Why we should stop taking Bob Dylan so literally.

By Tony Attwood

The classic analysis of the content of lyrics of popular songs is that there are three options: love, lost love and dance.   And indeed for many a long year those three subject areas have dominated popular music.

Of course the blues added another dimension: the fact that the world has all gone wrong, and the singer is left with nothing.

But still that is not everything, for it is possible to write a song to put across a message; the protest songs are an obvious example.   It is possible to write a song to tell a story – for exactly the same reason as any story teller writes a story: for entertainment, or to give a moral.

One can also write soings to offer a particular view of the universe – this being an approach by religious leaders or civil rights activities.   And of course over time there have been many other approaches, and as we know Bob Dylan has ventured into many of these different approaches to lyric writing.

But in looking at all these different types of lyrics, there is one thing that has often concerned me, and that is the propensity of some analyists of Dylan’s work to insist that most of his lyrics related to issues that Dylan believes in and that all the lyrics have to make sense.

Which raises the question, why should Dylan be different from any other story teller?  Why should the stories have significance?  Why should they make sense?

One of the songs that I adore in the Dylan library, and one that I have come back to time and time again, “The Drifters Escape” doesn’t really make sense at all.  OK if you play with the meanings a bit, it sort of has a meaning, but one has to do quite a big of jiggling around to get there.

But I love the song not because I find a meaning, but because of the sound and the way the individual images fall over each other while the music stays static.   Curiously, I don’t enjoy hearing Dylan’s re-working of the song in the recordeings of his live performances – to me those versions miss the essence of the song.   But then who am I to tell Dylan what’s right and what’s wrong?

However the overall point is that just because many stories that we hear make some sort of sense, have a start and an end, and maybe even a moral, it does not mean that all songs have to be like this.  It does not mean that “Visions of Johanna” has to be about something – it can, like a painting, be an image or a set of images that just roll back and forward across the canvas, offering different reflections and shades of light depending on which way you look at them.

Now all this seems fairly obviously to me: but clearly not to many people, because many of the discussions on this site and indeed on other websites and in countless books, are about the meaning behind Dylan songs, with writers saying, “X in Dylan refers to Y” where X and Y can be anything from a joker to the state of Israel.

And maybe that is true sometimes – but I rather suspect most of the time not.   To me many of the songs deliberately make no sense at all, because they are instead the equivalent of a set of pictures which simply set a scene.  Johanna is clearly like this, to me, as is Tell Ol Bill – another song I mention whenever I have a chance.   It is a set of images, with a sort of hint of a situation, occasional pasts and presents.

Of course there was a time when Dylan tell us very clearly what his songs were all about – during his Christian period of songwriting.  And here is the great irony.  The one time when we didn’t need to be told what Dylan was saying – (“When He Returns” for example) is clarity beyond clarity – we can’t mistake what it is about.   But when things are not clear, he leaves them misty and uncertain.

Of course arguing about the meaning of the song is the easiest way to debate a song – it takes us onto concrete ground – we can argue from a sort of logical basis and see if the logic holds up.

But really I think it is a false route: most of the time we should be talking about feelings not meanings.   And yet I know I am as guilty as anyone in travelling down the meaning route time and again in my reviews, and if I have time I’ll go back and change them to correct my own mistake.  Although a mistake that has taken me years to grasp.

OK “Abandoned Love” is about, well, abandoned love.   And that is true in many cases. But by and large I think this is an exception.   Most of the time the songs are abstracts.  And the more we see them as abstracts, to my mind, the more enjoyable they become.



  1. Bob Dylan’s song are not abstract paintings though some have a cubist twist to them – there are too just too many concrete word-images in them. They’re not Jackson Pollock paintings where almost any meaning can be applied.

    Even ‘When He Returns’ has enough ambiguity in the chosen words to allow for different levels of interpretation besides just a dogmatic religious one, but the concrete images are there and they have to be taken into consideration when doing so.

    Music, lyrics, voice, and the listener as well as the writer of the piece all have their entrances and exits.

    The Nobel Prize would not have been awarded to Dylan had his most of his music not been accompanied by his well thought-out lyrics.

    Now almost taken for granted.

  2. And, of course, if one concentrated solely on Dylan’s music, and set aside venturing into possible meanings of the lyrics, Untold would lack what a lot of people seem to be interested in.

    The lyrics be a deep well from which many Untold articles can be drawn whether a reader agrees, or sort of agrees, with them or not.

