Why does Bob Dylan really like “Lonesome Town”

by Tony Attwood

The issue recently arose on this site recently about certain somewhat obscure songs that Bob Dylan has mentioned that he really likes and which it seems may have been an influence upon him.  I considered one of these the other day in the article Why does Bob Dylan so adore “So Cold in China”? and thought I would try one more.

In this case the song is Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” which Bob has mentioned a number of times as a particular favourite.

It was written by  Baker Knight who also wrote  “The Wonder of You”, and his songs have had a great appeal to numerous artists: Paul McCartney, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Mickey Gilley, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Lee Lewis have all recorded Thomas Baker Knight songs.

Ricky Nelson’s version got to number 7 on the Billboard charts in 1958 and rather oddly to number 15 in the R&B charts (R&B meant something different in those days!).  On the record (below) Ricky Nelson is accompanied  by  The Jordanaires who of course provided the backing for many Elvis Presley hits.


This is far further removed from any sort of song that we might consider in relation to Bob Dylan.

There’s a place where lovers go
To cry their troubles away
And they call it Lonesome Town
Where the broken hearts stay

You can buy a dream or two
To last you all through the years
And the only price you pay
Is a heart full of tears

Goin’ down to Lonesome town
Where the broken hearts stay
Goin’ down to Lonesome town
To cry my troubles away

In the town of broken dreams
The streets are filled with regret
Maybe down in Lonesome Town
I can learn to forget
Maybe down in Lonesome Town
I can learn to forget

It is an absolutely classic popular song construction of the era, known in musical terms as ternary form: A A B A.  “A” is verse 1 and 2, “B” is “Going down to Lonesome town” which has different music and which at the end modulates into a different key, and the A is the last verse (with the final two lines repeated).

So why this song which may today perhaps sound rather cheesy.  Why would Bob Dylan (of all people) like this?

Musically it is unlike anything Dylan would ever write – even the chord change that the very opening which appears  to change key before we have even got going is alien to Bob’s writing style.   Likewise it has a beautiful melody, of the type that would never suit Bob’s voice.

But then one could say this of so many songs – so why this one.

I think that just as “So Cold in China” has a title that clearly attracted Bob Dylan, so the same applies here as well.  “Lonesome Town” is not a place and when examined the two word phrase makes no sense – you can’t have a town where everyone is lonely – but we know at once what it means.  It sounds like it really ought to mean something – it really ought to be a place.

And the singer’s decision to move there places him really at the end.  It is the opposite of “Keep on keepin’ on, headin’ for another joint” where travelling is the answer, and the opposite again (if something can have two opposites) of “At the end of the line” where things will be ok in the end.

In Ricky Nelson’s song there is a total hopelessness, a real end of the line with nothing else, an absolute willingness to give up because there never can be anything good again.  That love affair was all that could ever be; it has gone there is nothing else all the singer can hope for is simply to forget – but it is going to take a very, very long time of utter abject misery.

It is of course quite possible to listen to the song without getting any of this desperation – you can just take it as a smooth almost sickly melody, and yet the production (including the accompanying singers) really does give us that sense of there being no way out from this desperation.

Thus this is a song of certainty – there is no doubt that the singer never will find a replacement love, and this is an absolute classic element of 1950s pop.  It is a superb example of the era in which about one in three songs were “lost love” songs (the other two thirds being divided between love songs and songs about dance).

And all this absolute certainty of hopelessness is instantly conveyed within the first couple of lines.  There is no way out.

Now the question arises, when does Dylan sing about there being no way out? One immediately thinks of Not Dark Yet, but are there others?  Without reading my way through the whole catalogue of 500+ songs, I am not sure.   One could argue that “Hard Rain” or “Desolation Row” are “no way out” songs but what Dylan does with these is express the end of an entire civilisation.

Now I have a horrible feeling here that the moment I post this I am going to be told of multiple Dylan songs that have no way out from a lost love affair as the central theme in the same way that this song has, but I am not that sure.

Dylan of course did have a period of writing songs with exactly the opposite approach – the religious songs.  And has written many songs that are the opposite in terms of affection – the songs of disdain like 4th Street and Crawl out your window”.   But falling apart forever because of a lost love – it is a very different notion.  And I think he loves this song not just because of the title but because he couldn’t write these songs.

The Bob Dylan presented through his songs has been far too much his own man to invest his entire vision of happiness in one person as happens in this song sung by Ricky Nelson.  Bob, even in his bad times, generally doesn’t get stuck – as he says one time “I’m going back to New York City I do believe I’ve had enough”.   He moves on.

The nearest I can get to Dylan tackling the total lost-ness of Ricky Nelson’s song is here

Tell me straight out if you will
Why must you torture me within?
Why must you come down off of your high hill?
Throw my fate to the clouds and wind
Far away in a silent land
Secret thoughts are hard to bear
Remember me, you’ll understand
Emotions we can never share
You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All of my doubts and fears have gone at last
I’ve nothing more to tell you now

This is of course a totally different take.   But it doesn’t stop Bob appreciating the alternative approach that Ricky Nelson sang.

I, of course, prefer what Bob could do, which is why I run a Bob Dylan blog and not a Ricky Nelson blog.   And that’s why I prefer to finish here…

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  1. I suspect he also has a soft spot for the ‘location metaphor’. In ’86 Dylan also plays Ray Charles’s “Lonely Avenue”, in 2009 “Heartbreak Hotel” (on Lonely Street), he visits the Highway Of Regret</i) (Stanley Brothers), Jakob Dylan's most Dylanesque song is “6th Avenue Heartache”, Dylan dwells on his own Desolation Row, Narrow Way, 56th And Wabasha and Rue Morgue Avenue … the ‘location metaphor’ is slightly pathetic but still romantic, not too profound yet poetic, fictional yet realistic.
    Dylan is not the only one who is sensitive to the beauty and simplicity of such imagery, of course. We all, once in a while, love to escape for a few nights to Hotel California on Heartache Avenue in Paradise City, don’t we?

