2 x 2. The meaning behind Bob Dylan’s two by two

By Tony Attwood

Doing some basic research in preparation to write this review, I stumbled on a Wikipedia link which says, “There is consensus that the majority of songs do not meet Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. Songs should only have an individual article when there is enough material to warrant a detailed article.”

2 x 2 does not meet such guidelines apparently.

I am not sure if that enables me to say that they are wrong (given all the reviews on this site) or for them to point to this site and say, “well, there you are, a perfect example of why we should not write reviews about individual songs.”

And certainly not many people have had much to say about “2 x 2”.  Perhaps it is because the notion of the animals coming in two by two is so much part of the telling of Christian tales to children, that we are resistant to the notion of it becoming a suitable song for us to admit that we like.

It is also a song that Heylin records as having its lyrics changed as Bob worked on the recordings.   Apparently the song originally ended with a clear commitment to the religious connotations of “two by two”

One by one, they step in the ark
Two by two they live in the dark
Three by three what will be will be
You can tell it some more

One by one Thy will be done
Two by two I’m telling it true
Three by three, why can’t you see
Four by four you’ve seen it before.

In the actual record version it ends

One by one, they follow the sun
Two by two, to another rendezvous

with more lines added although hard to make out as the song fades out.

Now these two versions are completely different from each other and indeed give the whole song a different meaning.  Having the song end with “Thy will be done” says absolutely clearly that the “two by two” is most certainly a reference to Noah and the tales of the Old Testament.

But now with that gone, and the revised ending, we have a journey that goes round and round, we just keep on keeping on, I gotta keep moving… we are in the world of the traveller journeying down the never ending road, the world of the “Restless Farewell” and the “Parting Glass”  An utterly different proposition.

But I love this song, not least because I think it is totally fascinating that Dylan could shift a song from the totally religious of One by one, they step in the ark into the utterly secular One by one, they follow the sun in this way.

For “they follow the sun” is not just secular,  but it also represents within those four words an entire philosophy of life, a philosophy that says we can keep moving, we don’t have to be part of the fixed community of a religious group, a member of the family or community or society.  We can find and create our own destiny – the antithesis of the fundamental Christian philosophy he preached for a couple of years.

This notion of individuality, following one’s dreams etc is much more in keeping with the very interesting off beat musical introduction that the song has, and the fact that the song overall is pure atmosphere and images, rather than concrete religious certainty.  These are images for us to play with, as the shadows move in and out of the music.

As such the “one by one” counting theme throughout is really of little consequence, for it becomes little more than a musical device for us to hold onto as we watch the images as they move along.  That is not to decry it, for all music needs devices to keep the audience happy, but it is to say that the notion is not one of expressing Christianity.  At least that is how it seems at first.

So we know at once that this is not religious doctrine that is preached within the song as we look at the opening verse.

One by one, they followed the sun
One by one, until there were none
Two by two, to their lovers they flew
Two by two, into the foggy dew
Three by three, they danced on the sea
Four by four, they danced on the shore
Five by five, they tried to survive
Six by six, they were playing with tricks

How else can we explain “they danced on the sea” and “they were playing with tricks”.  Certainly tricks have no part in the Christian message I know.  This is pure symbolism. This is mythology fair and square as the “middle 8” section reveals…

How many paths did they try and fail?
How many of their brothers and sisters lingered in jail?
How much poison did they inhale?
How many black cats crossed their trail?

Black cats is surely the biggest hint of all.   And yet following this message we get a kick sideways as Dylan says…

Seven by seven, they headed for heaven
Eight by eight, they got to the gate
Nine by nine, they drank the wine
Ten by ten, they drank it again

Clearly heaven and indeed the gates of heaven, through which the righteous process, are a Christian image.  But in Christianity the wine of communion is only sipped not drunk and drunk again.

The again we have

How many tomorrows have they given away?
How many compared to yesterday?
How many more without any reward?
How many more can they afford?

Now that seems to me to be a possible question of those who turn away from the one true path and here the procession of numbers breaks as we get “two by two” where we are expecting “one by one”

Two by two, they stepped into the ark
Two by two, they step in the dark
Three by three, they’re turning the key
Four by four, they turn it some more

One by one, they follow the sun
Two by two, to another rendezvous

So what we have are people travelling in many directions looking for possible answers, always moving on.   Did they find it, or are the people who search forever and never find a set answer the ones who are truly lost?  Or are they, through their constant searching, the only people who find true salvation, but pushing their enquiry ever onwards, rather than accepting the simple answers of following a Lord who demands worship, and an Armageddon war, which leads to the destruction and eternal torment of non-believers?

That certainly seems to be a possible explanation, and indeed the writer of the always fascinating Bob Dylan haiku series  who comes up with

Various people
Seem to have a good time, but
They’re actually not.

The site also says by way of commentary…

I’ll be honest, I don’t know what this song is about. “2×2” is from “Under the Red Sky” in 1990, and it seems like everyone distanced themselves from that album as quickly as they could. I like much of it, and I don’t mind listening to this song with my mind turned off. But when I try to climb into it, I find that I can’t. All I can see is that this Noah’s Ark procession of people seem to start off OK, and wind up in less fortunate circumstances than those in which they started.

1. They follow the sun until there are none.
2. They fly to their lovers in the dew.
3. They dance on the sea.
4. The dance on the shore.
5. They try to survive.
6. They play with tricks.
7. They go to heaven.
8. They get to the gate.
9. They drink the wine.
10. They drink it again.
2. They step in the ark
3. They turn the key.
4. They turn it more.
2. They follow the sun to another rendezvous

It is as good a commentary as any: for the song is confusing and my best guess is that at this time Dylan was profoundly confused.  But I would add, it is rather good to have Bob being confused over Christianity (if that was the case here) rather than endlessly telling us that it is the only way to salvation.

There is also, by the way, a suggestion that Elton John played on this song.  Dylan gave the song four outings in the summer of 1992 in which Dylan sang the “one by one until there were none” over and over until he moved into the next song.

It seems a decent tribute to a very engaging and entertaining song.

What else is on this site

1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs. 

2: The Dylan Chronologies.  

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  .

4:   The Discussion Group    Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.

6: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines


  1. I see it as the travel through life by two lovers. And that was not easy:
    How much poison did they inhale? – he
    How many black cats crossed their trail? – she

    They were many years apart:
    How many tomorrows have they given away?
    How many compared to yesterday?
    How many more without any reward?
    How many more can they afford?

    But they eventually found each other again:
    Three by three, they’re turning the key
    Four by four, they turn it some more
    One by one, they follow the sun
    Two by two, to another rendezvous

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *