Bob Dylan’s Moonlight: having fun with chords and other writers phrases.

By Tony Attwood

This review updated 19 July 2019

This love and theft composition is, I think, best understood by considering it in its chronological context (something which if you are a regular reader here, you’ll be rather used to be saying.

The immediate two predecessor songs in terms of compositional order seem to be Bye and bye and the Floater (Too much to ask).

In Bye and Bye Bob took his inspiration from a Billie Holliday song and Shakespeare’s phrases and mixed them in a way that doesn’t always seem to make too much sense.

Floater saw Bob go overboard on the borrowing, with music taken directly from “Snuggled On Your Shoulders” and lyrics taken from Junichi Saga’s novel Confessions of a Yakuza.

In the case of Moonlight’s title it was taken from a Carter Family song, which has nothing to do with Dylan’s composition (except in the title) and which itself comes from Joseph Augustine Wade.

So, tracking backwards even further, Wade was a 19th century Irish conductor and composer who is particularly remembered his arrangement of  Meet me by Moonlight.  Wade was cited by the American poet and humanist (whom I would expect Bob to know, given the odds and ends I know about Bob’s reading) Walt Whitman.   Whitman’s most famous work was “Leaves of Grass” which was considered quite scandalous when first published.  Elements of his work were used by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams within “A Sea Symphony”.

Those are the connections, but it is only the phrase “Meet me by the moonlight alone” that is used here, as you can hear from this recording of the song by the Carter family.

So what was Bob playing at?

Well, I think he was enjoying himself playing with chords that he rarely if ever used before – chords of the type we might well find in the American popular songs of the 1920s and 1930s.  And (and of course this is my guess) he just wanted some words to fix around them.

Certainly the melody of this song is only interesting in parts as time and again the melody just sits on the same note.   That is not to say the music for the verse is not interesting or entertaining it just isn’t entertaining enough for me, when the words go nowhere.

The bridge passage:

Well, I’m preachin’ peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike
I’ll take you cross the river dear
You’ve no need to linger here
I know the kinds of things you like

has only four notes, each sequence of words just sitting on one note.  Nothing wrong with that of course – providing the lyric is interesting, but having those last three lines on just one one note is pushing it a bit.  At least for me.

And maybe it is just me getting a bit old but the lyrics to me don’t seem to have too much to say either.  Yes of course you can take the old image about meeting the love of your life in the moonlight alone and make something of it, but my problem is that Dylan doesn’t make too much of it.

The seasons they are turnin’ and my sad heart is yearnin’
To hear again the songbird’s sweet melodious tone
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

This is the opening to the song, and openings to songs generally (in my opinion) ought to have a bit of punch, a way of grabbing attention, something that makes us want to listen.  And I am not sure these do.

Of course there are many popular songs that don’t engage in drama in the opening lines, but to my mind Dylan has always been at his best when either the lyrics grab you by the throat, or else the music does.  Here it doesn’t seem to work for me at any level.

Take the all time classic “The way you look tonight” with its opening

Some day, when I’m awfully low
When the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight

Very different songs of course, but that shows how great music works through an amazing lyric and beautiful melody right from the off.  (The link above takes you to the scene in the movie where it first appeared.  A classic in my view).

Bob’s images are ok at times…

The air is thick and heavy all along the levy
Where the geese into the countryside have flown
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

But sometimes they really do seem to slip from the heights he has achieve in the past.

The boulevards of cypress trees, the masquerades of birds and bees
The petals, pink and white, the wind has blown

It just seems a little old-hat to me as does…

The trailing moss and mystic glow
Purple blossoms soft as snow
My tears keep flowing to the sea
Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
It takes a thief to catch a thief
For whom does the bell toll for, love? It tolls for you and me

For Whom the Bell Tolls is such as well-worn phrase, and this song nothing really to do with Ernest Hemingway, who himself re-used it,  it seems strange to find it used here as a pastiche of phrases from elsewhere.  Take a thief is an old saying that goes back at least to 1665.

Doctor lawyer Indian chief comes from a 1945 hit song of that name published in 1945, with music by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.

So this does seem to me a bit of a mishmash of sayings thrown together.   And yet Bob loves or at least loved the song, and played it over 100 times between 2001 and 2008 sometimes with a harmonica intro.

Which really does seem to move that it was the chord sequence that had attracted him.  I know this will mean nothing unless you are a musician, but at least, if you have read other reviews here you will know that you have never seen Dylan write anything like this before.

Bb, Bo, Cm7, C#o
Bb, C9
Bb, Gm7
Dm7, G7, Cm7-5, Dm, F, Bb, Cm7, F

Yes it is interesting and gives the whole song quite a lilt, but (and yet again I feel compelled to say “for me”) this isn’t enough.  Not from the greatest songwriter of the pop/rock era.

Sorry to be so negative, but truly I can get so much more out of some of Bob’s 12 bar blues than I can out of this.  I’ve done my best to find something there, but in the end, I just can’t.

What else is here?

An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here.  There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan.  The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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.

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.

 

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6 Responses to Bob Dylan’s Moonlight: having fun with chords and other writers phrases.

  1. Matthew says:

    A wonderfully creepy murder ballad. I sing it and get chills

  2. Frank Andrews says:

    “For whom does the bell toll” isn’t referencing Hemingway. It’s referencing John Donne, who said it first. “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Make of that what you will.

  3. Dan says:

    Love some of the reviews and insights on your site, and I agree that Bob was playing with new chord structures, but I believe that lyrically this song is about escorting your love to the other side of the river, to the afterlife or whatever may lay there. Examine all of the late autumn references and the want to reunite with the past, and to coax…no need to linger here. I would argue that, while imperfect, one of his best efforts in the past twenty years. Pity the album was released on 9/11/2001.

  4. Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/418/Moonlight Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.

  5. Josh says:

    talking about using other artists phrases… it’s interesting to note that “doctor, lawyer, indian chief” was first used by bruce springsteen in his obscure song “man at the top”. either a brilliant coincidence or dylan is a fan…

  6. TonyAttwood says:

    “Doctor Laywer Indian Chief” was used before Springsteen Josh.

    “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” was published in 1945, with music by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Paul Francis Webster based on the popular game of the time “Tinker Tailor” The biggest-selling version of the song was recorded by Betty Hutton on June 29, 1945. I will rework the review and incorporate a video of the song.
    My thanks to the reader who wrote in and pointed out the fact – unfortunately the writer of that comment used a fake email address, which our system generally spots and rejects and we don’t publish comments where we spot a fake address. But still, thank you anonymous reader for alerting me.

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