Why does Bob Dylan so adore “So Cold in China”?

By Tony Attwood

This article follows on from a comment made by Jochen Markhorst in his excellent review of  Buckets of Rain relating to Bob Dylan’s professed adoration of the song “So Cold in China”  In case you missed it, here is the only recording I can find of the song.  You might care to play it while reading on…

So, to begin, there is the question, “Why do we like any one song, any one picture, any one movie, play, or novel more than another?”

There are of course always multiple reasons: some technical which can be explained, how we felt at the time of first encountering the art, or some other emotional issue which may be much harder to grasp.   We might as well ask why some people love the music of Bob Dylan and others can’t stand it – we’re never going to answer that.

Leo Kottke who wrote “So Cold in China” – a song Bob Dylan has praised to the heavens, himself said on stage that his songs come to him by accident and he later tries to figure out where they came from.  Bob Dylan has gone a little further noting all the songs he listened to in his youth and how they worked in his mind to allow him to create the songs we know and love today. Neither can ever tell us exactly how a song is created.

Which is why it should not surprise us if we find that explaining why sometimes one song appeals to an individual person above and beyond all logic about its complexity or construction or widely appreciated beauty.   I can try and explain why I adore the utterly simple “Drifter’s Escape” in which we have just one line of music repeated 12 times, and indeed I have tried on this site, but such explanations are never complete.

On the other hand, an incomplete explanation can be better than none, if for no reason other than the fact it can be a basis for further explorations.

As for “So Cold in China” – musically this is dead simple: a variant 12 bar blues.  It comes directly from the music of the 19th century, via Robert Johnson and on to all those who followed.

The traditional 12 bar blues has a lyrical line that is sung against one chord, and which is then repeated against a second chord.  The third line has new lyrics – it is the answering line – and it uses both those chords plus one more. In classic guitar arrangements the chords run

1st line: E
2nd line: A E
3rd line: B7 A E

In the variant form that Leo Kottke uses the first two lines are musically the same, using from the notation above A E, each time.

If you want to hear Dylan do use this variant 12 bar blues listen to Rollin’ and Tumblin’

So Leo Kottke uses the same formation, but what he does is achieve something with the structure that I have not come across anywhere else, and while Bob has listened to much more blues than I have, there is a big chance that Dylan hadn’t either.  

Which is a good starting point for liking a piece, thinking, “Wow, how did he make that song out of that structure?”

Second, we know that a central part of much of Dylan’s lyrical work involves using phrases which don’t have an exact meaning, or indeed don’t have any meaning at all, but which attract us because they sound as if they ought to have a meaning.

When these ideas turn into poetry or song lyrics they appeal to some listeners and readers and not others.  It depends on whether your brain at this point is getting that feeling that the words have a more profound implication than is at first apparent.

To take a very simple example, if I write

Waking at midnight
I tried to give you the moonlight and then
I slept again
Hoping to reach you in my dreams

You might find something there that is deeper than the words.  It is not that you are thinking “how could he give her the moonlight?” but the emotion of giving the moonlight to the one you love combined with the more prosaic “I slept again” is of some passing interest.

Now that is a very simple example.  What Dylan regularly does, and what Leo does here is give an utter disconnect – in this case between “China” and the most common of blues phrases “Well, my baby left me”.

So he is relating back to the blues, and he is singing in a blues format and he’s is using the classic notion that the weather and his emotions are all at one.  In the most simple terms he could write “since my baby left me it’s been raining night and day”. The weather and one’s mood – in literary appreciation we called it “pathetic fallacy”.  Think Wuthering Heights with the thunderstorms and Heathcliffe’s moods.

But because the song is so short we are jerked upright – WHY CHINA?  Of course we have no idea. It seems so crazy. I mean, it is never cold in ALL China.  It’s a very large country – its 5,500km north to south. OK you might not know that but you’ll know it’s very big.

Here is another thing: this is the blues but there is no rhyme:

So cold in China, the birds don’t sing
So cold in China, the birds don’t sing
Well, I didn’t feel mean until my baby left me

And then again why does he feel mean rather than sad?

But that’s only the start for he moves on to France – we think maybe this is going to be a geographical tour of sadness, and verse two is really standard blues

Been to Turkey, been to France
Been to Turkey, been to France
Been all around, taking my last chance

But then it turns really desperate

Does darkness follow in my every step?
When I’m for living am I really dead?

