The Lyrics and the Music: It’s all over now Baby Blue

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 sets 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.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” is a song of goodbye and a certain level of regret – but one in which, for the singer, the future is open and full of possibilities, while he is also recognising that the lady in the relationship will be sad at the break up – but at the same time saying that at least it is inevitable, if not her fault.

And yet the lyrics are far more complex than that.   The opening is clear of course

You must leave, now take what you needYou think will lastBut whatever you wish to keepYou better grab it fast

Those opening lines are gentle – the music is calm and Bob’s voice seems to be straining with sadness.   And he lowers his voice to speak of “your orphan” which we may perhaps take as her son who is not being fully looked after.   (But only perhaps, the meaning is not clear).

But musically we have a combination of two strands   The high pitch of the lyrics of lines one and two contrasts with the lower pitch of lines three and four. High again for line five and then much lower and plaintive for line six.

So we have this really clever set of musical and lyrical contrasts within each verse that is not normally attempted by any songwriter.  The instrumental verse however remains plaintive throughout.

Just consider the central lines of each verse that are sung at a lower pitch and far more plaintively…

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun

and then

The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets

In verse 3…

The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor

while in verse 4

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore

These are all lines of desperate sadness, or a world that has gone wrong and is not working at all for the people that Dylan is singing about.

Now contrast this with the strong, forceful start of each verse

  • You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
  • The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
  • All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home
  • Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you

But also note the contrast within each of those lines, and how the final phrase tails away in the music.   There is in fact a real lyrical and musical contrast within each line.

These are lines of travelling, moving on, getting away from the past.  There is no sympathy here in the opening of each line, but a clear touch of sadness in the second part of each line, which is reflected by the music to a degree in the original performances and much more in some of the live versions later.

And this is the magic of this song, it is this contradiction between the concern expressed in lines three and four in each verse, compared with the opening and closing couplets that surround them.

In fact it is quite hard to think of another song that takes these two different points of view and successfully shares them in one song.   Dylan’s musical method is simple: the central couplet is musically totally different from the opening and closing two lines of each verse.

So if we just take the last verse we can see this incredibly clearly

First the harsh instruction, sung with vigour at a high pitch

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you

Then the sadness of the world we live in

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore

Then back to the vigour and the moving on with no concern for the past…

Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

It is a superb piece of writing, all the more so for the same pattern working through each verse without becoming artificial.

Dylan has of course played with the approach – this version below from 1989 changes it to a degree by making the last line one of sadness rather than instruction, but the overall approach is the same – that contest between force and compassion.   As the live version continues Dylan chooses different lines to emphasise, but of course by this stage we all know the song and its meaning, so the need for the contrast is not so essential – but retaining it in the song reminds us of its original message.

A fire in the sun

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