Bob Dylan is an elusive one. He has been in the public eye as a poet-musician since 1961, and yet he is still the subject of so many questions, speculations, and myths. Millions of words have been written about Dylan as a man, a writer, and an American cultural icon.
Dylan is a person who can be open and honest in an interview in one moment and then start spinning his typical Dylanesque misinformation in the next. He is notoriously private and a master at deflecting questions he finds too probing. He can spin, avoid, and joke his way out of any verbal exchange.
As such, there isn’t a great wealth of information that one can learn from Dylan himself about his songs or the emotions he felt when he was writing and performing them. When questioned about even his barest and more vulnerable album–Blood on the Tracks (1975), in which he seems to confess all his feelings about the fading of his marriage–Dylan claimed he simply wanted to write songs in the style of Anton Chekhov’s short stories.
One responsible way to interpret the emotions Dylan intended to project in a given song is to perform close readings of the song lyrics. The words are there for all to see, so if we are going to study anything, that’s a good place to start. I think we can also learn a bit from Dylan’s delivery of those lyrics in the actual tracks.
I feel I can also offer insight into some Dylan songs with what I happen to know about the man’s personal life at the time of a given composition.
The component of this endeavor that I will find the most interesting is when I attempt to convey the emotions I experience when I hear certain Dylan songs, and whether I think my emotional responses match what Dylan was feeling.
I don’t think disconnects in that area will signify any kind of song misinterpretation on my part. The songs mean whatever they are to the person hearing them. That’s just how music and mood work in every individual.
For the sake of organization, I will divide the post into three major emotions I feel when listening to Dylan.
Dylan and Contentment
Dylan and Anger
Dylan and Sadness
I’ll discuss some specific songs that fit into those categories and see if I can read into what Dylan actually meant when he wrote them (it doesn’t help that he has sometimes admitted to not knowing what his own songs mean).
You can check out the first post in this two-part series to get a bit more granular on how music and emotions go together.
Dylan and Contentment
If you look at a hundred photos of Bob Dylan from the early 1960s to 2020, you’ll see him smiling in maybe 25 or 30 of them. The man’s likely an introvert who doesn’t need to express his every feeling for a camera. However, his chronically reserved demeanor doesn’t mean he is never happy. I detect a ton of contentment and joy in many Dylan songs. It’s a nice, positive place to start.
The titular track from Dylan’s 1970 album New Morning finds our hero opening with lines about watching the wildlife scurry about outside while he enjoys his lover’s smile on a beautiful morning.
It’s a raucous track, by 1970s folk standards. I don’t need to do much of a close reading to determine Dylan’s outlook here. As a longtime fan of Dylan, I happen to know that the year 1970 found him happily married to his wife, Sara, and raising his young children while living in New York. Dylan had lived in the countryside of Woodstock, NY, in the late 1960s. He enjoyed the simplicity and solitude of life there, especially after the chaos of his highly public 1966 world tour.
What I think “New Morning” comes down to is the contentment Dylan felt in the quiet man’s life. Dylan’s “new morning” was every morning the rooster woke him so he could see a rabbit running out in the sunshine. It was him returning to the house to see the love of his life smiling back at him.
What my exercise in music and emotions requires of me is to be able to empathize with another person, even someone I’ve never met. As a married man who adores my wife, I get Dylan’s sentiments here. I feel the exaltation in the simple pleasures of being young and married, of waking up to see the friendly wildlife outside and knowing my wife is near me.
Listening to “New Morning” makes me wistful for the life I’m currently living. It’s a strange thought, and yet it’s something Dylan has been able to achieve with a song so simple, straightforward, and seemingly devoid of much poetic artistry. That connection to Dylan’s feelings makes me happy for Bob himself when I listen to “New Morning,” even though it was 50 years ago and that period of his life is over.
All the same, as we learned about music and memories in my previous post, I know what I’ll always think about when I hear “New Morning,” whether it’s tomorrow or in another 50 years.
