A classification of Dylan’s songs

A classification of Dylan’s songs

Below you’ll find my initial thoughts on how Dylan’s songs might be classified into types, and then the new series started in 2019 which took us in a new direction.

As you are here you may also find

an interesting alternative perspective on this topic.   But now, my original piece…

In 2016 having reviewed what seem to me to be most of the important Dylan songs from the 1960s I started to apply what I had learned from this exercise to the songs I had reviewed.

Seeing how this worked in chronological order is really interesting (to me, if no one else!) and I’m hoping now to pull all this together.

The Chronological Index is here.   Below is the earlier discussion.

The classic classification of rock and blues music’ lyrics was established by Professor Keith Swanwick of London University Institute of Education (who was my tutor for my research degree – a man to whom I am eternally grateful and whose memory I always honour), when he wrote that the styles consisted mainly of songs about love, lost love and dance.

Bob Dylan however has rarely written about lost love or dance in the traditional blues and rock style of “My Baby Left Me” (Elvis Presley) or “No Regrets” (Walker Brothers) – to take two extremes of the genre.  We have “Where were you last night?” on the Wilburys album, but not that many others.

Instead it is my contention that Dylan has gone way beyond this, including a completely new variation on the Lost Love theme: Songs of Disdain.  I was at first tempted to call these the “songs of hatred” but that is too strong – but they are songs of lost love, lost friendship and something approaching pure dislike – and disdain is the only word I can find which fits properly.

To establish the contrast here, consider such works as It ain’t me babe    and  One too many mornings which are “I’m walking away” lost love songs – there is, in the matter of fact statement that the affair is over, just a touch of sadness about the end of the affair, but it is definitely the singer who is left, not the singer bewailing that his girlfriend has gone.

I would stress that at this time I am still (after two years on it) re-considering this thesis, but it does seem to me to push against the thought that Dylan can be a misogynist.  Elvis Presley singing “My Baby Left Me” is the song of the misogynist.  The woman leaves because she is untrustworthy and “fly-by-night”.  She “never said a word”.  No explanation, typical woman (that’s the song’s story, not my view!)

This is typical of much early rock and roll and the blues – the woman can’t be trusted, and just gets up and leaves for another man.  Dylan has nothing to do with this genre.

What Dylan thus generally eschews is the whole classic lost love song, in which the lady who leaves the male singer.  When he describes the break up, he leaves.  But when he goes further and expresses his annoyance and anger about the person within the song, then we have the songs of disdain.

In effect then Dylan created at least two new categories.  There may well be more groups – I’m still working on this.  And in doing so I recognise that there may be many who claim that Dylan’s songs cannot be classified, or should not be classified, but I think if we want to understand Dylan’s art, and consider all that he has given to the world of contemporary music, we should try to see if the songs do fall naturally into groups.

1.  Songs of my leaving, (which say, that is just how it has to be), for example

Tambourine Man is a leaving song, but not of leaving a woman, but of leaving this world, rather like the pied piper.

2. Songs of disdain (which say I certainly don’t want to be associated with you, even if I once was).

Looking at some of the songs reviewed on this site we can find, as examples of the songs in category two (the songs of disdain) with such works as:

It was with the above thoughts that I started to consider if there were other classifications into which Dylan’s songs could fit.  Thus far I have added

3.  The political/protest songs.  Times they are a changing, and Hard Rain are examples, although Hard Rain is also a song of despair.

4.  The religious songs

This is not the same as saying “The Christian songs” but rather noting that Dylan often deals with spiritual and religious matters.

It is argued that Pay in Blood is a religious song, but I don’t see that at all – and of course this adds to the problems with the classification – we can’t always decide what we are classifying.

5.  Songs of Despair.   The world gone wrong.  Here the singer’s world – perhaps the whole world – has collapsed or at the very least is uncertain and hazy.  Desolation Row is the perfect example of the collapsed world.  Another perfect example is “Just like Tom Thumbs Blues”  which contrasts with Honest with Me – a lost love song.

But the ultimate despair is not a political despair, although  Masters of War gets close to that – rather it is Not Dark Yet, the ultimate drift away from such an imperfect world.

There is a different type of despair on Million Miles, and Tell ol Bill.

Blind Willie McTell which recounts the world of slavery must come into this section

6.  The songs of the mist.  Visions of Johanna takes us into the misty uncertain world which is not really covered by any of the other categories.

I think Highlands might fit in this category too.  Pay in Blood could possibly be.  And I’m also wondering about Early Roman Kings in this regard which does create a scene out of a world that we can’t quite track down.  Others are, or might be

7.  Songs of Love

To be in this group I’m thinking that the song has to express real love, even if the relationship is over.  Love is the essence, not the departure.

8.  Songs of origins

Dylan does talk about his origins on Honest with Me – I’m trying to think if this is a one off or a group.

Bobby contributed these helpful additions

“Something There Is About You” and “Went to See the Gypsy” could fit in the origins songs. More broadly, maybe some of those Talkin’ blues songs or even stuff like “If You Ever Go to Houston.”

9  The blues

So fundamental in Dylan’s musical make up, he returns to it again and again.