Now that really is the blues.

And there are indeed herein a number of lines here that Dylan himself could easily have written.  Take for example

The sun goes out in a lonesome sky
The wolves they howl and begin to cry

Now all that would make this a song to remember.  We might contemplate two riders approaching and the wind began to howl.  


But we have only just begun because not only is the 12 string guitar playing utterly gorgeous it is gentle and at odds with the lyrics.   Just listen to that guitar and then think “Wolves howling?” No chance, not to that music. We have a dichotomy – just as we did with Dylan’s original recording of All Along the Watchtower.   Hendrix gave us the wolves howling – but the are most certainly not there in the original Dylan version.

And this is just the start because when one stops hearing the words and the guitar and listens to the melody, that is when the total chaotic contradiction of this piece hits one smack in the face.

If you listen to the introduction you’ll hear there is a very slight slow down in the first verse comes in with its utterly gentle, but typically blues melody.

Verse two goes the same way and we’re thinking ok this going to be a standard blues.  A very beautiful blues which contrasts utterly with the tragedy of the lost love theme, but still, it’s the blues.  Until suddenly we get

taking my last chance

Leo’s voice rises, perfectly, to an unexpected note.  It fits, it’s quite correct in terms of what notes the singer could use against that chord, but it is a big, big surprise.  A one off? We wait.

And then we are transformed with Does darkness follow in my every step?   Because now that melody is going somewhere no blues would ever go.

Does darkness follow in my every step?

How can this be.  A line as black and hopeless as that has an utterly exquisite melodic line?  What is going on?

Personally I want more but in the next verse the third line is sung in the standard way

The wolves they howl and begin to cry

He’s playing with us.  He’s toying with my emotions.  What’s going on? Am I supposed to be crying or laughing.

My emotional response to this simple 12 bar blues is phenomenally complex, so much so that I play it over and over, to receive that emotional hit every time I here that change of melody, to ponder and wonder at the opening line of So Cold in China, and to marvel at the fact that something so very very different could be got out of a simple 12 bar blues – a format used and reused a billion times in the last 100 years.

And if I may be so bold, I think perhaps Bob felt such emotions too with this song.   Always we come back to the title “So cold in China”. Do you know another song with that title, or that sort of line anywhere in it at all?  It hints of mystery – as does the whole song. We really want to know more.

Thus it gives the blues a meaning that it never had before.  And that is why, in my view, Dylan really loves it. In his writing he rarely does this with melody – his voice is not built for that.  But think about “She Belongs to me” and painting the daytime black. That’s another approach to challenging the 12 bar blues and taking it places no one had ever thought of before.   Leo and Bob on the same journey, but finding different road maps.

Well, I didn’t feel mean until my baby left me

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.

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  1. I’m sitting here knitting into the fabric all the names of literalists who are going to have their heads chopped off after the revolution.

    China is oft thought of as an exotic place by westerns –

    “And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”.

    Exotic, unless of course you’re left all by yourself , and then the birds don’t sing –

    “If not for you/ The winter would have no spring/Couldn’t hear the robin sing.”

  2. I’ve often sat and listened
    To the music of the birds
    And the gentle voice of charming Nettie Moore
    Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
    And my happiness is over

  3. A poetic wife would say: Go to the moon – I don´t want you around anymore
    A furious wife would say: Out of my house – My lawyer will send you to Siberia
    A cynical political wife would say: Oh by the way -I have noticed you like SHARING. Here is a one way ticket to CHINA. . They say Mao should be such a fantastic leader .

  4. Although Leo’s vocal vibrato is awful on this, I still liked the song. Thanks for making me aware of it.

    Leo’s birthday is on September 11, by the way.


  5. The Sufi hero, Mulla Nasrudin, comes home one evening to find his only treasured possession, his sleeping matt, has been stolen. Seeing the moon through his window, and thinking of the thief, he exclaims, ‘If only I could have given him the moon.’ This shows his lack of attachment to possessions and generosity of spirit (see the books of Idries Shah).

    It is highly unlikely that Leo Kottke ever heard of Nasrudin, but the lines quoted are heading in the same direction using the same imagery. It could be that Bob Dylan, another ‘fool of God’ like Nasrudin, was drawn to the underlying spiritual posture in ‘So Cold in China’ which reaches a bit beyond the sense of resignation typical of twelve bar blues. Lovely song!

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