Dirt Road Blues

Unusually for Dylan, Dirt Road Blues demands to be seen not as a stand alone song but in the context of Time out of Mind, the album on which it appears.   Dirt Road Blues is revealed as track two sandwiched between two masterpieces: Love Sick and Standing in the Doorway.

So the question is not so much what this second track is about so much as what is Dylan doing with Dirt Road Blues by placing it between what he must have known were two utter masterpieces.

Dirt Road Blue is a straight fast 12 bar blues in A major; first line played against A major, second line a repeat of the first starting on D resolving back to A, and then the final line on E7 before taking us back to A major.  There are a billion other such songs in the genre.

We might also note that as a 12 bar blue it is short, at least short compared to the way Dylan used the genre in his later albums.

So let’s try and get a bit of context: “Love sick” ends…

I’m sick of love, I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love, I’m trying to forget you.

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you

Then comes Dirt Road Blues

Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride
Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride
If I can’t find my baby, I’m gonna run away and hide

I been pacing around the room hoping maybe she’d come back
Pacing ’round the room hoping maybe she’d come back
Well, I been praying for salvation laying ’round in a one-room country shack

The subject matter is exactly the same – it is just the upbeat 12 bars that hides it for a moment.  He’s trying to hide it.  He is on the edge of vanishing. He’s lost, he’s desperate.

Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed
Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed
’Til there’s nothing left to see, ’til the chains have been shattered
and I’ve been freed

We immediately think of “Gonna look at you til my eyes go blind.”  That was a song of utter devotion of love, “blind” and “bleed” – so totally different.   But he’s determined just for a moment to find something that save him.

Rolling through the rain and hail, looking for the sunny side of love

This is getting seriously desperate.  And finally we know there is no way out.  His love was all consuming and now it has gone and so to all intents and purposes has the singer.

I’m gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone

Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed
’Til there’s nothing left to see, ’til the chains have been shattered
and I’ve been freed

And then we quickly move on to Standing in the doorway.

I’m walking through the summer nights
Jukebox playing low
Yesterday everything was going too fast
Today, it’s moving too slow
I got no place left to turn
I got nothing left to burn
Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow.  
Thus the three songs fit – but musically it feels as if they don’t. 
Somehow Dirt Road Blues feels wrong, and yet it is the final attempt of walking down the road away from all the problems, as in “One too many mornings” where he has chosen to walk away.  Remember all the songs of disdain where he has expressed his anger at the people he saw – “Rolling Stone,” “Fourth Street”, “Please Crawl out your window”. 
Now everything is reversed.  To me Dirt Road Blues is a step out of reality, an attempt to prove to oneself that all is ok, an attempt to do the old “Don’t Think Twice” routine and walk away, another “Sooner or Late.” 
But this time, this time, it just won’t work.  You can still play the old 12 bar blues you can still think “its me that is walking away” but it all collapses back in on itself  because it is not true.   In a total reversal of all of Dylan’s earlier songs of disdain it is the woman who has power and control. “It ain’t me babe” has been stolen by the woman and she’s using it to hit the singer with over and over and over again.
It is a tradition in pop and rock that the track order on an album goes Fast – Slow – Fast – Slow… such simplicities are what record producers like. Dylan has utterly reversed this process by going Slow, Fast, Slow… and we begin to see the connectedness of each song to the next. 
As such the arrangement and placement of the song are masterly decisions.  The lyrics of Dirt Road Blue belie the musical arrangement.  You can try and sing like you are happy, but you ain’t fooling no one – and you certainly can’t fool yourself.


  1. Edlis – comments are always welcome, but it is really helpful if you can explain why you think they are important. The first link is to Arthur Crudup singing a song called Dirt Road Blues, but with the lyrics in part of “That’s all right” (Presley’s first single)… the second link, I am not sure why it has been sent. Please do share your thoughts so we all know your thinking.

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