10.  Songs of the legal process gone wrong…

I happened upon this idea by chance in reviewing songs like

11. Songs of the Darkness and nighttime.

So that was the original analyses, which I then left.  Since then I have been trying to find a way back into the subject and came up with a variety of articles which I have divided into the original series and the new (2019/20) series.

Original series of Dylan the composer in the 1960s

New series




  1. “Something There Is About You” and “Went to See the Gypsy” could fit in the origins songs. More broadly, maybe some of those Talkin’ blues songs or even stuff like “If You Ever Go to Houston.”
    Thanks for the site.

  2. An interesting set of categories. I also like Christopher Rick’s seven deadly sins in Visions of Sin.

    When you write 600 plus songs based on folk/blues the themes have to be universal which is why Dylan has an audience. He connects.

  3. Here are some additions:

    Songs of Leaving: Farewell; Restless Farewell; Tomorrow Is a Long Time; Wheels of Fire; Boots of Spanish Leather (bit of disdain at the end), possibly Farewell Angelina; possibly It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (BTW, I don’t see why you put It Ain’t Me, Babe in this category); also, Songs of NOT Leaving: You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

    Political Protest: With God on Our Side, Only a Pawn in Their Game, Oxford Town, probably Blowing in the Wind, possibly Subterranean Homesick Blues (not really political protest, more outlaw paranoia), possibly The Times They Are a-Changin’ (not protest, more of a rallying cry)

    Songs of Justice Gone Wrong: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll; Hurricane (controversial)

    Songs of the Mist: I personally don’t see this as a category. I think “Visions of Johanna” could go in a category of Songs on a Drug Trip (where you can also add Mr Tambourine Man) and also in Songs of Despair (where you can also add Mr Tambourine Man).

    Songs of Love: Love Minus Zero/No Limit; Simple Twist of Fate; Girl from North Country perhaps?

    There are many many songs that don’t fit your category and many that fit multiple categories.

  4. Dylan fan – thanks so much for your addition. Since starting this, and then going into more and more songs on the site, I’ve realised the classification leaves a lot to be desired. Shame, I thought it might work. But still maybe it is a basis for further work.

  5. I understand–but I do like lists! And I think you could do something with categories if you list some songs twice and have a “miscellaneous.” You might want to change the Songs of My Leaving to “Songs of Parting”–that is the usual folk-song category term and could then include “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (it’s about parting in being about NOT parting; BTW I gather Dylan wrote it when laid up from the motorcycle accident); it could also include people leaving other than the singer. And you might change Songs of the Legal Process Gone Wrong to Songs of Crime and Punishment. That would include prison songs, another standard folk-song category, and one that could include “I Shall Be Released” (and possibly even “All Along the Watchtower.”

    BTW I was interested to see your Pied Piper interpretation of Mr. Tambourine Man. Of course it does get into that, but I think it’s basically a drug or alcohol) trip, and the accompanying languor. . . .

    Another love song to add: Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

  6. What a great site this is – but surely Sooner Or Later doesn’t belong in the same classification as Positively 4th Street?

  7. Steve, the classification issue has proved the biggest problem of all, and it is full of inconsistencies. One day I will sit down and devote a whole weekend just to trying to sort it out. Consider it a work in progress, stalled.

  8. Just my opinion but since Bob Dylan has gone through so much trouble changing musical styles, appearances and persona, even changing his voice, i am pretty sure he wouldn’t like being categorized and i have my doubts that it is even possible. But i love the dialog and your attempt. His courageous unblinking look at reality fascinates me especially in his newest works. They just get more and more dynamic. Thanks for this site. i just found it and love it.

  9. JT – I think you are probably right – and indeed I suspect most creative geniuses feel much the same. But I do think my own, personal understanding of Dylan and what he has done through his life is enhanced by going through the process.

    For me (and yes it is a very personal thing) the classification attempt (poor as it is) has allowed me to develop the commentaries on Dylan’s work year by year that I am adding to the Chronology files (Dylan in the 60s etc) and I think my understanding of his work from the 60s has been enhanced by this. So I am hoping others find the same – and because it is a blog, will be able to show me where I have gone wrong!

  10. Hi,

    Would you have any object to me use the Song classification in a network data project I am doing for Coursera course. Would be a map of songs linked to themes.

  11. Hi Tony,

    Despite of all the pros and cons of classifying Bob Dylans songs into some tangible ‘boxes’, I do appreciate your striving very much.

    Wouldn’t you see ‘Beyond here lies nothing’ and ‘Forgetful Heart’ of album ‘Together through life’ as Blues songs?

  12. Where would Changing of the Guards fall in among this ? Category 6 ?

    A category for all those beautiful songs that express empathy for a female character would be called for : Sweet Heart Like You ; Ramona ; What was it you wanted ; and possibly It’s All Over Now Baby Blue . They are certainly not love songs. I and I is a strange mix which tends to borrow some features from this category.

