All the tired horses: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

The problems with popular music critics through the ages have been legion.  A lack of any sort of musical knowledge (Clinton Heylin is the prime culprit here), a lack of understanding of the creative process, a lack of comprehension of the artistic mind… Indeed everything is set aside so that a simple “does it work?” or “does it do something new?” question can be asked.  Most of the time they are not critics, they’re bullshitters.

For creativity in the arts isn’t like that, and thank goodness that although there are some fairly feeble theatre, art, classical music, dance and literary critics around we do have some who understand the explorations, the games, the trials of the artist.

Indeed I can imagine that if Heylin had declared himself a literary critic instead of pontificating on Dylan, he might well have applauded Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” for being short and to the point with some interesting characters, but sneered at Gravity’s Rainbow for being too long.   Or maybe he would have enjoyed the Pickwick Papers because they were funny, and dismissed Bleak House as too dull to hold the audience.

Nowhere is this point better made that with his review of “All the tired horses” and indeed much of Self Portrait (which he graciously informs us without any justification is not a self-portrait).

The notion of popular songs written around a handful of lines has been with us for a long old time – certainly since the early days of rock n roll, and indeed the 12 bar blues themselves have the approach of repeating the first line in each three line verse.

One only has to think of  the rhythm and blues classic “I Need Your Lovin” composed by Bobby Robinson and Don Gardner which has just one line – “I need your lovin everyday” and was a huge hit in 1962.  It lasts almost six minutes and manages to combine the gospel feeling with the insistant repeat of the line symbolising the power and passion of love in which all one can do is think of one’s lover, over and over and over.

Others have gone for three line songs – Little Richard’s “Keep on knocking” is a classic with

  • You keep on knocking but you can’t come in
  • Come back tomorrow night and try it again
  • You said you love me but you can’t come in.

Or if you prefer there is “Hound Dog”

  • You ain’t nothing but a hound dog crying all the time
  • You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine
  • You said you were high class but that was just a lie.

What these songs do is use the power and drive of the music to allow the lines to be repeated over and over while “I need your loving” plays with the vocal part as two singers entwine.  What Dylan does, typically, is goes somewhere else, varying the accompaniment constantly while keeping the lyrical line stable.

It is a most interesting experiment, and coming back to it now (I have to admit I had forgotten about the song, until I received a request to write about it) I’m led to the conclusion that the people who come out of this album looking silly are not Dylan and the record company but the critics, like the Rolling Stone guy who wrote “What is this shit?”   “More than you could possibly know,” I think would be an appropriate answer.

All the tired horses in the sun
How am I supposed to get any riding done?

Dylan has spoken in some interviews about the Self Portrait album, and expressed his frustration at what the media seemed to be demanding of him, as if he would suddenly pop up at Woodstock, suddenly embrace this or that cause – it all represented a complete misunderstanding of Dylan as the musical and literary explorer, the great traveller taking in every genre, and each diversion, just to see where it went.

But instead of seeing it like that, most writers have followed the notion that “riding” is Dylan actually saying “writing”.  As a metaphor it is hardly very profound for such a lyricist is it?

I think that just as “I hear you knocking” can repeat and repeat because it is about the continual attempt by the Devil to re-enter Richard Penniman’s life,  “I need your loving” repeats and repeats to stress how love is bigger than everything, and “Hound Dog” is just “you’re nothing, you’re nothing, you’re nothing” (the reverse in fact of “I need your loving”) so “All the tired horses” is about the world around.

If everyone around you in the world is just run down and going over the same old ground, it is hard to pick yourself up.  So you look elsewhere – which on the album Dylan does perfectly soon after with his beautiful rendition of Alberta.

Although, as I say, I had lost track of this song, when I heard it again I was reminded of my first hearing of it, when I thought the singer sang, “All the wild horses” – which would change the meaning totally to one of “there’s a party going on, and I want to work.”  But no, this is the world, still a pretty world, still an interesting world, but a world, that is running down.  We need a new direction.  The band plays on in ever increasing twiddles and turns, but we don’t get anywhere at all.  We need that new route out.

