Tempest: Dylan’s final epic is not necessarily what you might imagine, or maybe it is.

By Tony Attwood

Tempest is the final song written by Bob Dylan and recorded in a mainstream album, to be reviewed on this site.  I didn’t deliberately leave it until last, but it seems a fitting place to finish – although we still have a lot of the Basement Tapes and some very early more obscure recordings to consider.

Bob started to give us long songs early on.  Some were and are obvious masterpieces, like Tambourine Man, Rolling Stone and Desolation Row (wherein of course the “Titanic sails at dawn”).  Some really don’t seem to have passed the test of time (such as Ballad in Plain D) and occasionally there are epics that don’t mean as much to me as they seem to mean to everyone else (Sad Eyed Lady for example)

Rolling Stone and Desolation Row, as long songs, have musical issues that help them along the way.  The chorus of Rolling Stone is so powerful it just invites everyone to shout out “How does it feel?”  The lyrics are so vicious it can still take one by surprise on listening to it again having not heard it for a while.   Tambourine Man has its chorus, and its endlessly inventive lyrics. Desolation Row has its frightening opening – even more frightening when one realises it was true – and then image and metaphor piled upon image and metaphor.

And Tempest… well Tempest, which Dylan has never played in public, takes a song written by Seth Newton Mize (1901-1977) and adds new lyrics in between the originals.

I have a feeling that most Dylan fans have not heard the early versions, most notably that by the Carter Family, perhaps because we are so used to songs from earlier years being openly available on the internet, maybe people assume that as it is not there, it doesn’t exist.

But the original recording can be found on Spotify: and I really do suggest you might listen to it, if you have an interest in Tempest.  The song in question “The Titanic” comes from the album “The Acme Sessions” 1952/6 Disc A.  Better still, find the time to listen to the whole album.

The point here is that Dylan’s song is a direct copy of that Carter Family song – a song that has been recorded by many country artists.  In some versions (such as that by Jimmie Tarlton) it is know as “After the Sinking of the Titanic” – but as I say virtually all recordings of these versions on the internet have also been removed.

The original song was written in the 1920s as far as we can tell, and a lot of people recorded it, although seemingly often without acknowledging Mize as the creator – probably because he simply wasn’t a very well know writer.

Here’s the original song’s lyrics – if you know Dylan’s song you’ll immediately recognise quite a lot of what is going on here.

As the moon rose in glory,
Drifting to the golden west,
She told her sad, sad story:
Sixteen hundred have gone to rest.

The watchman was lying down dreaming,
Yes, dreaming a sad, sad dream;
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
Far out on the deep blue sea.

He woke and called the rich man,
Told him to come to life;
Told him to save his baby
And also his darling wife.

The rich man, he must have been drinking.
Knowing that he had done wrong,
He tried to win the record
And let the Titanic go down.

When he spied the Titanic was sinking
They fell down upon their knees
And cried, “Oh, Lord, have mercy!
And what will become of me?”

The band was out there playing,
Yes, playing out on the sea.
When they spied the Titanic was sinking
Played “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

When the sad news reached the landing
That the Titanic had gone down.
Many a poor widow and orphan
Was walking all over the town.

The little children were crying
“Oh, Mama has gone to stay.”
But surely they will invent something
That will weigh the Titanic some day.

Here is a more recent recording of the song which retains much of the original composition’s feel, although it adds a lot of water at the start (skip the first 15 seconds if you like) and adds some new chords, and a new verse at the end which has nothing to do with the original.  If you don’t want to use Spotify (and it is available for free) then stay with this version.  But I do hope you seek out the Carter Family version to hear how close Dylan has come to using this original work.


Views of Dylan’s composition range from calling it one of his best songs ever to calling it one of his worst songs ever.   The Los Angeles Times said that the song “allows the facts to take on a different, deeper resonance than just hearing them dryly recounted. Tempest pays homage to the crop of Titanic-themed folk songs that sprang up in the years after the ship sank in 1912, and finds a way to take the story beyond mere mortal tragedy into the realm of the mythological.”

The New York Daily News said  “The essential Titanic tale speaks eloquently of class, cowardice, bravery, and hubris,” but Dylan’s version of the story, which he sings “without momentum or variation,” drags on and on but “adds nothing” to the familiar story.