  13. How can you write with such certainty that “Trouble” is an anti-religious song? It’s generally agreed that Shot of Love is the last in his Christian trilogy of albums and that religious themes appear elsewhere in the album’s lyrics. You point to the song’s message about the meaninglessness and harshness of the universe as indicative of Dylan’s abandoning his faith, but those themes are well explored within the Bible itself–look no further than the book of Ecclesiastes, a book I’m sure Dylan has read from many times ( don’t forget that Bob was taking inspiration from the Bible as early as 1967 with John Wesley Harding).

    Elsewhere on the site, on your write-up of The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, you go to some lengths to argue that the song has no religious basis. You write that if Dylan wanted to make some theological or philosophical statement, then he would have put it bluntly, as he did in “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody”. But when it comes to “Trouble”, you, an atheist, are absolutely sure it’s an atheist song… with only the existential dread of the lyrics and the fact that it was Bob’s last Christian album to go on. That’s interesting.

  14. You might want to add “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll” to the legal process list.
    “Don’t Think Twice” is definitely a leaving song.
    “Boots of Spanish Leather” is also a leaving song, however it is not he who is leaving.

  15. songs of the mist must include Series of Dreams, and shouldn’t it be combined with songs of the darkness/nighttime?
    many Dylan songs are allegorical, so where they fit exactly is hard to pin-point. You Aint Goin Nowhere I always took to be about convalescing after his accident, and Drifter’s Escape could be legal process gone wrong but it’s a metaphor.

  16. When I compiled, back in 2015, my anthology of Bob Dylan lyrics translated into Polish, I had 132 of them ready. And, instead of sequencing them chronologically, I grouped them in 12 thematic “chapters”. And here they are, titled after most emblematic songs pertaining to each section (wonder if anyone gets what I had in mind then):
    4. LOVE SICK
    7. TEMPEST

  17. Appendix to the previous comment: and since I’ve done already over 30 new translation I’m planning a second volume. This time I think of grouping the lyrics into three sections:

  18. 7. Songs of Love: WEDDING SONG
    9 The blues: YOU’RE NO GOOD
    10. Songs of the legal process gone wrong…: HURRICANE
    11. Songs of the Darkness and nighttime: FATHER OF NIGHT

  19. MOST OF THE TIME – Is a stunning, unsurpassed, song of lost love, along with BOOTS OF SPANISH LEATHER

  20. Tony,
    In the Blues category I’d add “Meet Me In The Morning”. In fact, I hear a little Muddy Waters in his delivery of lines like “Honey we could be in KANSAS by the time the snow begins to fall”.
    All the best

  21. Nice job so far for an almost impossible task.
    I think you might consider not only listing the categories, but then have an alphabetic list or chronological list of songs, each with a hashtag for each category they fall into. Some songs, might fall into just one category, say
    I Want You #Love(affection)
    Others might fall into more than one category.
    eg. God On Our Side #Historical and #Political and #Religion
    I’m pretty sure that some songs would fall into a dozen or more categories!!

    I think you might also consider songs in which people are namechecked.
    This would cover:
    #Namecheck(personal) i.e. family and friends known to Dylan
    #Namecheck(contemporaries) people not personally known to Dylan, but alive in his lifetime (i.e. Patty Valentine in Hurricane; Joe Henderson/Saxophone Joe in Country Pie)
    #Namecheck(literary or ficticious characters) Lone Ranger in Bob Dylan Blues
    #Namecheck(imagined characters of Dylan’s creation),such as Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
    #Namecheck(historical) real people of the past, not contemporaries and not personally known to Dylan. e.g. Author Oliver Goldsmith in Cry A While; and several in Desolation Row
    #Namecheck(Biblical) e.g. Cain in Every Grain of Sand.
    There’s a good source here.
    Maybe a hashtag/category also for real place names too:
    #Place (as in Paterson in Hurricane; Mozambique / Durango etc. Good source here:
    You’ve got a lifetime’s work ahead of you.
    Good luck

  22. I think Absolutely, Sweet Marie” is the song of a junkie lamenting being left with empty promises. His dealer has delivered the heroin he was expecting to the penitentiary.

  23. I’ve known of this website for some years, but only now digging in deeper. It is amazed after 50 years of listening (and reading many books) I feel I am still only beginning to see the scope and each year I am more convinced of the worth of this writer’s work.

    I wanted to mention a few that stick out for me in these categories. One of the few songs he sings of a lover leaving the singer, even though it is his fault, is one of my favorites to perform: “I Threw it All Away”.

    I’m also thinking of “Lay Lady Lay” as a classic song of true love.

    I also wanted to mention a category that Dylan is one of the few to have written so extensively on, more honestly, bluntly and with the utmost gravitas, prescient authority, and compassion: the fate of the Black American. “Pawn in Their Game”, “Emmitt Till” “Hurricane”, “George Jackson” and others. When I saw Dylan live at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, a decade or so ago, lucky to be up close, I was amazed by the arrangement they did of “Hattie Carrol”. He was still passionate about that song.

  24. I’m learning to appreciate Dylan’s song, and so much so that I am considering using only his song on a documentary I am currently directing. Thanks for your work and help this is very useful for me.

  25. I think Absolutely, Sweet Marie” is the song of a junkie lamenting being left with empty promises. His dealer has delivered the heroin he was expecting to the penitentiary.

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