Bob Dylan: the eternal wanderer, outside and beyond

By Tony Attwood

We all know the score: Dylan walks on stage, doesn’t say a word, performs the songs, maybe shares a few comments with members of the band, at the end takes the applause, walks off stage, moves onto  the next show. Quite right that it is called the “Never Ending Tour”.  It could also be called “Don’t speak.”

It wasn’t always like this.  In the early folk days Dylan announced what the songs were about but that quickly stopped.  For a while he lectured the audience on the need to give themselves over to God.   Now, we just get the songs.

But here’s the thing.  Even though he has apparently stopped composing, or at least we can safely say, now he is in his longest non-compositional spell, he is still touring, he’s still gotta keep moving as Robert Johnson announced.   The blues might not be falling down like hail, but he’s sure gotta keep on keeping on.

And there is now the absolute ban at the gigs not just on taking pictures but on using phones to record the show.  It is as if Bob really doesn’t want there to be a track record of all these extraordinary new arrangements – for unless they have a complete studio set up back stage which no one has told us about, all the re-workings of the songs are going to be lost forever as each tour comes to an end.

Which is for many of us desperately sad.  Yes of course there are some people who see every tour, and so do catch all the new versions, but even so the memory of each new arrangement will quickly fade.  And there are so many of us who for very practical reasons just can’t get to every show.

So what is going on?

I think the answer lies not in some deep laden well-thought-out plan of Dylan or his record company or management but in something rather different.  Yes, it would be easy to explain this if there were plans to release some more Dylan archive footage from the tours – and of course they might do that: a series of 3-set CDs covering each new tour so you get all the songs that were sung every night, plus on the final CD the odd songs that made it onto the set just once or twice.  Think of the sales of that!

But no, the underlying motivation, I think, is different.  It is something that goes back to the image of the wandering singer, meandering from town to town, never settling down, always on the move.

And then on top of that something that is harder to describe – an unworldliness, a disconnection, a phasing in and out of existence.  And in this little essay I want to try and take us through the process of how the wandering singer meets his other self who phases in and out from separate realities.  But please don’t worry – in the end it turns out to be not nearly as spooky as it sounds.

However the first part is easy to get: the travelling.  Dylan’s hardly the hobo – the opposite in fact – but the image of being on the road moving on has never left him from the earliest days of getting to know The Parting Glass which became Restless Farewell and was so succinctly expressed in One too many mornings (the two songs written one after the other) and so many other songs thereafter.

But there are other elements in this too.  There is Dylan’s belief in the randomness of life, in which events just happen for no special reason and one does keep moving on.  Of course Dylan’s view in his writing has often changed and has for a while expressed the opposite view (the religious period of course represents a devotion to God’s plan which leads ultimately to the Second Coming, and the damnation for all eternity for the unbelievers), but it is there throughout his work, and it keeps on returning.

Song to Woodie  just about the earliest Dylan composition that we have with complete lyrics and music talks about the hard travelling – suggesting both physical moving on and mental processing of the world around.  And it is inevitable that when one moves on and on then stuff happens.

Although of course one doesn’t have to be moving on for random events to take over your life, as Ballad for a friend written at the start of 1962 shows us.   And indeed the infinitely more famous Blowing in the wind written just a short while later takes the theme further – you can’t fully understand what’s going on, it is just all out there.  (Or “Everything’s just everything cos everything just is” as Roy Harper once wrote).

And so you have just got to find it you’ve just got to keep on walking down those roads, on and on.  There is no end.

So with this feeling in mind, the travelling songs continued through that year, such as Down the Highway and Don’t think twice – the latter of which tells us so clearly that it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, because it don’t matter anyhow.  I’ll be gone by the time the rooster crows.

And this travelling on, is central not just to the singer, but it is the expectation of life.  “If you’re travelling in the north country fair…” it is not just Bob that travels – it is everyone.

In 1963 he sings Farewell and tells us he’s Going back to Rome and Ramblin Down Thru the World  and despite this being the time of him being the protest singer, he’s so clearly telling us that nothing is changing (Eternal Circle) and we get to the end of that year with those two consecutive statements of the central theme One too many mornings  and  Restless Farewell.

Of course there are contradictions in all this: It ain’t me babe which clearly says leave me alone, and I’m moving on, was followed quickly by Mama you’ve been on my mind.   But lost love for Dylan is just a subset of the world of moving on – a necessary part of the process.  Is not a world of regret, it is a world of inevitability.  In this world of moving on and moving on there is bound to be lost love – but one doesn’t try and get it back, one keeps on moving, exactly as Robert Johnson said.

Of course part of this vision is the determined desire to be an individual and to express one’s individualism, to be able to stand apart from the world, to live outside the law – such notions go with the whole show.

But one may ask why?  What is it that lies behind this notion of moving on without even leaving footprints (or in practical terms, getting the increasingly aggressive venue crews to treat the paying audience as thieves trying to steal the artist’s work)?

