By Tony Attwood
In traditional popular music, the central themes are love, lost love and dance. Dylan is not known to be interested too much in dance, but love and lost love are certainly central to his interest.
But the range of themes within folk music is much broader: poverty, social issues, political matters, the environment, the move away from the old ways… anything in fact.
One such theme that has intrigued Dylan throughout his writing career has been the notion of moving on, not just moving on because one has to, but because that is what one does. It is an intriguing concept, first because it is one that is prevalent in a lot of the folk music Bob has clearly listened to throughout his life (as well of course in other folk traditions) and because Bob Dylan himself seems to have embodied this notion with his desire to keep on touring.
Indeed as I have tried to show in Bob Dylan year by year; decade by decade, even when Bob has not been writing anything new, he has kept on touring and touring.
So here, perhaps more than with any other topic that he writes about, Bob lives out his musical vision. The Wanderer in Dylan can be himself or indeed a passer by walking off down the road and moving on (Shelter from the Storm, One too many mornings) or it can be a completely separated observed outsider like the Drifter in Drifter’s Escape.
It can be the man who can’t find his love as in Red River or it can be two lovers so in love that there is no other world beyond themselves gazing at each other: they have effectively wandered outside of the rest of reality such that she speaks like silence.
Thinking further on this topic that I have mentioned many times in my reviews I find it interesting that Dylan has expressed an interest in Ovid, because as I noted in the review of “Beyond here lies nothin'” Ovid, from whom the phrase comes suffered (or at least we think he suffered) from being sent into exile, and wrote about it in the works he created towards the end of his life.
Dylan however can get to the notion of leaving through any one of a number of steps. In the aforementioned “One too many mornings” he just has to move on. In It ain’t me babe the singer appears to feel hemmed in, not wanting to be part of this close relationship, not just saying that he isn’t the right man for this woman, but also that he isn’t this kind of guy at all.
In short he has to keep moving – exactly like Robert Johnson.
These songs of leaving come thick and fast in Dylan’s early writings. Don’t think twice is perhaps the classic Dylan “song of leaving”. “Look out your window and I’ll be gone – you’re the reason I’m travelling on…” but having listened to other songs from the era maybe we start to think that it’s not just her. She’s the excuse. It’s actually him. He’s the one who just has to keep moving.
So the songs with this theme continue. Most likely you go your way adds a touch of disdain, but just a touch; it is still of the essence that he leaves her, he moves on, presumably just as happened when the young Bob got up and left the family home to make is fortune in New York.
I don’t know when Bob first discovered the aforementioned Ovid – much later than he discovered Robert Johnson I am sure – but I think what particularly appealed was the notion of exile. Ovid was already an old man (by the standards of the day) when he was exiled aged 50, to Tomis on the Black Sea by Emperor Augustus, the first Roman Emperor after Julius Caesar overthrew the Republic. While away he wrote Ibis, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto: the poems of exile.
He wrote about the awful conditions in Tomis, about how he was old and sick and just wished to see his family again, and expressing his deep sincere regard for the emperor and how whatever it was that caused his exile was all just a silly mistake – a misunderstanding.
“writing a poem you can read to no one
is like dancing in the dark.”
he said in his most famous aphorism which comes from this period. And again…
There’s nothing further than this, except frost and foes, and the sea closed by the binding cold.
He had moved on so far he had reached the end of the world.
By the time Bob reached Ovid and “Beyond here lies nothing” he had indeed explored so many aspects of leaving. Sometimes it wasn’t even he who did the leaving, as with Boots of Spanish Leather. Sometimes it wasn’t even a person who left, as in Dignity.
Down the Highway, Drifter’s Escape, Only a hobo.. anyone and everyone can move on. Indeed it is interesting that the novels Bob cited in his Nobel Prize speech focus on a lot of moving on – Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Odyssey; they all have the Drifter, the Wanderer, the guy moving on or forced to live far from home.
But it is not just moving on in the physical sense, although that is so often the point. Farewell Angelina from way back in 1964/5 is the summation of this journey into the two worlds – the world of the everyday, and the explanation of what is going on underneath. A second type of journey combined with the more everyday walking away.
There’s no need for anger, there’s no need for blame
There’s nothing to prove, everything’s still the same
a summary of the “it’s not your fault, I just have to go” explanation given by a million lovers to a million souls left behind.
And so Dylan and his characters are endlessly moving on. Girl from the North Country, I am a lonesome hobo, Isis everyone moves on. Bob even wrote a song just about moving on: On the road again. He’s gone so far nothing makes sense any more. And really he’s just started. Just like Jack Kerouac.
Of course sometimes, early in his writing career maybe Bob did think there was somewhere he could get to, when he sang
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief.
But there wasn’t. He kept moving on and on until in Tell Ol Bill he wandered away to the silent land, and ended up stuck out there in a nameless place.
The wanderer had taken on everything and everyone, travelled everywhere, tried everything. But really he had no choice. It was in his bones
All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?
Or said differently, “Just gotta keep moving”.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages. Also a list of the most read articles on this site.
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.
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.