Bob Dylan And The Not-So-Idealization Of Women


by Larry Fyffe

In folksongs, up-and-coming technology is often depicted as a threat to the traditional family living off the land. The alienation wrought by the separation of a husband from his wife by that technology conjures up a number of songs that transform the steam locomotive into a surrogate snake-like female lover:

Oh, roll on, John, and make your time
For I’m broke down and I can’t make mine
I asked that girl to be my wife
Right down she set and begin to cry ….
I wish to the Lord the horn would blow
‘Cause I’m so tired of that old railroad
(Palmer Crisp: Roll On, John – traditional – see also here)

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan stokes the analogy with the hot coals of Freudian surrealism:

Well, I ride a mailtrain, baby, can’t buy a thrill
Well, I’ve been up all night, baby, leaning on the windowsill
Well, if I die on top of the hill
And if I don’t make it, you know my baby will
(Bob Dylan: It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry)

The mechanical ‘iron horse’ overtakes the four-legged one as a euphemism for the female human body, but the organic metaphor remains in the race:

I got a coal-black mare
But, Lord, how that horse can run
Yes, she win every race
Man, you don’t see how it’s done …..
Say, she fox-trot and pace
And I ride that horse today
(Big Daddy Crudup: Black Pony Blues)

Bob Dylan jumps in the songwriter’s saddle, and grabs the reins of the tamed trope:

I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope, and pace
Well, I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope, and pace
She got big hind legs
And big long shaggy hair above her face
(Bob Dylan: New Pony)

The gasoline-driven automobile roars onto the scene making way for a new sexist analogy:

I got a brand new car
And I like to drive real hard
I got a brand new car
And I’m feeling good so far
(Rolling Stones: Brand New Car)

Personified as a used car, she can even talk:

We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoning it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
‘We’ll meet again someday on the avenue’
(Bob Dylan: Tangled Up In Blue)

Man-powered boats, sometimes assisted by the wind, be an early means of travel, and they too become ‘shes’, inside and outside of song lyrics:

I got a rockin’ boat
She got a rock on the stern
Five feet seven, don’t know how it’ll work
Oh, oh, on a rockin’ boat
Can’t you even learn by the way she drive?
(Bob Dylan: On A Rocking Boat)

Often in song lyrics, the human male, at least when he’s up for it, is depicted as the one in control of the situation:

I am the little red rooster, babe
To lazy to crow today
I am the little red rooster, babe
To lazy to crow today
I keep everything in the barnyard upset in every way
(Rolling Stones: Little Red Rooster)

The female, on the other hand, is more likely to get compared to a machine that’s ready to be ridden:

Little red wagon, little red bike
I ain’t no monkey, but I know what I like
I like the way you love me strong and slow
I’m takin’ you with me, honey baby, when I go
(Bob Dylan: Buckets Of Rain)

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  1. That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone suggest that it’s the car that tells him “We’ll meet again someday.” And why not? Isn’t “on the avenue” exactly where you’d meet a car? That certainly opens up some possibilities. Maybe Dylan isn’t personifying a car as a woman. Maybe he’s automating a woman as a car–the real subject of the song. It takes a little stretching, but you can read it that way if you want to. Standing by the side of the road, watching the cars go by. Seeing a lot of women, but thinking about his car. A topless place–a topless car, a convertible. Some kind of play on “pipe” and “tailpipe.” The bottom fell out–rusted away? And so on.

    Unfortunately, the pronouns don’t cooperate. “We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned IT way out west. . . . SHE turned around to look at me.” No muddle there at all; “it” is the car, “she” is the woman. Of course, in this of all songs, pronouns are not to be trusted. “I” and “he” may or may not be the same person; “she” may or may not be the same “she” from one verse to another; and “it” may just be a counter for anything you want it to be–a car, a woman, a book of poems, or (who knows what goes through Dylan’s mind?) a hot fudge sundae at Gray’s Drugstore in Dinkytown, downstairs from Bob’s second-floor apartment. We shouldn’t rule anything out.

  2. Well, it’s takes a car to cry ….you’d cry too if treated as an ‘it’ after being so faithful, then abandoned …the tangled up pronouns give some wiggle room for such an amusing analogical interpretation when taken in the context of other songs.

    But admittedly there’s tongue-cheek involved on my part to demonstrate Dylan’ s shifting of viewpoints makes it dubious to assert that one has come up with a sure-fire interpretative meaning to a song.

  3. Sorry- the thesis is too broad and you illustration are poor and not relevant. This is nonsense. I write songs-why do u assume I’m writing about women every time I mention a noun, especially since I’m gay- you write well but this is just nonsense….if you want the “real thing” listen to the Stones’
    “Stray Cat Blues” or 9i9 sing “I want to fuck you like an animal.”’
    Folks get graphic—and besides,‘believe it or not, not every song is about sex.

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