“Tragedy of the trade”: the background (and maybe source) to the Dylan and Goffin song

By Tony Attwood

As I have pointed out in other articles about this period in his writing history, Dylan had spent his time experimenting, before settling on a style and approach that would result in the songs that made up Empire Burlesque.  But after composing “Emotionally Yours” he took a break, writing a couple of basic tracks that would be picked up later by other songwriters.    (Well well well and Howlin at your window)

After that he turned to working with Gerry Goffin on two songs: Tragedy of the Trade and Time to end this masquerade

Tragedy of the Trade is credited to Dylan, Goffin, and Barry Goldberg. and it appears on “Back Room Blood”.   Although Bob Dylan is listed as the co-producer for Masquerade he is not listed in that regard on this track.

But this was not a total change of approach for Dylan from “Well, well well” and “Howlin”, because just as in both those cases, what Dylan wrote (and this we have from an interview Goffin gave to Billboard magazine) was the title and fragments of the first verse (“A young girl dies in the gutter face down…”.

According to Goffin he (Goffin) wrote the rest of the lyrics and the music was written by Barry Goldberg who had reputedly worked with Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Howlin’ Wolf.

Dylan knew Goldberg because Goldberg had played keyboards in the band on the electric performance at Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and subsequently worked with Mike Bloomfield.

The problem with Goffin’s albums however is that (depending on your point of view) he either couldn’t sing, or had a unique singing voice that many of us can’t actually appreciate.  I must admit that for me it doesn’t make easy listening.

What we are most certainly not getting here is “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “The Loco-Motion”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Up On the Roof” etc etc.  Goffin without King makes for a very different type of song.

The first verse, the one for which Dylan is said to have written some of the lyrics, runs like this…

A young girl dies in the gutter face down
Taxi driver pulls up to the curb, dies without a sound
Copin’ a squad car ridin’ round is nowhere to be found
Each one has seen his last
But we must let it pass
Too much money to be made
The tragedy of the trade

The lines

Taxi driver pulls up to the curb, dies without a sound
Copin’ a squad car ridin’ round is nowhere to be found

seem to me to be somewhat reminiscent of Hurricane:

Meanwhile, far away in another part of town
Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are drivin’ around

Indeed I can look at the lyrics of Tragedy and hear them played out to the music of Hurricane. I know it is totally fanciful, but I wonder if that is what had happened to Dylan.  He started writing the song and then realised he was using the same melody as he had used before.

Once that happens it can be hard to shut the idea out, and can mean that lyrics have to be abandoned as it becomes impossible to shake the original song out of one’s head.  Hence the need for collaboration.

But I also wonder if Dylan really only created the first verse of the song.  For the piece ends

It’s not a game, but that’s the way it’s played
The scales of justice have really never been weighed
The tragedy of the trade.

Now that really does sound like Dylan to me!





  1. “A young girl dies in the gutter face down”…..a common motif of Existential angst oft found in Dylan’s work, symbolic of a society whose members do not care about what happens to their fellow human beings, expressed as well in MacLeish’s cultural protest

    “And here face down in the sun/
    To feel how swift, how secretly/
    The shadow of night comes on”
    (Archibald MacLeish)

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