The Wall Street Journal said it is “undisciplined and banal,” and suggests it is not clear “whether he’s discussing the ship sinking or the film about it.”

It has also been said that it is hard to listen to it all the way through – and on this point I think I can immediately agree.  Goodness knows how many, many times I have listened to “Desolation Row” and it still sends shivers down my spine as I continue to find new meanings.  And indeed as Dylan finds new interpretations of it – as he did on one tour by putting a bounce into the song to make it almost a dance tune, I go along with him each time.

But it is, as others have said, quite hard to stay focused on Tempest.  So what is the difference that I feel between a long masterpiece like Desolation Row, and an even longer song which is not a masterpiece, in my view?

For me (and of course this is a very personal view) I feel the engagement in “Desolation Row” just as I do with “Rolling Stone”.  “Rolling Stone” is unmistakably personal because of the way Dylan sings “How does it feel”; Desolation Row achieves the effect by suddenly moving from his reflections on the awfulness of American society to the unexpectedly personal “I received your letter yesterday” which still, after all these years, hits me like a bolt in the heart.

The desire that the correspondent “don’t send me no more letters, no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row” demands that the other writer sees the world as he does, or else shuts up and goes away.

In Titanic there is no requirement, no demand, no urgency, no message.  There is detachment – and of course a lot of art is detached.  But for me there is something wrong with detachment here.  And as reviewers before me have on occasion pointed out, there was a Leo Zimmerman on the Titanic.  He travelled third class and died in the sinking.  Did Bob even know?  Did he care?  I’m not sure.

In fact that thought leads me on to the thought (again which others have expressed before me) that lack of any reference to the historic facts makes it all seem… well, unreal.  I mean, there’s no iceberg in Dylan.  So could we be back to the tempest as a punishment from God for non-belief, or did Bob really want to write a long repeating song about a storm?

As I pondered and tried to get my thoughts in even a vague sort of order I wondered also if Bob wasn’t looking for a tableau on which he could get all his old characters back together one last time: the rich man, the gamblers…  But if so didn’t he already do this with works like Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts?

Indeed thinking of that song, if one wants to tell a rambling story then isn’t that much earlier song the way to do it?  It’s fun, it’s bouncy and it catches you out.  And this is the problem: so much of it means so little to me.  Take …

Brother rose up against brother
In every circumstance
They fought and slaughtered each other
In a deadly dance

It’s there on its own and it just seems to say nothing other than suggest I’ve got it all wrong and this is the tale of Armageddon, not the Titanic.  Which of course is my problem and my failing, I am not blaming Bob.  I’m just saying, “Sorry your lordship, you’ve lost me there.”

Let me try and explain a little further.  Try this:

He moved across the mirrored room, “Set it up for everyone,” he said
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin’ before he turned their heads
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin
“Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?”
Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts

No, I don’t really get all this.  But it makes me smile, and I feel part of it, even though I have no idea what “it” is.  That doesn’t mean Dylan has to make me smile – goodness me no  – but he has to do something.  I want him to engage with me so I can engage with him, even when I don’t understand.

I am self-evidently struggling here, and may well have already lost 90% of the people who are kind enough to start reading my ramblings, but let me try this.

“Things have changed” has always engaged me from the first moment I heard it.  I must have heard it a thousand times, not just at home, but also because a couple of the dance clubs I go to play it regularly, as it is perfect to dance modern jive to.  And through all these experiences as a listener, and as a dancer, I have come to integrate myself into that piece of music so that it becomes part of me, part of my life, part of my being.  Same with “Love minus zero”.  Same with “Johanna” and so many others.  That is why I love Dylan, and spend so much time writing about his music.  I relate to the music on so many levels.

But here?  I can’t even identify which level I’m supposed to be on.

In a Rolling Stone interview in 2012 there was a part of the conversation which talked about something Bob had said on stage about one of the band on stage wearing a President Obama badge.  Following a question asking what Bob meant by that comment he replied,

I don’t know what I could have meant by that. You say things sometimes, you don’t know what the hell you mean. But you’re sincere when you say it. I would hope that things have changed. That’s all I can say, for whatever it is that I said. I’m not going to deny what I said, but I would have hoped that things would’ve changed.

And I wonder if this isn’t how we should be handling this song.  Maybe there is nothing to read into it.  Bob just heard the Carter Family and thought, “let’s see where this goes.”  In fact in one interview he said pretty much just that.  Indeed in the same Rolling Stone interview he was asked at one point…

“…let’s return to Tempest. Can you talk a little about your songwriting method these days?”

To which Bob replied, “I can write a song in a crowded room. Inspiration can hit you anywhere. It’s magical. It’s really beyond me.”

Which suggests that sometimes, perhaps quite often, it all just comes out, without lots of research, without lots of planning, and without worrying about the facts.  He did indeed also say, “… a songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth. It’s like people who read Shakespeare plays, but they never see a Shakespeare play. I think they just use his name.”

So what do we get?   The original opens with

As the moon rose in glory,
Drifting to the golden west,
She told her sad, sad story:
Sixteen hundred have gone to rest.

Dylan opens with

The pale moon rose in its glory
Out on the western town
She told a sad, sad story
Of the great ship that went down

And off we go.  But Dylan takes five verses to get to

The watchman he lay dreaming
As the ballroom dancers twirled
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
Into the underworld

whereas in the original the watchman comes in, in the second verse

The watchman was lying down dreaming,
Yes, dreaming a sad, sad dream;
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
Far out on the deep blue sea.

In the original song we get in verse three

He woke and called the rich man,
Told him to come to life;
Told him to save his baby
And also his darling wife.

Whereas for Bob it is verse 23 when we get

The rich man, Mr. Astor
Kissed his darling wife
He had no way of knowing
Be the last trip of his life

I won’t go on doing this comparison – you can of course work it out for yourself if you so wish but in essence what we seem to have is Dylan taking the original tune, and the original lyrics and then putting in loads of lyrics of his own in between.  And I find myself asking, “for what purpose?”

And my answer is, “I don’t really know.”

If you play the song lots of times and find it moving or enjoyable or relaxing or whatever, then that’s great.  I just somehow can’t find any of those responses.  I am sure it is my loss, but that’s just how it goes.

The Titanic sailed at dawn, but sadly in this version of the story, no one got round to asking which side any of us was on.

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.

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.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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. Hy Larry, the song is definetly no mainstream.
    First remember Masked & Anonymous with all the characters on stage. Then take Tempest, this “monumental” plot with the following characters on board: we see Cupid, Love, Pity, The reaper, a Dandy, the richman, even a politician, the bishop and the sin. All these people/charaters are sitting in the same boat. By Fate or by the will of God, the passengers are all dying, equal how good or bad they were in the past, on their way to their eternal home, to a golden age fortold or a brave new world or whereever you believe, what is going on behind the horizon.
    Dylan is thinking in plots, this world of intensive pictures and as he told us last year he has a strong affinition to the plays of Shakespeare and I think this song is this kind of a play, where all these characters are connected with eachother, in our world and in every single human beeing.
    Heinrich Detering pointed that out in his book”The underworld of Bob Dylan”
    sadly it´s not translated in English till now. But with this background the song might open up even for you some more layers.
    Copy ? Not at all, its a contradiction of the carter song and even of The tempest an the counterculture of the 60ies.
    And if you´re looking for the watchman?. He´s definetly not on board, he is kind of a prophet, it could be the same night, time could be also out of mind, he saw what will happen, but he could´nt tell.
    For shure, the bible, Shakespeare, Petrarca, greek and roman stories are the main sources for Dylans Lyrics,
    But Dylan said also some important thing :
    If you as the listener have no own experience with the thing, the song is about, you will not understand the song and so this song will not exist for you .
    Have a nice time. .

