The lyrics and the music: Jokerman – a song of innovations then forgotten

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.  There is an index to previous articles in this series, at the end.

The thing that immediately strikes me about the music of recording of Jokerman used on the album, is the bass.  Not just that the bass is one note rapidly repeated over and over (although admittedly with the very occasional secondary note at the end of each bar which we hardly notice), but that the musical phrases are six bars long.

Now normally in popular music, the phrases are four bars long but here this is not the case

Standing on the waters casting your bread (Bars 1 and 2)
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing (Bars 3 and 4 with two bars of musical interlude after “glowing”)
Distant ships sailing into the mist (Bars 7 and 8)
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing (bars 9 and 10 and another two bars interlude at the end)
Freedom just around the corner for you (bars 11 to 14)
But with the truth so far off, what good will it do? (bars 15 to 18)

The chorus is then the conventional eight bars, and overall none of this sounds odd or strangely extended, because of two other factors that distract us musically.   One is the constant use of the bass primarily on one note through the verse, and the pauses between the lines (bars 5 and 6, and then again after bars 9 and 10).

But we are also distracted by two very un-Dylan musical elements.  First the “oh….. oh oh oh oh….” before the word Jokerman (Dylan normally uses words, not sounds).  And second by the way the line “Birds fly high” is sung in the second chorus with his voice jumping up and down a fifth rather than remaining on the same note throughout that phrase.   It is all very un-Dylan.

But that is not all.   For there is a very solid drum beat throughout most of the song (although not all of it) on the third beat of every other bar. (That is very un-rock, where the accented beat is on the second and fourth beat of every bar).   Then in chorus the beat is on the third beat of every line.   It is all incredibly un-Dylan.

And indeed that is not all because just before the opening line of the chorus (“Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune”) there is a syncopated rhythm in which beats 1 3 and 4 are suddenly emphasised before Dylan sings that opening chorus line).

Of course my memory might be playing me false but I can’t think of any other Dylan song that has any of these effects within it.

Now it may well be argued that such effects are worthy of this piece because the title is “Jokerman” and Bob is indeed having fun here playing with the accompaniment in ways he never does anywhere else.

But that “he never does anywhere else” phrase is interesting, because this is not just one musical idea that Bob introduces for the one and only time, but in effect there are four issues here that I can’t immediately place in any other song.  (And I would add that if they do appear in any other songs then such appearances are rare, and I doubt that there are four very unusual musical techniques in any other Dylan song.  One maybe, perhaps even two, although I can’t quite think of an example.  But four… no).

These four innovations therefore are…

  • Repetitive bass note over such a prolonged period
  • Six bar phrases
  • Complete change of rhythm leading up to the chorus
  • The eight-note “oh oh oh” lyrics before the word “Jokerman”

Which raises the question, why put all those innovations into one song?  I mean, musically they are very interesting, and worthy of further exploration, but they all seemed to come along here, get used once, and that was that.

One possible explanation is that there was someone helping Bob with ideas at this point – someone from the band maybe.   Another is that Bob had the lyrics to Jokerman but couldn’t find the music, and so as his own joke, took ideas from other people’s musical work, just for this occasion.

Of course there is nothing amiss in any of this – having a six bar phrase or singing “oh oh oh” over a range of notes is hardly original in popular music (although the six bar phrase is rare).   Except each one was unusual, and I am suggesting quite possibly unique, for Bob.

Now Bob is certainly not going to tell us what is going on, but I remain fascinated by the appearance of four innovations all at once, which are then set aside (at least as far as I can recall while writing this piece) never to be used again.

And here’s a thought.   At least two of these innovations are not essential to the song’s essence…. although as it turns out picking up the wrong harmonica doesn’t actually help. For in this live version, they vanish.


Series intro: most analyses of Dylan’s songs mistake the essence of what the songs are

And the songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…

Leave a Reply

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