The lyrics and the music: It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which set out 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.

And having found that out in the first few articles, the series is now continued, because I think we are finding some rather interesting insights into the songs, which maybe some commentators have missed as they focus (perhaps sometimes too much) on set lists and live performances.

An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.


Although it appeared way back on Highway 61, Bob didn’t start playing this song on stage until 1996, but has since stayed with it. at least until 2021.  At least according to the official site.   But now I have taken to checking one or two facts as published on the official site, I find that again Mike Johnson gave us a performance earlier than this in 1988 (The 60s revisited).

So that is the second such issue we’ve come up with on the official site in a couple of days.   I rather suspect that because I wasn’t checking there are quite a few other issues that I’ve just taken from the official site as gospel.  Ooops.

Anyway since I have just looked up the live recording from 1988 let’s have it again…

And this gives us a chance to compare directly with how Bob perceived the song when it appeared on Highway 61 in 1965

But also we have a chance to hear another way in which Bob heard the song at first with the recording from the Bootleg 1-3 album

Now I have to admit that playing these various recordings today, I am drawn far more to the version released on the album in 1965.  However that might well be because that was the first version I heard, and a track I played over and over again on getting the LP.

But I still think it is possible to understand why Bob chose this version for the album, and why it still stands out.   And I really do think this is a perfect example of why when considering Bob and his songs we really must consider more than the lyrics.

The very opening in which we get the guitar first, then percussion and then keyboard one after the other suggests moving on so that by the time Bob sings “Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby,” the music has us there riding with him.

But we also have to remember there are very few words in this song – only 129 if you want the exact number.   And throughout they are accompanied by this lilting music, which has a counterpoint Bob on the harmonica – and it is the harmonica which really does express the dichotomy of the song.

The opening lyrics of the song, although suggesting the singer is now on the mailtrain, don’t actually take us anywhere – they just express the life of the hobo jumping on a train to get from one place to another.

But there is an enigma within the song for the train appears to be both real and not real at the same time as commentators have argued about the meaning of the Double E.  I prefer the thought that this refers to the actual locomotives, which are apparently the largest trains on the railway (railroads) in the USA.

But in effect the actual meaning that Dylan intended really doesn’t matter too much because that lilting melody and accompaniment takes us through the song.   We’re not in too much of a hurry, it just goes along, and besides having been up all night, the singer is hardly going to notice much.

The fact is that everything is carried forth by the lilting rhythm with that descending change in the third line.

And when the instrumental verse comes in before the final sung verse, the harmonica is incredibly plaintive and wanting – especially in the penultimate line of the music.   And indeed the sound of the harmonica there prepares us somehow for the winter time – which of course for the illegal traveller was very much the worst time of year.

Of course there are complexities here and double meanings (not least in the final line) but because of the way the music is performed here we are left with the image of the illegal traveller on the train in the cold just wanting to get across the country to his girlfriend but not having the money to travel conventionally.

It is in fact a perfect matching of the music and the lyrics, the rhythm, and the plaintive melody rising to its height in the third of the four couplets (for example “Well, I wanna be your lover, baby, I don’t wanna be your boss”) that gives us the complete feeling of the train rumbling across the vast American countryside (which is how I, as an Englishman who has not travelled on such trains imagine it).

And this music does indeed fit perfectly after the instrumental break with the final verse.  Any musical arrangement that had been more vigorous would not have accommodated this last section…   It needs to rise in that penultimate couplet before slipping away, as it does with that final notion “when your train gets lost”.

Now the wintertime is coming
The windows are filled with frost
I went to tell everybody
But I could not get across
Well, I wanna be your lover, baby
I don’t wanna be your boss
Don’t say I never warned you
When your train gets lost

I can well understand most writers ignoring the music because the tradition is to fixate on Dylan’s lyrics, but here as in other cases we have seen, without the music the lyrics, although still excellent and interesting, don’t reach the final heights that they achieve within the song.

So now, if you are still with me, may I suggest that if you have time you listen again to the 1988 recording at the top of the page and consider the music.  There the singer is hurrying to his girlfriend’s side, and much of the meaning of travelling across the wide spaces of north America is lost.   In a sense it doesn’t matter for the show because the audience knows the song and basically is there just to see and hear Dylan.  But the LP version is there for us to play in our sitting rooms or our cars, and for that, with these lyrics, we do indeed need the slower version as originally written.


  1. One can easily understand why the author of the article above thinks other Dylan analysts ‘ignore’ the music of it’s “Takes A Lot to Laugh” …..

    It’s just that the meaning and emotional effects of words in the lyrics are quite marketable and explainable to average listeners, because of the relateship to the language most of them speak . After all, such books are written to sell. But without doubt the technical aspects behind the accompanying music is not familar to the majority of them in that they are not musicians; however, this does not at all that they ignore the sound of the music and its effects ( or the sound and effects of the words for that matter).

  2. but if you please don’t forget the concert for Bangla Desh, where the frost is the coldest and the lover’s voice is so hot…

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