the music because he heard someone else do something like that.  The tale might well be apocryphal but it adds a moment of difference and lightness, and the same is true with the extra bar in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.”  It is just a twist, a bit of fun, a smile, a nod… all those things but captured within one musical moment.

And the reason I spend my time (and your time if you are still with me at this point) featuring this, is that it reveals not only a moment of humour in Dylan, but also a moment of humour expressed in music, which is something that is somewhat rarer.

Bob Dylan, of course, knows the classic musical forms that he plays with, such as the 12 bar blues, inside out and upside down, and so it is natural to have the occasional twist added to the mix.   It is just a little extra, but is a little extra that could only have been added by someone who not only can play and write the music, but also someone who feels and thinks about the musical form.  It’s Bob’s little joke, just like a great Shakespearian actor might occasionally deliberately misquote a line, just because he can.

And just to appreciate Bob’s jokes, consider the above in which he leaves his position as the lead singer and goes over to the piano.   At the very end he has a lovely grin for one of the musicians, as if to say “I don’t know why I did that but I just did,” as if to explain his movement to the piano part way through.

I can’t be sure that’s what it is about, but it fits with that impish extra bar that turns the 12 bar blues that has been heard a billion times into what is probably the one and only 13 bar bar blues ever written

The lyrics and the music: the series…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *