Positively 4th Street: the meaning and the music with an interesting variant

Updated 5 August 2018 with live version added

By Tony Attwood.  This review revised September 2014 and April 2018 with two videos added.

Two lines of music – just eight bars long – repeated over and over and over.  And yet it is brilliant, a song one never tires of because the record is so perfect in its delivery.  (And indeed, although I didn’t realise it when I wrote the original copy of this review, I’m agreeing with Heylin who called it, “one of his greatest ever vocal performances in a studio setting”.

Maybe because it is so viscous in its lyrics that the repetition of the eight bars over and over again without variation just brings home that feeling of unresolved hatred. “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend…”

It is the absolute and complete song of disdain.

When has there been another piece with such a strong opening? It is a wall of disgust that pours out from Dylan, attacking the woman (at least we presume it is a woman he is after) while the music continues unchanging, as the emotion is unchanging too.  (Although I must admit, coming back to the song some ten years after I wrote the first version of this review, perhaps it is also about everyone who protested about his use of electric guitars).

Even if we have never faced someone with such feelings of hatred, we can all empathize with the notion that “You just want to be on the side that’s winning.” How many people like that do we know?

The musical format – unrelenting strophic – was used by Dylan a lot in his earlier works – verse, verse, verse until he has said all he has to say. It was only later that he moved to ternary form with its “middle 8” section. But nowhere else is it used with such anger, but with such straightness of delivery.

As for the musical chords they just beat it out:

D Em G D

D A G Bm A

No surprises there it just uses the chords we would expect in a song like this.  Over and over.

The message is exquisitely simple: there is a morality in friendship and in love affairs.  You stand by your friends and have time for your friends and do all you possibly can for your friends.  If you don’t you are not a friend.  If you have a lover you don’t just wander around creating heartache and heart breaks.

How many people have turned on supposed friends and said these lines to those who did not stand by them?  And yet that is what people do, time and again?  They want to be on the side that’s winning.   We live in the era of “me me me”.

I didn’t quite get all this when I first heard the song as a schoolkid, but boy have I learned this over the years.   And twice in this long and active life I have experienced the most extraordinarily dramatic moment of all in which two quite separate people, individuals who don’t know each other, have each, quite separately and sincerely and at very different times, said to me, “You saved my life”.   Not in the sense of stopping the on-rushing lorry or pulling the person out of the pond, but in terms of being there when really, really needed – and doing what seemed to me to be right, no matter how long it took and how much effort it took, when all other help seemed to have withered away.

I think I got that sense of morality – that vision that friendship means standing by this person no matter what, and being there when needed no matter what – out of this song which I played on the record player, and then endlessly on the piano and guitar, as I sang along to it.

This song, in part, gave me the little bits of good stuff within me, by showing me just what the bad stuff is like.

There’s no variation in tone, melody, chord structure, volume… It just hits you like a rolling wave from which there is never an escape and never will be an escape – and that is how it should be.  Because when you’re in this mood there is no escape.  You have to step outside it to start being fully human again.

There are a lot of other people who have performed this song, but few of them (for me at least) have actually managed to do anything which adds to the performance of the song.   

But the nearest I have got to in terms of a version that actually does say something new is this by Simply Red.

Maybe the core of the problem is that the piece is so dominated by the ever repeating melody that there is nothing that can be done with it.



What else is on the site

1: 500+ 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 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 produced 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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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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9 Responses to Positively 4th Street: the meaning and the music with an interesting variant

  1. denis o donovan says:

    well put .Tony

  2. Jim says:

    All I know is that when this song comes on I always stop and listen to the incredible lyrics. Like most of you I have heard the song countless times, but never get tired of hearing it. He is/was a genius, is it any wonder Duluth MN named a street after him.

  3. Bob Dylan fans do you now know the meanings behind this classic song? Well listen to the original and all the great versions inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/498/Positively-4th-Street Come inside and join us.

  4. Tony says:

    This is actually a nasty song, full of hate and resentment towards (maybe) either Irwin Silber or Izzy Young, towards whom Dylan is rumoured to have felt bitter, and both of whom felt that the song was utterly unfair if indeed it was directed at them. Nevertheless it’s very catchy, with as usual with Dylan, good poetic feeling that I don’t think Dylan even really understood that he possessed – he who was just exploiting a market in his own view.

  5. Mike says:

    I understood it was referencing his feelings about Albert Grossman , his manager before some events previous to this song .

  6. gypsygal says:

    Don’t forget the wonderful musical accompaniment. It’s a great piece of music even if you don’t try to make meanings out of the words, and just let their sound, their wonderful delivery, be part of the musical experience. I think far too much mental energy, by far too many people, is spent trying to make meanings out of Bob’s words. As though the meaning of the words is the important part. And that goes for all his songs. For me, the sound of his words as an integral part of the music is their relevance.

  7. Don says:

    “Enmity and envy are the strongest incentives of backbiting”, equals, “I know the reason that you talk behind my back”.

    “Avoid spying, spying fuels the trading of secrets and misinformation and it creates a climate of mistrust”, equals, “if you cannot bring good news then don’t bring any”.

  8. James A. Barnhart says:

    The song is played by Dylan in a Dropped D tuning capoed at the fourth fret and play in F#.

  9. Claudio says:

    La versión de Johnny Rivera es muy buena

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