“Let’s keep it between us”: one of the astounding Dylan songs from a bumper year

by Tony Attwood

This song about the prejudice that can arise from a mixed-race relationship was a central part of Dylan’s tour in the autumn of 1980 before being offered to Bonnie Raitt, who recorded it 1982.   

Thus the song comes from a very, very rich year of songwriting.   Dylan “only” wrote 11 songs that were finished in that year (11 would of course be amazing for most songwriters, for Dylan it was becoming more like the norm – just over half the average he established in the 1960s)   But the 11 was quite amazing, especially considering the range of styles and approaches he explored.

So this year we had already had

and now we have “Let’s keep it”.

It is by any measure a remarkable run of writing, and there surely can’t be many Dylan aficionados who don’t think “Let’s keep it” keeps up the quality.  OK it isn’t Caribbean Wind but that is a stunning masterpiece out on its own.  It is still very good indeed.

Two sets of lyrics for the song seem to exist on the internet, and we have a collection of videos.  Along with the Raitt version, we have some versions by Dylan from the shows, and also a bootleg album actually called “Let’s keep it between us” recorded with Dylan’s old mate Gerry Garcia (who Dylan several times complemented him with the thought that his recordings of Dylan’s own songs were superior, and a reference point for Bob when he thought of including a song on the set list.)  The title track is obviously included on the album – which itself is (at the time of writing) currently on line in full.

It should also be noted that Garcia sat in with Dylan on a couple of occasions for performances of this song (November 16, 1980 and May 5, 1992 are the dates quoted but I need to check these).

The piece is played with Bob at the piano in the key of Eb and I hope you will stay with me through the next couple of paragraphs, because whether you have a musical training or not, I am hoping you might this interesting.  I think it adds a little to understanding how Dylan creates the richness of this song.

The fact that  Eyolf Østrem comments that Dylan composed it in E flat “which isn’t very nice of him,” points to what is going on here.   Eb is generally speaking most guitarists least favourite key.  Østrem transposes the song into D to make it easier for guitarists but still comments that “The most distinctive chord here is the one I’ve called F6; it’s a huge chord, with something of F, something of Dm, quite a lot of D7-10 (x5456x) in it, but F6 is a fair approximation.

“The same would have to be said about some of the other “grand” chords (at “trust” and the last “keep”) – they are approximations.”

Although the way Dylan has performed the song makes it impossible for guitarists, through this process gav us a clue as to what he was doing here musically, when he spoke about his untutored approach to piano work – noting that he primarily played the black notes – real pianists, he said, started with the white notes.

Just playing the black notes is a common trick of pianists who have not had a formal musical education, and it immediately leads to a whole range of unexpected and unconventional chords which is what makes this song’s accompaniment so striking.

Plus the melodic range is much greater than is found in many Dylan songs as are some of the rhythmic changes – Bob was clearly on form in creating this piece.

There appear to be two versions of the lyrics, one of which has the majestic lines

Let’s just move to the back of the back of the bus
Oh, darlin’, can we keep it between us?

And one of which doesn’t, which is a shame.  Those lines seem to sum it all up.

There are also several recordings on the internet…

And the version that emerged later…

And the Bootleg album which contains the song part way through.

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  1. Having never read Heylin, and only able to judge music by my ear, it’s great to have someone who can address his music from a musician’s point of view; myself, discretion being the better part of valour, I’ll stick to Dylan’s literary side.

  2. There is a version somewhere ‘out there’ with Bonnie and Bob singing this as a duet, in the studio. A friend, in the mid ’80’s, had it on a ‘sampler’ LP….a mix of good, yet, obscure tunes by various artist This was an awesome pair. I wish I could find it!

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