As such, the album is perfect; a review of sources, an artist’s sketchbook, a poet’s collection of favourite lines.  Had it been me (and I’m not of course suggesting I have one billionth of the creative talent of Dylan) I would have tried  playing with Auden’s

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum


Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun

as my source, or maybe Eliot…

See the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo 

We all have our favourite lines to express where we are, to remind us of what’s what, and to allow us to pick up, look around and start again.  On this album Dylan did just that.

Index of all the songs reviewed



  1. Excellent, thoughtful review Tony. Interesting notion re ‘riding/writing’, gave never come across that ‘explanation’ before.

    Welcome back to Blighty, trust you had a god trip down under.



  2. What you have touched on in your review is the essence of art.

    That which is not overt and obvious can have a more lasting and intimate relationship with the viewer or listener.

    I appreciate songs that explain themselves easily, like “the hurricane”, but I admire and respect songs that are open to interpretation just as much.

    As a stimuli to thought, that type of song serves a greater purpose, in that analytical thinking is becoming a lost ability in our sound bite and twit-er world.

  3. Indeed, Dylan greatly expands music and lyrics outward in all directions, including what is considered to be ‘high’ literature: for example the Bible, Blake, TS Eliot, and Ginsberg. He mixes up the medicine:

    He plays with Eliot’s “the women come and go”:

    “While all the women came and went”
    (Dylan: All Along The Watchtower)

    Isaiah 21: 6-7 – “…Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth/
    And, behold, here cometh a chariot with a couple of horsemen”

    “Outside in the distance/
    ….Two riders were approaching/
    And the wind began to howl”
    (Dylan: All Along The Watchtower)

    Ginsberg speaks of Blake to Dylan (“Bring me my chariot of fire”/ “Tiger, tiger, burning bright”) in his famous work:

    “…angel-headed hipsters…./
    Hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy/
    Among the scholars of war”
    (Ginsberg: Howl)

    “You burned so bright/
    Roll on John/
    Tiger, tiger burning bright”
    ((Dylan: Roll On John)

  4. Two riders approaching on fresh horses – howling
    Ginsberg and nobel Dylan – out to bring down the Great Whore of Babylon, the established order of
    the American music entertainment industry atop its golden calf of simplistic love songs.

  5. Subsequently, I observed another responder has similar thoughts to mine on the All Along the Watchtower page
    ….which is interesting to say the least.

  6. From a surrealistic/symbolic
    perpective, the horses just want Paul Revere to get off and walk, while women who are tired of being used, just want you to get off.

  7. Taking a cue from:

    “I the Lord search the heart/
    I try the reins/
    Even to give every man/
    According to his ways/
    And according to the fruit of his doings”
    (Jermiah 17: 10)

  8. Tony Atwood – I misunderstood the lyrics too. I thought he said “how you gonna get any driving done?”. When it’s “riding” instead of “driving” it automatically portrays the leisure class:. “Oh darn, Silverhooves is too tired to ride today – how shall I fill my day?” – kind of a revolting message. I agree with your main point and your illustrations – Keep A Knocking and I Need Your Loving Everyday – monster songs with big emotions.

  9. Bob was not on my radar until I went to college in 1970 and shared a room with a Dylan fanatic. He had just purchased Self Portrait and played it constantly. Horses was the first track and I was soon entranced. Days of 49 was my favourite. I did not have a great deal of money but within six months owned his back catalogue.

  10. RE: “One only has to think of the rhythm and blues classic “I Need Your Lovin” composed by Bobby Robinson and Don Gardner which has just one line – “I need your lovin everyday” and was a huge hit in 1962”

    I think you are referring to the second half of a roughly 6-minute recording and that the first half did have some “lyrics”. Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford were the performers.

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