I once knew a man: one of Dylan’s obscure songs. Help us with the lyrics!

By Tony Attwood

At the start of 1984 Dylan had already written much of Empire Burlesque, but was clearly (as this song shows) trying to find other avenues for his work.

Thus Man of PeaceTight connection to my heart , Neighbourhood Bully and Foot of Pride were among the songs from 1983 but Dylan was still exploring and also retracing steps into areas he had been through in the past.

And out of the blue on the David Letterman show rehearsals up came “I once knew a man”.  Dylan apparently did not copyright this song, which given his office’s propensity to copyright all sorts of things that he didn’t completely write from scratch suggests either the one performance of the song we know about came out of the blue and took them by surprise, or Dylan never clarified if it was his or not.

Certainly there is no old blues tune called “I once knew a man” and the suggestion that the song is a re-write of a Sonny Boy Williamson blues “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” is one to be handled with care, in my opinion.

When I first read that others were citing “Don’t start me talkin” it took me by surprise, as I didn’t remember it like this.  And having gone back to listen to the song, I still don’t see the connection.   OK they are both 12 bar blues but there are thousands upon thousands of 12 bar blues, and we don’t attribute each to the other.

And it is certainly not the Charles Mansom song with the same name which has totally different lyrics and structure.  No connection there.

I have read that the songs might have been improvised, but I certainly can’t see that – the rhythmic structure at the start is too unexpected for anyone to be able to follow it straight off and if you watch the film you can see that Dylan just jumps into the piece while the drummer is talking to one of the production crew.

The backing band (Plugz) was clearly recruited to allow Dylan to explore a new sound and was a new, younger group of largely unknown musicians.   As for the lyrics, sadly no one seems to have ventured forth to put them on the internet, and I really think everyone would kill themselves laughing if I had a go.   (I mean they do so when I am working around ideas others have put forward, so starting from scratch is too much for me to risk).

So I am waiting for a volunteer.  Fame awaits you if you can come up with the first ever set of lyrics for this song.   Really – we are getting over 300,000 page views a year and a set of lyrics for the song would get covered on all the big Dylan websites.  It’s your chance…

Here’s the video… Stay with it – the video runs on through the rehearsal of the whole show but with breaks which take you from one song to another and from one video recording to another.


All in all “I once knew a man” is a jolly bouncy blues song with the catch phrase “seems like only yesterday he done pass this way, oh I once knew a man” and if it had ever appeared on an album it would have been a popular favourite, I am absolutely sure.  It could also have been a great opener for concerts – a better started that “Tweedle Dum” which was used so many times.

The blues format is elongated to accommodate the extra phrases in the opening of each verse:

  • E – 8 bars (Words too hard for me to distinguish – all suggestions welcome)
  • A – 4 bars (“I once knew a man”)
  • E – 4 bars (“Yeah I once knew a man”)
  • B7 – 2 bars (“Seems like only yesterday”)
  • A – 2 bars (“He done pass this way”)
  • E – 4 bars (“Oh I once knew a man”)

If you can help, with that opening line of lyrics, please do write in.

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24 Responses to I once knew a man: one of Dylan’s obscure songs. Help us with the lyrics!

  1. Dearbhla McArdle says:

    Tony, these are the lyrics as I found them on ‘Expecting Rain, Discussion Board’ and as such may or may not accurately reflect what you are looking for but perhaps it’s a starting point.
    I’m going down the road, stop at Fannie Mae’s
    Gonna tell Fannie what I’ve heard her boyfriend say
    Don’t start me that talking
    I’ll tell everything I know
    Gonna break up this signifying
    Everybody’s got to go

    Jack gave his wife two dollars,
    to go down town, get some margarine
    Gets out on the street, old George stopped her
    He knocked her down and blackened her eye
    Get back home and tell her husband a lie

    Don’t start me that talking
    I’ll tell everything I know
    I’m gonna break up this signified
    Cause somebody’s got to go

    She borrowed some money, go to the beauty shop
    He honked his horn and she began to stop
    Said: take me baby around the block
    I’m going to the beauty shop
    where I can get my hair “sot”

    Don’t start me talking
    I’ll tell everything I know
    I’m gonna break up this signified
    Somebody’s got to go

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Dearbhla, that is the song that people say Dylan’s piece comes from by I am not at all sure that is right. What I am after are the words that he sings in his version of “I once knew a man”. But it is helpful to have the Sonny Boy Williamson Dont Start me Talking lyrics here, because so many people cite this song as the origins.

