“Nothing to it” Bob Dylan contemplates nilhilism in the 1960s.

By Tony Attwood

“Nothing to it” is a song from “The New Basement Tapes ” the collection of lyrics jotted in a notebook in the 1960s, with music now added by a collection of the highly talented, and released as “Lost on the River”.  The lead activist in all this being T Bone Burnett who put the band together and recorded the materials with, of course, Mr Dylan’s permission.

Nothing To It has lead vocals by Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and it opens side 2 of the vinyl version of the album.  Burnett said at the time of the release of the album that he wanted to bring together a set of  “music archaeologists… artists who know how to dig without breaking the thing they are digging.”

This sort of thing has been done before of course – most notably with the 1998 album Mermaid Avenue in which Billy Bragg and the band Wilco in which the unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs which have survived only as lyrics were recorded – a project undertaken with Woody Guthrie’s daughter’s blessing.

“Nothing to it” is the second song from the album I’m looking at, and it is curious as the storyteller in the song (not to be confused with Bob himself) reflects on nihilism – having seen it all and done it all, with “no organisation I wanted to join” he contemplates murdering a thief.

Quite what the thief stole (and whether it was a petty crime or a theft on the international stage) we don’t know.  But the singer feels he can be judge and jury, and he’s going to win whatever happens.

Towards the end of the song the lyrics seem (to me – and of course it is just to me) to lose their coherence, as the issue of the murder is lost and instead the singing appears to be begging.  But maybe there is a link that I haven’t quite got.

You can of course decide (and write in and correct me) – there’s a video of the song below.  But first here are the lyrics.

Nothing To It

Written by Bob Dylan and Jim James

Well I knew I was young enough
And I knew there was nothing to it
‘cause I’d already seen it done enough
And I knew there was nothing to it

There was no organization I wanted to join
So I stayed by myself and took out a coin
There I sat with my eyes in my hand
Just contemplating killing a man

(For greed was one thing I just couldn’t stand)
If I was you I’d put back what I took
A guilty man’s got a guilty look
Heads I will and tails I won’t
As long as the call be won’t be my own

Well you don’t have to turn your pockets inside out
But I’m sure you can give me something
Well you don’t have to go into your bank account
But I’m sure you can give me something

Well I knew I was young enough
And I knew there was nothing to it
‘cause I’d already seen it done enough
And I knew there was nothing to it

Well I knew I was young enough
And I knew there was nothing to it
And I’d already seen it done enough
And I knew there was nothing to it

And I knew there was nothing to it

The band for the recording is made up of…

Jim James – Lead Vocal, Electric Guitar, Synthesizer
Elvis Costello – Bass, Vocal
Rhiannon Giddens – Vocal
Taylor Goldsmith – Piano
Marcus Mumford – Electric Guitar, Vocal
Jay Bellerose – Drums
Carla Azar – Drums


Also from the album and reviewed so far…

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  1. Tony, don’t be so literal!

    Not ‘nihilistic’, but moralistic – It’s not that difficult for a young artist with the talent to make old art new – ‘amateur artists imitate, professional artists steal’ (Picasso).

    Quite another to have to contend with those who run Maggie’s Music Business and lust after the Almighty Dollar ….. for starters, you can shoot’em down with your words.

  2. Tough the explanation might be a thousand times longer that the song, in the brief lyrics above be found evidence there of Dostoievsky’s rejection of modern existentionalist ‘nihilism’ in favour of the traditional values of a
    pre-existing moral ‘essence’ attributed to ‘God’,

    ie, give me something, not nothing, in Dylan’s words.

    Since it is your contention, Francois, I’ll do the altruistic moral thing and leave the writing of the article in your capable hands.

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