By Tony Attwood
Dylan exploded onto the music scene as a composer in 1962 writing 20 songs of great accomplishment, most particularly such masterpieces as
These three songs covered different themes, obviously, and Dylan then continued writing through the rest of the year without particularly looking back to those achievements – constantly exploring different approaches.
But certainly the acclaim those songs gained, his strong stance on issues relating to war, and his ability to jump between different themes (ranging from traditional folk themes like moving on and poverty, to the traditional pop theme of lost love), plus his interest in political themes must all have fed into his work as he relentlessly marched forward as a unique composer of folk music.
Most of all Dylan knew how to surprise the awaiting audience with new songs, working around these themes as he created Masters of War early in 1963 and then followed this with two songs about lost love and leaving, (which used almost identical music on which to hang the words): Girl from the North Country and Boots of Spanish Leather
The contrast between these two songs and Masters of War is enormous – it is as if Dylan is showing us that he can indeed move from one theme to another, without taking a pause for breath.
And then as if those three brilliant songs were not enough Dylan composed Bob Dylan’s Dream one of the most evocative pieces imaginable, it sounds as if it should have been written by an old man, or at least a man of middle age looking back on his life, but this is the young Dylan showing an utter maturity in his writing that is remarkable for his age.
Indeed the “Dream” makes me think of Ballad for a friend – not because they are musically alike, but because of the maturity both of the music and the thought behind the song. These songs sound as if Dylan had had his life and was looking back with fondness and sadness – but as I say, he was only just starting out.
And then (and I seem to be saying “And then” an awful lot) Dylan goes back to his folk roots with Only a Hobo before suddenly taking off in an utterly different direction with a song about boxing (boxing, a subject that was hardly on the agenda for the socially conscious young rebel) with Who killed Davey Moore? Indeed of that song one can also say not just “who writes songs about boxing?” but also, “who writes a contemporary song using Who killed cock robin?”
All this composition would be several years work for most composers, but Dylan had hardly begun for he then takes in the theme of desolation with Seven Curses and then goes into desperation and hopelessness with God on our Side.
But instantly he is off again into a surreal dream about the third world war, before suddenly talking to us about the way society and the individuals within it are manipulated by empowered. Before we can blink he is telling us in Eternal Circle that there is nothing we can do, for nothing ever changes, before returning to the plight of people living in rural poverty whose livelihoods are being taken away.
This is, no matter which way you look at it an incredible tour de force. Not just because Dylan wrote 20 glorious memorable songs during the course of one year, but because in doing that he jumps from subject to subject to subject to…
Well, if you are still not convinced, he suddenly diverts his talent once again and has fun at the expense of a famous beat generation protester and artist with Gypsy Lou before suddenly taking in a Biblical theme (for the first time I think) with When the ship comes in.
The positivity of When the Ship undoubtedly paved the way for The Times they are a-Changing which goes back to the notion found in “Paths of Victory” which says the future will be fine.
Now this is another point at which to pause in the quick run through Dylan’s writing in 1963. He has been telling us in several songs that things are far from right. OK in the songs that led up to “Times” Dylan has been upbeat with the Ship coming in, and with Gypsy Lou going round the bend but just before that in Eternal Circle Dylan is telling us nothing can change and that we are all just stuck in our own circumstances – we are all pawns in their game.
And this is where (in Dylan’s second year as a full-speed masterful composer) that we have to stop and consider the fact that Dylan is not writing all these songs because he believes in what the song says. No more than a novelist or writer of a film script believes in the story that he writes. The storyteller tells stories because he/she likes telling stories, and finds it fun and can do it well. The storyteller does not have to preach in each story – stories can be told for the enjoyment of others.
Thus I would argue that many commentators have tied themselves up in knots trying to explain each Dylan song in terms of one consistent moral code or vision of the world. Having now reviewed over 350 Dylan songs on this site I believe that of course he has his own visions and his own views, but also a lot of the time he just loves telling stories. When the Ship Comes In, is a story as much as Only a Hobo.
This leads to contradictions with some see as a problem. As I said in my review of Percy’s Song Dylan appears to be asking for a lighter sentence for a man whose driving has killed four, while just one year earlier he was singing about the maiming of a friend by a driver in Ballad for a Friend.
Times they are a changing tells us that the new future is just around the corner whereas Hollis Brown tells us the world is falling apart. Indeed at the risk of becoming incredibly boring, allow me just once more to make the point that on the Times they are a changing album most of the songs tell us that times are very much not changing save for the worst. Times is an obvious title for the album, but it is also an utterly misleading title.
So my point is that not every Dylan song has a heart-felt message tucked away inside it. Indeed I think this is the starting point that quickly leads us on to songs that have no overt and clear meaning at all, but which are abstract and semi-abstract reflections of the world.
Of course being Dylan, immediately he has started to explore such themes and contradictions as are in Eternal Circle and Times they are a changing, he’s back pulling at every emotional heart string with The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll before taking us into the world of nature with Lay Down your Weary Tune
What is it, we must ask, that drives Dylan through this extraordinary creative output?
Of course he did have a strong engagement with the protest movement and with civil rights, I am not denying that. Of course he was deeply concerned about the well-being of the rural poor through his upbringing, although he had been considering the urban poor in New York just as much. Of course he is concerned about justice. But throughout all this there are two other factors we must acknowledge. Dylan is a storyteller, and Dylan has access to and knowledge of the vast wealth of music that is the Scottish and Irish folk tradition – and to a lesser degree the English folk tradition. He knows the songs, he knows the themes, and he knows how to bring them into the modern day.
“Restless Farewell” is one of the absolute masterpieces of the early years of Dylan’s writing – a song written quickly as the whole message poured out of him, a song about getting up and being on the road once again. It is a song that is a picture; a picture as powerful as anything he had produced up to this point. A song as magnificent in its achievement as “Ballad for a Friend”, “Hard Rain” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” Indeed if all he had ever achieved had been those four songs he should have been remembered as one of the great songwriters of the 20th century. But even in this one year there was much more.
So what we have here is a man drawing on many different sources of inspiration, and seemingly quite capable of being able to shift from one musical source to another as well as one lyrical theme to another, and all within a matter of days.
Looking at the list of songs for this year one can fully understand why Dylan became rather fed up with being pigeon holed as a “protest singer”, because such utter masterpieces as “Dream” “Ballad for a Friend” “Restless Farewell” are not protest songs. To call him a protest singer is to ignore these early pinnacles of Dylan’s achievement; these early expressions of his genius.
What is missing in this year is much of a Robert Johnson input – although it would soon return. Probably it went because Bob was so bursting with ideas and things he wanted to say. But this year most certainly does see the flowering of the songs of sadness and regret for what has been left behind, and what must be left behind.
Whichever way you look at Dylan in 1963 it was the most incredible, awesome achievement to produce not just this many brilliant songs, but this many songs in such diverse forms and with such diverse visions of the world.
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/ It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there.