Like a Ship: Bob Dylan’s misplaced and misused Wilbury masterpiece.

By Tony Attwood

Heylin, in his commentary on Dylan’s works across the years, is particularly disparaging about the Wilburys and the way Bob’s work was treated therein.  His view is that the real talent was Dylan’s, the rest of the gang were fairly bereft of ideas, and so because the resultant rough mixes ended up being dominated by Bob’s work (as they had little to contribute) they then set about removing a lot of Dylan’s contributions after Dylan had left to go on tour.

Heylin is particularly disparaging about the treatment of “Like a Ship” which was available for inclusion on the first Wilbury album but then not used.  He argues that it was removed from the first LP because it was “one too many Dylan songs.  It can’t have been removed because of any concern about its merit, considering that dregs like ‘Wilbury Twist’ and ‘New Blue Moon’ made the 35 minute album.”

Here is how it sounded at that time

And yes, one can see his point; this preliminary mix is rough at the edges but the quality of the song is certainty there.

We did get the song in the end however on the 2007 Wilburys Deluxe set, but again according to Heylin, it had been mauled about in post-production.  You can judge for yourself

My prime concern however is with the treatment of the song song itself and certainly there is something rather remarkable about the images created by such a simple set of lyrics

Like a ship on the sea, her love rose over me
Go ‘way, go ‘way, let me be.

changed to

Like a weepin’ willow tree, her love grows over me
Go ‘way, go ‘way, let me be.

And finally

Like a leaf on a tree, her love is shakin’ me
Go ‘way, go ‘way, let me be

What adds to this is the rolling Em / D / G chord sequence which starts before the vocals and resonates all the way through.  A rare approach for Dylan to use, building the song around a chord sequence that is established before the singing, while making his way through the well-trodden road of the 12 bar blues which subsequently fits in around it.

What’s more we have the additional line “Hauntin’ me like a ship on the sea” which adds to the mysticism and the rolling nature of the sea.  (Can you imagine how naff it would have been if an idiot producer had added the sound of the sea breaking on the shore?  Fortunately there is none of that).

Then suddenly, as it were, the weather changes and he’s on dry land, in a totally different key, (B flat / F / G / D) another musical construction unique to the Dylan cannon.

But for me where it all goes so very wrong is after the Bridge with the instrumental passage

Standin’ on the white cliffs of Dover
Lookin’ out into space
Another channel to cross over
Another dream to chase.

really creates an atmosphere, which the raucous guitar just kicks to death.  How can anyone think that the best thing to do after “Another dream to chase” is to play that sort of instrumental break.

It then means that the instrumentation has to be upped for

The night is dark and dreary
The wind is howling down
Your heart is hanging heavy
When your sweet love ain’t around.

and it all seems so inappropriate, and makes it even harder for

Like a leaf on a tree, her love is shakin’ me
Like a leaf on a tree, her love is shakin’ me
Go ‘way, go ‘way, let me be

to make any impact at all.  (But really, if you have a moment, just listen to what is happening to the accompaniment around “dark and dreary”.  Accompaniments don’t have to reflect the lyrics, but they do have to be in sympathy with them, in my view.)

For me it is a highly atmospheric song which those producing the version we finally got on the CD felt needed stock responses.  “Hey lets put in some strong guitar work here” was probably the response as they produced it in Dylan’s absence, not realising that we already had all the atmosphere we needed from the way Bob sings the song and the unique way he created the chord sequence.

What is there about

Go ‘way, go ‘way, let me be.

that is so hard to understand?   The change in melody for the middle 8 (the bridge) is enough to give us a contrast, we really don’t need any more.

Just consider what lines we actually have in the verses:

Like a ship on the sea, her love rose over me

Like a weepin’ willow tree, her love grows over me

Like a leaf on a tree, her love is shakin’ me

Go ‘way, go ‘way, let me be

That is it.  What is there in that which makes anyone think heavy rock guitar material is needed here?  What does it add to the notion that “It is all too much, I just can’t take this”.

So this song perfectly makes the point about Bob’s ceaseless travelling…

Another channel to cross over
Another dream to chase.

and how it can interfere with what most of us would call normal life.

This isn’t one of Bob’s all time greatest compositions, but it is, or was, a fine piece of work, and it is a shame that seemingly we’ll never hear it from Bob on stage.  (Unless one of his entourage spots this little review and sneaks up to Bob and says, “That English guy who does those reviews says you ought to do “Like a ship” on stage, as it should have been performed – not how it was done on the album,” and Dylan nods and gets up and plays it.  They rehearse it once and then perform it.  Just for me.

Ah, one can but dream.

What is on the site

1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

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

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.




  1. I appreciate your erudite comments on Dylan’s songs so much. Lot’s of side information and always sensitive to the point interpretations. And yeah, Bob should do a version of his ship song, just for you. To show that he too appreciates your industrious efforts in analysing his labyrinthic mind. Many thanks .

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