  3. bruce says:

    i can´t figure out the first 2 lines either.
    something about ´ need or not´ in the 2nd line.
    something about ´opening a door, falling to the floor, going? for a ride´ later on.

  4. lopes says:

    That riff reminds me of a song from free entitled “Woman”
    See link

  5. David Kolodzieczyk says:

    “I’m the Man” — Aloe Blacc

  6. TonyAttwood says:

    Sorry David, I don’t follow. Are you saying the Blacc song is linked to Dylan’s? If so, I’m not saying you are wrong, but rather I can’t see any link.

  7. Dma says:

    I have loved this song and his performance since 1984. The only connection with ‘don’t start me talk in” is that was the song he actually performed on the show. I always assumed the former was an obscure blues song. The story is he did ‘don’t start me talk in” because the agreement was he would appear on late night on the condition he wouldn’t be interviewed by Dave. The show performance of ‘jokerman’ was amazing…

    Hope someone can figure out the ‘I once knew a man’ lyrics…

  8. raymond wills says:

    i once knew a man so poor yet so wise
    with looks that could kill eyes that tantalised
    i once knew a man long time its true
    he carried his wisdom to the valley of fools

    i once knew a man kider its true
    he sang me a song old time sad blues
    i once knew a man an idol its true
    he lived in the world but he lost and vamoosed

    i once knew a man long time back
    he carried the world on his shoulders n back
    i once knew a man he was rich in his eyes
    promised me riches then wept and he cried

    i once knew a man travelled the world
    through countries and continents yet nowt did he gain
    i once knew a man destined to seek
    the wonders of life and the wisdom of peace

  9. TonyAttwood says:

    Sorry Raymond but Dylan isn’t singing any of these lyrics. Most obviously each verse ends

    Seems like only yesterday he done past this way, oh I once knew a man.

  10. Well Tony this one is a bit of a mystery but I think that based upon what we have I will put this down to Dylan. Look inside Bob Dylan’s Music box for what we have found… http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/3227/I-Once-Knew-a-Man Not too much!

  11. Larry Fyffe says:

    ‘Once I knew a man’ is a dramatic monologue along the lines of Robert Browning’s ‘Last Duchess’- “That’s my last Duchess on the wall/
    Looking as if she were alive”, but for Dylan it is not a wayward wife, but the devil, ‘the man’, of which he speaks:

    “I once knew a man/
    Never need for them to stop/
    Oh they talk to me today/
    Lovin’ me the best/
    But you never need to knock/

    Oh I once knew a man/
    Yeah I once knew a man/
    Seems like only yesterday/
    He done passed this way”
    Dylan: I Once Knew A Man”

    With the help of devout followers of Christianity, Dylan, the narrator, resists the devil:

    “Well I once knew a man/
    He can hypnotize/
    Over near the door/
    Bound to the floor/
    Tried to take me for a ride.”

    While the last Duchess died, Dylan’s devil is tied; Bob answers the question: ‘Whatcha goin’ do if the devil comes knockin’ at your door?”

  12. Larry Fyffe says:

    For a time, Dylan fell among Christians and replaces the ‘born free’ visions of the Romantics with the “born in original sin” credo of orthodox
    Christianity; the individual struggle between good and evil replaces the struggle between good and ignorance:

    ‘I was blinded by the devil/
    Born already ruined/
    Stone-cold dead/
    As I stepped out of the womb’
    Bob Dylan: Saved)

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    Now more in his artistic mode, Dylan (s)words are written to cut both ways; indeed, considering Dylan’s former Blake-influenced visions, are the fundamentalist Christians the ones being depicted in ‘I Once Knew A Man’ as taking Dylan for a ride?

  14. Larry Fyffe says:

    Though a couple of words may be misheard in the above verses, the gist of the song is there; the following is dubious however:
    “Well I once knew a man/
    I once knew a man/
    Over near the door/
    Saved by my neighbor/
    Called the devil’s number/
    Never do I hear no more”

    Questionable indeed, but I hope this is helpful, Mr, Attwood….keep up the good work. Dylan’s not exactly using the Queen’s English, is he?

