What was Bob Dylan's songs about

literature - How does Dylan poetry? 5 songs under the microscope

As a preliminary remark, when I write lyrics about Bob Dylan's as if they were poems without music, I am violating a fundamental rule of literary criticism. Because I judge the texts according to laws that are not theirs.

It is an experiment - from a literary criticism as questionable as for some the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to a songwriter. And ultimately, it's a personal look at five Dylan songs.

It is best to study the lyrics first - then read the song analysis.

Song 1: "All Along the Watchtower"

"There must be some way out of here"

“There has to be a way out,” the fool tells the thief - both outsiders.

But from what? From life? The situation? The dump? Businessmen drink the fool's wine (why businessmen of all people?), Peasants plow his field, and none of them know what it is worth (the wine, the earth?). I understand what is meant by these images, and yet I am amazed at them.

The conversation between fool and thief is beyond time and space, like in a fable. The last four lines take us to the watchtower, more precisely: "all along the watchtower", whatever that means.

Princes are on the lookout, women and barefoot servants come and go. A fairy tale scene? The two tabs in the last line, as well as the wind and the wild cat in the distance, go well with this.

A mood picture? Difficult to read.

Song 2: "The Times They Are a-Changin '"

I find this text surprisingly weak.

"The waters around you have grown"

Can water grow? Yes, if the line is supposed to rhyme with "roam" (even if the rhyme crunches) and "bone". Ouch.

"If it's worth your time to be saved" - that's translated terribly (by me), but a better translation wouldn't make the line any better. So if I want to save my time, I'd better start swimming. Do I just want to save my time, not myself?

"... or you’ll sink like a stone"
(Eng. ... or you sink like a stone »)

- Cliche.

The song owes its success to its title: It always fits, because times always change. What makes him so sexy is the "a" in "a-changin '".

Song 3: "Like a Rolling Stone"

Formally, the song follows a consistent scheme, the last lines of each verse rhyme, as follows:

about / out / loud / proud
compromise / realize / alibis / eyes
diplomat / cat / that / at
amused / used / refuse / lose
meal / deal / steal / conceal

In addition, there are internal rhymes and assonances within the verses. Some rhymes are impure (out / loud, used / refuse), others are exhausted by repeating a part of a word: amused / used, about / out, that / at, alibis / eyes.

In the first and last stanzas this form of rhyme can be found at the beginning of the rhyme sequence, in the two middle stanzas at its end. Coincidence or intent? does it matter?

Some lines of the poem are trivial, for example this one:

"When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose"
dt. "If you have nothing, you have nothing to lose"

Role prose? Maybe. The meaning of the last line (before the chorus) is enigmatic:

"You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal."
dt. "You are now invisible, you have no secrets to hide."

Why are you invisible when you have no secrets to hide? Usually the secrets are invisible because they are hidden. The words «invisible», «secrets», «conceal» somehow fit together - a diffuse semantic field.

Song 4: "Visions of Johanna"

Some texts can be understood better if you don't look carefully. The poem feels like a psychedelic trip to me. The scene changes, I never know where the poem will take me.

First we are in a room with coughing heating pipes, then in a museum, then maybe in a picture? I cannot understand the change in perspective.

"While my consciousness explodes"
(Eng. «while my consciousness explodes»)

Is that the key to this delirious song? What is written out of focus must be read out of focus. Is that why it is bad literature? The question is meant seriously.

Song 5: “Simple Twist of Fate”, link opens in a new window

The title is repeated in this sad love poem at the end of each stanza. That looks better than it is.

The verse takes off - the woman looks at him and he feels a spark tingling in his bones, the heat of the night kills him like a truck - but with the words "a simple twist of fate" the poem hits the ground every time on. But maybe this effect is intended, because that is exactly what happens to the feelings of the person who is telling us about being abandoned?

I find the game with the first-person narrator elegant. In the second stanza he reveals himself: You think he's telling the story of someone else. Only at the end does he reveal himself to us as a doppelganger of himself.

So you read the poem all over again.

The sobering conclusion

Reading Bob Dylan's lyrics in silence, I felt like watching a fish swim out of water. Can literary criticism do justice to these lyrics? What would the criteria be?

"It happens that a poet manages, with the help of a single word or a single rhyme, to transport himself to a place where nobody has been before him," said Joseph Brodsky at his Nobel Prize speech in 1987. I never did that in any of the five Experienced lyrics, maybe it only happens in connection with the music.

Mani Matter was someone who could do this in his lyrics and who would undoubtedly have earned the Nobel Prize as a poet.

To the author

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Sieglinde Geisel, born in Rüti / ZH in 1965, is an author, cultural journalist and freelance editor and lives in Berlin. With her Page 99 test, she is doing literary criticism in an unconventional way.