  2. I know close to nothing about the ‘technical’ aspects of music, but I do know where there are towns where everybody is lonely all the time – in Metaphor Land!

    And I visit them often.

  3. I’d say that Dylan wrote at least one song that’s very much of a piece with “Lonesome Town”: “Where Teardrops Fall.” It’s a pretty explicit attempt, I think, to write a song in that genre, about one of those places, like Lonely Avenue, Heartbreak Hotel, or The Home of the Blues, where lovers go to cry their troubles away. Musically it matches too, following exactly the A A B A pattern you describe.

    Whether or not “Lonesome Town” would suit Bob’s voice, he sang it regularly in 1986, his first performance of it coming just five weeks after Ricky Nelson’s death. Those first performances, in Australia, are worth checking out.

  4. I’m thinking Red River Shore, and just for laughs, Ninety Miles an Hour Down a One Way Street. Of course Death is Not The End does have a sort of uplifting ending. Ain’t Talkin’ kinda makes Lonesome Town seem rather gay once you’ve reached the last outpost at the world’s end. But I have to agree with you as much as I can appreciate and love the exquisite beauty of Ricky Nelson’s performance and presence I still feel more compelled to keep on keeping on with Bob. He talks about Rick in Chronicles right and although my memory of it is right along the lines of what we are talking about here. Bob saw the wonder of these songs and Ricky but he had to move on into the way that was unfolding before him and it too him and probably all of us to different towns and outposts. To his credit I believe Ricky Nelson understood this to,
    we shouldn’t forget the Garden Party he went to.

  5. I was very fortunate to be at the wonderful Birmingham NEC concert in 1989 when Dylan performed a lovely ‘Lonesome Town’ as well as a tremendous acoustic ‘Barbara Allan’ then surprised everyone by performing ‘Congratulations’. The greatest cover song which I witnessed though was at the Liverpool Arena in 2009 when he unexpectedly performed a remarkable ‘ Something’ , in the hometown of his friend George Harrison, which brought the house down. Dylan loves all kinds of music and songs as he has demonstrated throughout the years both in the studio and on the stage ( including the warm hearted gesture of ‘Christmas in the Heart’). I am thankful that I was at the Nottingham Arena concert in 2017 when he performed a wonderful selection of the Sinatra covers although the absolute highlight was a majestic performance of ‘Desolation Row’. Most of his greatest cover song performances have been on the stage and it is very difficult to choose a top 20 but as Morten suggests Australia 1987 is a perfect starting point with unmatchable performances of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ ( electric ), ‘Across the Borderline’ and ‘Unchain My Heart’.

  6. Correction: Australia 1986 ( 1987 was the incredible ‘ Temples in Flames’ tour when he performed a remarkable ‘ Go Down Moses ‘ in Isreal and then gave one of his greatest ever performances of the same song, also known as ‘ Let My People Go ‘, as the last song on the final night at Wembly Arena, London…currently available on YouTube in both audio and video formats.

  7. ‘I have a horrible feeling here that the moment I post this I am going to be told of multiple Dylan songs that have no way out from a lost love affair as the central theme in the same way that this song has, but I am not that sure…’

    I’m not sure either. There’s a resilience in Dylan’s lyrics that resists the maudlin. However ‘Can’t Wait’ might qualify, although the mood is much more desperate than ‘Lonesome town’:
    Well I’m strollin’ through the lonely graveyard of my mind
    I left my life with you
    ‘Somewhere back there along the line
    I thought somehow that I would be spared this fate
    I don’t know how much longer I can wait’
    Wait for what? Death? The old love to return? New love to come along? Trapped is what it feels like.

    Another candidate might be ‘Standing the Doorway.’ The mood is deeper and darker than ‘Lonesome Town’, but I figure that the ‘juke box playin’ low’ in ‘Standing’ could easily be playing an old Ricky Nelson song…

  8. I think Morten Jonssen is right in that “Where Teardrops Fall” has always seemed like a deliberate attempt to craft a song is this mid-20th century ballad style. Bob has covered songs in this vein throughout his recording career (Blue Moon, I Can’t Help Falling In Love, You Belong To Me). It shouldn’t be a surprise that he has a fondness for certain well-crafted pop songs which were hits during his youth. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  9. I saw Bob sing this song at Madison Square Garden two nights in a row during the tour with Tom Petty. He dedicated the song to Rick Nelson who was booed off this very stage.

  10. As a (possibly) interesting side note, the guitar fills in the verses of “Soon After Midnight” are more or less perfect echoes of the 1986 tour performances of “Lonesome Town”.

  11. ‘I have a horrible feeling here that the moment I post this I am going to be told of multiple Dylan songs that have no way out from a lost love affair as the central theme in the same way that this song has, but I am not that sure…’

    Hard Rain is gonna fall is inspired on ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ from Robert Johnson. In an interview Dylan pointed out that these songs are connected. So also Hard Rain is a lost love song.

  12. Addition to my reply above:
    ´You better come on in my kitchen
    Well, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
    Ah, the woman I love, took from my best friend
    Some joker got lucky, stole her back again
    You better come on in my kitchen
    It’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors’

    Come On In My Kitchen – Robert Johnson

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