Unbelievable: the meanings behind the Bob Dylan song

By Tony Attwood

Unbelievable is one of those songs which, if you don’t know it, and you read the words, you might just think, there isn’t much here.

Try this, if you can forget what the song sounds like

It’s undeniable what they’d have you to think
It’s indescribable, it can drive you to drink
They said it was the land of milk and honey
Now they say it’s the land of money
Who ever thought they could ever make that stick
It’s unbelievable you can get this rich this quick

Now a lesser musician than Dylan might try and compensate for words that are not particularly radical or different, by working on the melody or the chord sequence, but Dylan gives us what is in effect a two chord standard rock song with a third chord briefly added and not  that much of a melody.  In short a driving rock number.

And it works!

It was Dylan’s one single of the year and it even got into the charts, simply by the power of the delivery and the simplicity of the repeated title.

But at the same time we have to recognise it is also a song that apparently went through multiple re-writes with the quality of the re-writes (according to Heylin who it seems had access to them all) highly erratic, and (and this is a regular complaint of his) with the best lines often getting lost en route.

By way of example Heylin says that Dylan changes

“Too expensive to be built, too well-built to ever melt / Whoever thought you could make it stick,”


“They said it was the land of milk and honey now they say it’s the land of money / Whoever thought they could make that stick”.

Now I am not sure that is such a catastrophic change for the worse.  And indeed I am reminded, not for the first time, that as far as I know Heylin has never written a hit song in his life.  Indeed I am not sure he has ever written a song in his life.  And not for the first time I find myself asking, how can anyone who has never written music make such detailed judgements – and always without any justification?

Why is the “milk and honey” line worse  than the “melt” line (which incidentally is actually quite a lot harder to sing at the pace Dylan takes the song.)?

Anyway, Dylan took it where he wanted to take it, re-writes and all, and it then had a rather strange video added to it.  Later the song was also recorded by Bettye LaVette and there is a video of her version embedded into this article from Rolling Stone

And here is Dylan’s own video…

This dylan music video is Unbelievable! from bobdylan


Coming back to this piece after many years of not listening to it, some of this song really is a bit odd.  Take, for example,

Every head is so dignified
Every moon is so sanctified
Every urge is so satisfied as long as you’re with me
All the silver, all the gold
All the sweethearts you can hold
That don’t come back with stories untold
Are hanging on a tree

which is followed by

It’s unbelievable like a lead balloon
It’s so impossible to even learn the tune
Kill that beast and feed that swine
Scale that wall and smoke that vine
Feed that horse and saddle up the drum
It’s unbelievable, the day would finally come

and then please forgive me if I don’t make any attempt to explain exactly what is going on although this time around, as when I first heard the song all those years ago, I got the real impression that Bob was talking about his own life…

It’s unbelievable, it’s fancy-free
So interchangeable, so delightful to see
Turn your back, wash your hands
There’s always someone who understands
It don’t matter no more what you got to say
It’s unbelievable it would go down this way


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4 Responses to Unbelievable: the meanings behind the Bob Dylan song

  1. Ed McEowen says:

    I’m gonna throw this out and maybe make a fool out of myself because I haven’t done the research. Somebody tell me if I’m all wet. When I first heard this song, I thought it was Dylan’s reaction to Robert Palmer’s tremendous career success with “Simply Irresistible.” No?

  2. Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/702/Unbelievable Come and join us inside to listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.

  3. Richard Keys says:

    “Turn your back, wash your hands
    There’s always someone who understands
    It don’t matter no more what you got to say
    It’s unbelievable it would go down this way”

    Fake news, anybody? There is always somebody to understand, whatever you do. I always thought this is his saddest song.

  4. Tzipora says:

    I think the song is about Israel.

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