    In Dylan Lyrics we have more layers than these. The dialog, we both have shows therefore only a different interpretations or gates to the song, enough support or not .
    The reapers task has ended. Love and Pity couldn´t nothing more achieve
    all cashed and carried, the good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best
    The carter song turns via Hollywood in a middle aged “deadly dance”
    a modern story , where the high lord of Heaven sending out Death to load any creature to come, to pay life´s bills.” in a manner of morall plays.
    It´s about the embodiment or personification os human virtues and vices.
    Something is happening, what has happened long before or will happen sometime, timeless and eternal.
    And what about the 45 degrees. Longitude, Latitude, Temperature (somewhere in the shadow of the southern zone), equal.
    Four Times we see this watchman.
    And he´s the dreamer, who sees the sinking of the ship.
    He dreams the happening itself.
    He´s not a figure in this plot, forget the prohet,
    he´s not really a watcher, he´s the director
    So all the figures, Dylan set on the titanic are all dreamed
    “We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep”
    The sleep, which is covering Life and Dying, this is the sleep of the watchman.
    Who knows in which world the dreamer will be, when he finally wakes up.

  2. Sorry, it was you Tony,
    If you comment this thoughts, than please be “creative” and answer in more than with a four-letters word. Thanks.

  3. Hy Tony,
    my experience with posts on your side is, that trough the daily articles about Dylan and his songs they stayed most of the time uncommented.
    Some moth ago i added some thougts to your planet waves articles-remained unanswered. So last weekend I also sat over your New Kick off creativity article, and wanted to write something, but i didnt´t, because I expected no answer, from where its possible to talk about.
    nevertheless keep on going on!

  4. It’s a songs that troubles me, and I understand your difficulty with it, and agree with a lot you say about it. For me it sometimes works and mostly I just drift away, and I blame it on the music he chose for it more than the lyrics, although there are lines that are so paperthin the length of the song almost breaks them, attributing to losing attention of the listener. Yet there are far more layers then just the notion of the sinking of vanity, indeed, all is destroyed and one of the messages might be we all have to deal with this amoral universal death. At the same time the evocation of character or symbols is rich and at instances poignant and I doubt if editing them had been possible, there’s a continuity, a chain of associations Dylan surely had to grasp unto, knowing that inspiration is hard to come by and you have to get it when you can. The need to stick to the folkloric basis hampers this song less than the unimaginative approach of the band (no exciting guitar licks like in Desolation) and the resignation in Dylan’s voice.

  5. ‘Some moth ago…’

    ‘But what the Man-Moth fears most, he must do
    He fails, of course, and falls back scared, but
    quite unhurt’
    (Elizabeth Bishop )

  6. I have to agree with the nay-sayers here. The song becomes tedious because, I think, it lacks that tension between the personal and the political that drives the best Dylan songs. I love some of the tracks on the album ‘Tempest’ – Pay in Blood, Scarlet Town, After Midnight, for their rich, dark sound and spooky feeling. Especially Pay in Blood which I can listen to over and over again and still find mysterious and inexhaustible. The song, Tempest, is flat; there’s no mystery in it, and mystery is an essential ingredient in the best Dylan songs.

  7. A couple of comments – to me the song is not tedious. It’s nearly 14 minutes long, but whenever I listen to it, it feels less than half that. This is partly because Dylan is in better voice on this album than he has been since ‘Love and Theft’. Dylan’s inclusion of ‘Leo’ and his sketchbook is a clear reference to the Di Caprio movie and reflects how mass culture shapes our perceptions of history even as the use of Leo rather than Jack (the character ‘s name) draws attention to the blurring of fiction and reality. The song moves back and forth between the specific event and the feeling of general societal disaster. For example, we hear of Davey the brothel keeper. There wasn’t a brothel on the Titanic to the best of my knowledge.
    So, I think there’s more to the song. Maybe someone more perceptive than me can tease it out.

  8. Hmm. I find your take on the song interesting. This is actually one of like 7 or 8 songs that can actually make me tear up almost every time. More so than any of the darker protest songs or “boots of Spanish leather” and “one too many mornings” which I’m always seeing people rave on and on about how sad they are.
    I agree with you completely about feeling those connections to the songs. Whether it’s an emotional connection or just a connection to the music itself.
    I personally don’t think I’ve made it all the way through “Highlands” more than twice since I was in high school haha.
    Maybe I have a bias though because Tempest is one of my top five favorite Dylan albums

  9. You don’t understand the reason for putting extra verses into a song? Really?
    The character Leo seems obvious to me. It is Dylan, putting himself into the song in a cameo role. Listen to the WORDS.

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