As Gates of Eden and It’s all right ma suggest it is because the world makes no sense, that all one can ever do is look after oneself, try to retain one’s integrity, ignore the critics, don’t follow leaders, don’t answer questions, just move on.  That’s how it is, there is no secret, no deep underlying law, no ultimate goal, you just keep on keeping on.

By 1965 the message was refining itself – for Dylan seemed to have realised that it wasn’t just that keeping moving was the right thing to do, for its own sake, but rather that life itself was total chaos.  “It’s life and life only”.  Indeed “to understand you know too soon there is no sense in trying,” quite simply because “he not busy being born is busy dying.”   How clear does the message have to be?   There simply is no point; all one can do is just keep moving.

But there is a sub-text of course, because nothing can ever be as simple as all that.  In a way the sub-text was there all the time, but it was in 1965 that it became suddenly so much clearer with Desolation Row because it is here, carrying on the theme from “It’s all right ma” we get the notion so clearly that it is not the world that affects us, it is not the world that makes us as we are, but the way that we choose to see the world.   Those guys with their postcards of the hanging see it one way, TS Eliot another, and Dylan… well,

All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name

You don’t change the world, you change the way you see the world – and where Dylan goes is into the half light, where we are all stranded and isolated, all seeing the world in our own way.  Even the night watchman is unsure who among them has a real grip on reality, and is starting to wonder who has got it right.  As for those who are sure they know, well, they are just as  confused as little boy lost.

It was the John Wesley Harding collection which cemented this notion of the disconnection with the world around as a central theme in Dylan’s songwriting – from which we take it, it has been a central theme in his thinking.

Song after song in JWH is about the outsider: the immigrant, the hobo, JWH himself, and of course the characters on the watchtower.

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief

Is the perfect expression of this disconnect from reality, and the need to keep moving on.

This time however Dylan goes further…

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

Then again in the Drifter’s Escape, the judge has a tear in his eye because he recognises the Drifter’s disconnect from the real world and  the impossibility of the Drifter ever understanding.

But it is the unexpected irony of the cause of the Drifter’s escape that shows us Dylan’s thinking.  There is no rhyme and reason; ultimately no cause and effect

Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while ev’rybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

Dylan returned to this central theme of existing beyond society and beyond cause and effect with “New Morning” as he now returned to the remote rural setting although this time without displaced farmers and miners to show us the disconnection. Sign on the window tells us these thoughts are still on his mind.

Sign on the window says “Lonely”
Sign on the door said “No Company Allowed”
Sign on the street says “Y’ Don’t Own Me”
Sign on the porch says “Three’s A Crowd”

And as for Time passes slowly as I said in my review at the time,

“The world is not what you think….The simple land is deceptive – the mountains don’t change but the thoughts and dreams of those who live here can change.  It is as if those thoughts create the world.  There is nothing real here at all… except of course there is.  This is the simple countryside isn’t it?  Streams and log cabins and stuff…”

And  through all this Dylan is grasping that although that is so, maybe there is something else out there, something beyond the world we can appreciate with our five senses, a world that lies out of our grasp. For as he said much later, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way”.

He has become the distanced observer as in Watching the river flow…

Daylight sneakin’ through the window
And I’m still in this all-night café
Walkin’ to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin’ slow
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow

Of course sometimes he can re-enter our world and take part in the world’s affairs, but much of the time he is distanced from it all, content to watch because he has now long since realised that the real world is much of the  time what we just imagine it to be and there ain’t too much we can do about it, except dream up something new.

And then finally after maybe 18 or so years of trying, he got to the complete expression of this notion of separation from time and place, this flexibility of time that arrives when there is no longer cause and effect, that the world is you think it to be, when he created Tangled up in blue .

Of course through the 1970s Dylan was changing, because for most of us there is only so much uncertainty in life that one can take, and when it came along Gotta Serve Somebody struck out for the total antithesis of these themes that had dominated Dylan’s thinking before.

But even though that theme of being outside, looking in, of the world not being real was now to be cast aside for the certainty of When He Returns it was still there gnawing away at him, as I hope to prove in my second part of this little exploration of Dylan’s thinking.

Which I hope will follow soon.

What else is on the site

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ Dylan compositions reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

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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.

One comment

  1. Though you might hear laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun
    It’s not aimed at anyone
    It’s just escaping on the run
    And but for the sky there are no fences facing
    And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme
    To your tambourine in time
    It’s just a ragged clown behind
    I wouldn’t pay it any mind
    It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing
    Hey! Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me
    I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
    Hey! Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me
    In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you
    And take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
    Down the foggy ruins of time
    Far past the frozen leaves
    The haunted frightened trees
    Out to the windy beach
    Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
    Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
    With one hand waving free
    Silhouetted by the sea
    Circled by the circus sands
    With all memory and fate
    Driven deep beneath the waves
    Let me forget about today until tomorrow
    Hey! Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me
    I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
    Hey! Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me
    In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

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