Just like a woman: the lyrics and the music

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

The lyrics and the music.   Looking at how Dylan’s music relates to his lyrics and vice versa.


“Just like a woman” has clearly been one of Dylan’s favourite songs being performed 871 times on stage to date – although not since 2010.

On the original recording (below) it has quite a remarkable introduction of a harmonica part that could be described as “wailing” or even indeed painful, and then the opening line “Nobody feels any pain”.   It is a total contradiction of music and lyrics and it sets the scene perfectly for what is to come.

For if ever there was a painful opening to a song that is it.  If ever there was a lyrical opening which contradicts the world we know the notion that “nobody feels any pain” that is it.   It is the perfect balance of music and lyrics.

But then the rest of the opening verse leaves us unsure

Nobody feels any painTonight as I stand inside the rainEverybody knows that baby's got new clothesBut lately I see her ribbons and her bowsHave fallen from her curls

It is a contradiction between the new clothes and ribbons and bows falling from her hair.   And that is a problem because musically, contradictions are very hard to portray while keeping the audience interested.  Do it literally and the music sounds like a mess.  Ignore it, and the music sounds out of touch with the lyrics.

However, what keeps us intrigued here is that opening percussion part, which is completely unexpected for Dylan.

What we also get is the descending musical line of “Lately I see her ribbons and her bows”, and with a lesser writer that could appear to be very obvious – falling ribbons and descending musical line, but the pace of the music and the intrigue within the lyrics thus far hold the two together.  Even if we don’t overtly feel the falling of the ribbons, within us we appreciate that the music is descending and so is the subject of the song.

Then we come to the chorus in which the line “Just like a woman” is repeated three times each time at a lower register of notes than the opening words “she takes”, “she makes love”.   It is implied musically, that now we are hearing about the real woman…

She takes just like a womanYes, she does, she makes love just like a womanYes, she does, and she aches just like a womanBut she breaks just like a little girl

That contrast between the music at the point of “just like a woman” and the singing of the opening words, really does enhance our immediate understanding of the contradiction within the woman.   She is two people – the woman and the little girl.

Now anything further in terms of musical change between “She takes” and “just like a woman” would go too far.  It would overplay the part and start to make the piece seem too critical of the little girl / woman and not a unified piece of music.   But because the change between the two parts is managed, we accept the contrast.

Of course we know the song so well now it is hard to remember the impact of first hearing those lines, but it really is very powerful – but also limited – in order to make it work so that musically it reflects the lyrics.to create a unified meaning.

There is also the short musical interlude between the verses of the solo acoustic guitar picking out individual notes, followed by the organ with its descending pattern.  These again focus on the contrast: the delicate young woman symbolised by the acoustic guitar, and her attempt to be an adult with the descending organ.

I am not suggesting, of course, that in hearing this for the first time we fully appreciate consciously that this is the picture that is painted – but rather by creating the music in this way Dylan (and any of the instrumentalists who helped create the piece as we hear it on the original recording) make the music enhance the meaning and indeed the sadness of the song.

The “middle 8” section

It was raining from the firstAnd I was dying there of thirstSo I came in hereAnd your long-time curse hurtsBut what's worse is this pain in hereI can't stay in here

contains within it more force in the lyrics – the rain, dying of thirst, the curse, the pain… and it would be tempting to make the music much more forceful here, (or worse add the sound of thunder!!) but Dylan resists the temptation.  Instead, the difference is symbolised by a sudden and completely unexpected key change.

The song is in C, but here at the start of the middle 8, we jump into E – a totally unrelated key.   But then with “So I came in here” we are back in C.   Then with the long-time curse, we are suddenly back with E.    Using these two unrelated chords at this point stresses the contrast within the girl / woman.  It doesn’t matter that most listeners won’t know the technicality of how this is achieved, but everyone will feel the difference and the contrast.

These are all subtle movements of the music, but together they take what could have simply been a delicate and rather nice song about the contrasting emotions that relationships and events can arouse, into a song with which we can feel the emotions ourselves through the balance of the music and the lyrics.

It is once more, an extraordinary piece of work that to me can only be fully appreciated through considering both lyrics and music.  To ignore the music and think only of the lyrics misses half of the point and ignores much of Dylan’s genius.


And the songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…


  1. Why the thunder that you hear and the flash that you see?
    Because to all but bypass Dylan’s lyrics and instead focus almost exclusively on the accompanying music ignores Dylan’s genius as a wordsmith.
    So recognized by the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

  2. I am sorry that you have failed to understand the entire purpose of this series of articles Larry. I have explained it to the best of my ability, and as far as I can tell, other readers have grasped what I am trying to do (which is simply provide a balance against those commentators who focus on the lyrics and say nothing of the music).

    Other readers seem to have got the idea, and I can’t think of any way of describing my efforts better than the way that I have. So I think on this we must simply disagree and go our separate ways.

  3. Tony I am sorry that you have failed to understand the entire purpose of my articles. I have explained throughout them, to the best of my ability, why Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature which admittably involves language for the most part … the recent decision to censor them (likely including this comment) by you seems petty. No personal attacks on writers were involved. Of course, the Web Master can exercise dictatorial authority ….that’s just the way IT goes.

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