  3. Dylan’s words, as unique and marvellous as they are only one part of the art…equally important are the music and especially the vocal performance. One of the several youtube performances of ‘ To Fall in Love With You ‘ has had 7.2 million views and over 1,000 comments. What are people from all cultures and languages responding to in this performance? One comment refers to being held in a uniquely powerful spell by incoherent words. I believe most people like myself are deeply moved by the sheer power of his ability to communicate feelings and emotions which transcend words and culture. Dylan certainly would not have received a Nobel Prize if it was not for his rare power to give so much emotion in performing his songs.

  4. There’s really no disagreement here – voice, lyrics and music – but a knowledge of particular American street-slang words adds another dimension to seemingly nonsensical lyrics.

  5. The other point is that his lyrics are deep, deep, deep – often with lines that have multiple interpretations and possible meanings that might reveal themselves after decades of listening.

  6. I am pleased that you have come to the conclusion that you have about Dylan’s lyrics. They are only one component of his work. They are as important as the music, but it is the whole process of recording, playing instruments, and writing words that form the finished art.
    That art is primarily writing and recording songs, not spending time agonising over commentating or making their meaning obscure. There are a number of songs that are based on factual incidents, such as ‘Hurricane’, but these are in a minority. There have been many ‘studies’ and ‘printed journals’ interpreting Bob’s songs. I am sure there are many people who find value in reading such material, and if they find this useful then good luck.
    I have never been convinced by interpretations. like any art it must be judged in its entirety. This is why many books and articles fail to shed any light on Bobs work.
    I have always thought that the weakness of your site is the propensity to concentrate excessively on the lyrics. For example, The Basement Tapes material contains many wonderful songs, but I struggle to understand how anyone can divine that Bob had any intention to write specifically about something, and what the lyrics are ‘about’.
    This in no way belittles Bobs work. It actually enhances the songs by making people instinctively feel a sense of fear, sadness, laughter without necessarily understanding why. I don’t think it is likely that Bob starts with intentions to write a happy or sad song, but a lot of what he produces is without doubt great work that perhaps speaks to the human psyche. Amen

  7. Mr. Goldsmith [“a nasty, dirty, double-crossin, back stabbin’, phony” (lol )] , the lyrics are a good source of articles for Untold whereas I’m not so sure how many articles the music alone would provide.

    Dylan got the Nobel Prize in Literature; were there one in Music, who knows…

    There is no requirement that one must look to books for interpretations of Dylan’s song lyrics – nor to consider them as proclaiming the truth revealed if one does so.

    Let those who have ears listen and I’m sure they’ll put at least some thought into understanding what the lyrics mean.

    Why anyone would presume to know the writer’s intentions or lack thereof has always perplexed me.

    The examination of his/her lyrics (even just for the hell of it) is another matter.

  8. One can remain silent or one can just mime, but language and it’s somewhat flexible structure for communicating by the spoken as well as by the written word is unique to human beings, and artists rely on that fact. ie the ‘Basement Tapes’ when examined in that context, as previous and upcoming articles attempt to demonstrate, are not as obscure as they first appear.

  9. When it comes to lyrics, Dylan mixes up the medicine using all kinds of ingredients. He can switch from the personal to the political, from specifics to generalities, from poetic intensity to everyday cliches and common sayings; he can mix in lines from the history of poetry (from Ovid to Eliot), blues songs, folk songs, bits and pieces from all over. He can be both precise and elusive… and teasing. Add to this the music and vocal performance and we have an emotional unity rather than a rational one.

    Right from the start Dylan has been crying out, ‘how does it feeeeeeel?’ not ‘what do you think?’

    American poet Lyn Hejinian makes the distinction between open and closed language. Closed language is that which orchestrates its elements towards a single meaning or interpretation, like these sentences I am writing now. Open language is that which is ‘maximally excited’ and may produce multiple potential meanings. Dylan’s songs are open in this way, not random or meaningless but charged with potentiality, like Tony’s favourite Tell Ol Bill. These are songs we keep coming back to again and again because 0pen language is never exhausted, whereas closed language is gobbled up in a moment.

    I am reminded of those tedious English classes at school where we would study a poem and then have to write a paragraph explaining what the poet meant, or was ‘trying to say’, as if the most important thing to do was to reduce the poem to a prose explanation. As if the critical project’s true purpose is to reduce open language to closed language Oh, those lame classroom paragraph; oh, that misdirected effort!

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