The lyrics AND the music: If not for you (but at a slower speed)

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.    A list of the previous articles in this series appears at the end.

“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.

“If not for you” was performed by Dylan 89 times between 1992 and 2004.

However although Bob started to perform it as noted above it was written in 1970 or before, as it appeared on New Morning, and in fact was issued as a single the following year.   He also performed with George Harrison

As we know from most reports, it was written for Bob’s wife Sara, and was recorded with George Harrison soon after the break up of the Beatles.

The solo version (the top one above) has for me a feeling of being rushed musically, which may come about because the lyrics are much simpler than those we normally associate with Dylan.  And indeed the song includes rhymes which are generally associated with pop songs, once again rather than with Dylan.

Indeed there is a curious moment in the middle 8 where the lyrics do become slightly more adventurous with “My sky would fall, rain would gather too” – an interesting combination of a metaphor and the everyday, but the section ends with the mundane, “And you know it’s true.”

If not for you
My sky would fall
Rain would gather too
Without your love I’d be nowhere at all
I’d be lost if not for you
And you know it’s true

It is as if Bob really did want to write an ordinary everyday pop song, but his natural ability with words occasionally pokes through.

Indeed, the ending is much more interesting…

If not for you
Winter would have no spring
Couldn’t hear the robin sing
I just wouldn’t have a clue

There would be eternal winter without you, and worse one of the few reliefs from the rain and the cold (the singing of the robin) would be lost through his misery.

But in many ways the delicacy and interest evoked by those final lines are completely lost because of the way the music jogs along at a fair old pace.  Worse, the instruments are all going their own way without any clear musical direction, and eventually seem to be waiting for Bob to start.

And yet it all works because the music, the lryics and the accompaniment have a certain clear simplicity about them.   A contrast or maybe even a contradiction is formed however because Bob’s singing sounds genuine and heartfelt while the music really is bouncing along like a two and a half minute 45rpm hit, and the two sets of emotions generated don’t seem to mix very well.

And indeed the harmonica solos that occur a couple of times appear to be added for no real reason other than the fact that well, it’s Bob, so the producer knowing it is all fairly mundane anyway says “we ought to have some harmonica”.

Whenever I heard this I just wished for a much slower version so that although the everyday world portrayed in the lyrics would still be there. the music would be less boppy.  Soon after getting the album a few of us actually tried playing it this way and found it could become a rather lovely gentle lullaby.

But I guess the record company required a two and three quarter minute pop song complete with fade out, so that is what is produced.

George Harrison did indeed take the approach of slowing it down with his live performance of the song.  What’s more the accompanying counter melody becomes far less prominent and we do finally have a love song that feels like the singer-songwriter actually meant it.

George Harrison also adds a few minor but very welcome variations to the melody.

So in the end we can see it is actually a rather beautiful love song which was in my view spoiled both by the accompaniment and the speed it was taken at.

And indeed I think Bob got the message too, for in the end he seemed to agree.  This version comes from our Never Ending Tour series 2003, part 6: The Ragged Clown

Now that’s more like it.  And again we can see that the lyrics are still the same, but the music can change – and sometimes for the better.  I think Bob overplays the matter in that middle 8, but clearly he’s seen the possibility of enhancing the song by taking the song at a slower pace.

The songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…


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