Living the blues: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

By Tony Attwood

Living the Blues is one of those odd Dylan slightly flawed gems that turns up so unexpectedly – in this case on Self Portrait, an album not known for its Dylan originals.

And for once Clinton Heylin and I agree – although only on one point.  The origin of this song was undoubtedly “Singing the blues” written in 1954 by the wheelchair bound Melvin Endsley and recorded by just about everyone from Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Guy Mitchell (also covered by Tommy Steele in the UK) to Andy Williams, Paul McCartney, Stonewall Jackson, and Ricky Skaggs.    

The similarity between Dylan’s song and Endsley’s masterpiece just jump out if you are familiar with both, and I’d like to point out (to retain my own credibility here) I thought of this long before I read Heylin.  But interesting to see he makes this his main point.

“Living the blues” was the one giant hit that Endsley had, although Knee Deep in the Blues also found favour, and many of his other songs were minor hits, and Dylan would certainly have been fully aware of the song at the time of writing his version.  Interestingly, the melody is different from and indeed more melodic than “Singing the Blues” where the first three bars are sung on just two notes, but the lyrics have a very similar feel.  The “Without you” refrain is in both songs.

Dylan performed the song on the Johnny Cash show in June 1969 – although it looks very much like he was miming to a recording made a little time before in the studio.   This is a slightly different version from the Self Portrait album version. If you want to an alternative there is a not very good version by the tribute band Love Minus Zero & Friends also on line, but really, I wouldn’t bother.

So, for the song itself, it is in C and there is a jagged little intro that recurs in the song on the notes C, B flat, G, F, E flat C.  A standard blues descending scale, although the melody and lilt of the song itself have nothing to do with the blues – which is another link to “Singing the Blues”.  But that inclusion of B flat and E flat really does remind us that this is “the blues” – a nice touch.

Indeed if you do know “Singing the blues” you get to think about it as soon as Dylan gets going with…

Since you’ve been gone
I’ve been walking around
With my head bowed down to my shoes
I’ve been living the blues
Ev’ry night without you

Singing the blues itself opens with

Well, I never felt more like singin’ the blues
’cause I never thought that I’d ever lose
Your love dear, why’d you do me this way?
Well, I never felt more like cryin’ all night
’cause everythin’s wrong, and nothin’ ain’t right
Without you, you got me singin’ the blues.

Different song, and the Guy Mitchell version I have found on You Tube is more upbeat than I remember it, but even so, there are links.

Dylan continues with a real 1950s feel…

I don’t have to go far
To know where you are
Strangers all give me the news
I’ve been living the blues
Ev’ry night without you

And then, in keeping with the style of the 1950s Dylan gives us a “middle 8” – an intermediate section which was so popular in pop music of that era.   It is just what “Singing the blues” does.

He moves onto F major for the first two bars, and then back to C major, but then in a break from “Singing the blues” the fourth line “But I can’t deny” goes to D major, preparing to modulate to G major.   We do indeed get there, but then the last line of this section (“Carry for you deep down inside”) is very strange.  It starts on the chord of G major, making us feel we are very truly there, and then quickly goes through a set of chords that associate with C major – but not C major in blues music, but C major in classic folk.

All in all this final line which runs through the chords of G, F, Dm, Em Am F

I think that it’s best
I soon get some rest
And forget my pride
But I can’t deny
This feeling that I
Carry for you deep down inside

It is a most curious experiment, and not one that I have ever heard done in any other song.  Indeed I think one might also say that this isn’t tried elsewhere because it just doesn’t work.

The whole song is lilting.  Yes it has the lyrical theme of the blues – the woman has gone – but it is the blues 1950s pop and country style.  There’s not a single element of Dylan’s early folk roots in this at all either in the lyrics or the melody or the chords.   And then suddenly we get this strange set of chord changes.  It really seems to disrupt the whole piece for no reason.

For me it is an experiment that failed to work but which is left in, which is a shame because otherwise it is lovely piece of music.

Apparently it was intended as a single, but was then dropped for Lay Lady Lay.  But we have it preserved on Self Portrait.   But even there it is rather curious coming immediately before Like a Rolling Stone.

Maybe the clue is in the last verse.  Does “If you see me this way” mean “mixed up between my old song, my rock masterpieces when I can’t remember all the words (which he can’t in the Self Portrait version) and a bit of country?”

That might be pushing it all too far, but even so, that’s how it comes across.

If you see me this way
You’d come back and you’d stay
Oh, how could you refuse
I’ve been living the blues
Ev’ry night without you

It is a lovely song, but that last part of the middle 8 is, for me at least, a trifle annoying.

Index to all the songs reviewed.

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