  15. Larry Fyffe says:

    ‘Saved by the neighbor’ ….if anything .. not ‘my’

  16. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylab’s lyrics I find are quite consistent in themes, even when his more Christian-oriented ones are taken into account.
    But because the words are garbled somewhat in ‘I Once Knew A Man’ it isn’t possible to come up with interpretation(s), based on the face of the lyrics, that is(are) by any means satisfying.

  17. Larry Fyffe says:


  18. Larry Fyffe says:

    The lyrics are influenced by Revelations 20:2 –

    “And he laid hold on…the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years”

    Taken with ‘Foot of Pride’ into consideration, ‘I Once Knew A Man’ seems very much a condemnation of organized and consequently corrupted religion, a view often presented by
    Dylan in his songs, churches being Antichrist, not Christian.

  19. Don Giller says:

    If you or anyone is interested, here’s the full video of the rehearsal plus broadcast.


  20. mick gold says:


    As best I can make out the words, Dylan sings:

    I once knew a man
    With a needle in his arm
    Well he taught me to make
    Love ain’t even bad
    But you never need a nod
    Oh I once knew a man

    Yeah I once knew a man
    Seems like only yesterday
    He done pass this way
    Well I once knew a man

    I once knew a man opening a door
    In by another
    Opening a cupboard (Old Mother Hubbard?)
    Never to be here no more
    Yeah I once knew a man

    Well I once knew a man
    Seems like only yesterday
    He done pass this way
    Oh I once knew a man

    01.21 guitar

    Well I once knew a man
    Creeping in the side
    Opening a door
    Falling thru the floor
    Setting someone for a ride
    Yeah I once knew a man

    Oh yeah I once knew a man
    Well it seems like only yesterday
    He done pass this way
    Well I once knew a man

    02.27 guitar

    Don’t laugh! Now for my next trick I shall reveal the words to “I’m Not There”…

  21. TonyAttwood says:

    Not laughing at all Mick. Brilliant.

  22. Tom O says:

    I always assumed it was an old Staples song–got that vibe & Pops style slinkiness in that guitar line. Wouldn’t be surprised if Dylan was just half-remembering an old gospel song and vamping on the spot. Wish he’d recorded it with the Plugz.

  23. Hello, that’s what i come out with (does make too much sense, though !)

    Oh i once knew a man
    Never needle in the /sky/star/
    Well he taught me to ache/make(?)
    Rather even bad
    But you never need a nod
    Oh i once knew a man
    Yeah i once knew a man
    Seem like only yesterday
    He gone pass this way
    Oh i once knew a man

    I once knew a man
    Nobody … him adore
    Saved by the nav…ed
    All men are slumbered
    Never /do i hear/to be here/ no more
    I once knew a man
    Well i once knew a man
    Seem like only yesterday
    He done pass this way
    Oh i once knew a man

    Well i once knew a man
    Sleepin’ on every(?) side
    Openin’ the door
    Bound to the floor
    Started/Setting talking(?) for a ride
    Well i once knew a man
    Oh yeah i once knew a man
    Well it seem like only yesterday
    He gone pass this way
    Well i once knew a man.

    and to make my case even worse, here what i hear(?) for Don’t Start Me Talkin’ from the same date (and which make much less sense to me)

    Well stop by the beauty shop man, down on the side
    She said, ”Go back for it”, she better sigh

    Don’t start me that talkin’, I’ll tell everything I know
    Well stop signifyin’ somebody got to go

    John gave his daughter two dollars, go down to beauty shop
    She said, ”No baby, hold(?) i can’t stop”
    They said, ”Come back, maybe next year”
    All(?) don’t you know but you don’t hear

    Don’t start me that talkin’, I’ll tell everything I know
    Better stop this signifyin’ somebody’s got to go

    Way back in Hipster? bay, ’bout forty-five
    People … honey, more dead than alive
    She said, ”No honey i can’t go for that”
    I know that you make all die(?), don’t let candidate(?) like this

    Don’t start me talkin’, I’ll tell everything I know
    You better stop signifyin’ somebody’s got to go, oh yeah.

    !!!!! But at least i tried a little.
    Best regards

  24. Allan says:

    I think Dylan is singing “dummy lyrics”, which is why it’s so hard to understand: They aren’t words!! Perhaps it’s a brand new song, maybe he has only a few lyrics and a rough musical idea, and he’s noodling around. (In 1979-81, during the gospel tours and just after, he often played unfinished songs and the lyrics were not finished.)

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