If we’re talking about Bob Dylan and contentment, then we’re likely going to be finding a lot of songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I wrote above, I am someone who has read Dylan’s biographical information a few times over, and so I know the reason for this happiness. Still, I don’t believe a listener needs this information to detect elation and satisfaction in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” which comes from Dylan’s 1969 country album Nashville Skyline.
Dylan sings about getting off a train so he can stay with his lover forever. This isn’t the standard poppy love song about failed love or a ruined relationship. It’s Dylan doing a country croon with lively piano accompaniment while singing lyrics about tossing away his hardships and settling down for good.
Those are words spoken by someone who has seen his share of trouble, loneliness, backstabbing, and anything else you can imagine one person doing to another. He’s finally found what makes him whole. This is a happy Dylan, one content to stop rambling down the dusty road and plant himself down with the right woman.
I think about all this as I hear the song. The lyrics and the positive musical arrangements suggest rising joy, acceptance of the pleasures of a pastoral life, and a celebration of the miracle of finding real happiness.
The words and music get in my brain and do their work, I suppose. As with many songs I have heard over the years, I seem to take the place of the narrator in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” Dylan conjures up images of domesticity, having a life partner you love, and being relieved that a certain set of life troubles are behind you. The song makes me wistful and content right alongside Dylan. It’s an incredible musical achievement, and yet, on paper, one so simply composed.
Dylan and Anger
The trouble with Dylan songs, and maybe with all popular songs generally, is that it is nearly impossible to tell which parts of the lyrics, if any, are autobiographical to the writer.
Dylan has claimed he does not write confessional songs. However, he has always been a known purveyor of smoke and mirrors, and so I often struggle to take him at his word.
Regardless, even in the two Dylan and Contentment songs above, I really can’t prove anything. I wouldn’t even say I’m out to produce proof, so far as it would even be possible to do.
With Dylan and anger, as with any emotion, one of two things is probably true: either Dylan himself was angry but masked his identity with cryptic lyrics, or he wrote angry songs as plot devices, so to speak, breathing those feelings into his first-person narrators.
Planet Waves (1974) is a little-discussed album by Dylan and his longtime collaborators The Band. It seems it’s the diehards only who care about or know many of the songs from this album. That doesn’t mean the content isn’t worthwhile. It is. One song in particular stands out to me, a deep cut, an angry piano-and-guitar ballad called “Dirge.”
Once again, who can say what Dylan’s true subject was, but we can analyze the words themselves. The narrator expresses self-hatred for loving someone and bitter satisfaction at the relationship having ended. It’s strong Dylan, no watering down with this one.
He goes on to mention concepts such as solitude, hollowness, and doom. “Dirge” ends with a remake of the opening line, about the narrator hating himself for the love he felt.
What kind of situation makes a man hate himself for once loving someone? Who is that other person? What did they do to warrant such a song being written? Furthermore, what do these lyrics say about the narrator, to feel hatred about a feeling as positive as love?
One fact we know from psychology is that anger is often one and the same with sadness. In fact, a psychologist might tell you that anger many times is sadness in masquerade.
The difference is that anger allows us to be on the offensive. It lets us seem like forceful beings, appearing as if we can now control a situation.
Conversely, sadness exposes us as victims of tragedy or unfair treatment. By being sad, we are choosing to “accept” those events and let them get us down.
In that case, the lyrics of “Dirge” seem like a person in defeat and denial. The narrator is saying, “See? I already hate myself for ever thinking I needed you. I’m over you. You can’t hurt me.”
What I fully love about Dylan’s lyrics is just this very thing, Dylan’s ability to get at human feelings through words. We know that humans use anger to cover up their hurt. I hear the words of “Dirge” as the inner monologue of someone who has been through the worst parts of life and is using a classic defense mechanism to go on surviving.
We know what has to lie beneath that kind of emotional savagery. “Dirge” lashes out, if only to keep the song’s subject from lashing first.
Dylan’s masterpiece “Idiot Wind,” from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, is an exercise in bitterness, sarcasm, and hostility, not unlike “Dirge” before it.
Whether the music and mood of “Idiot Wind” is a complete fabrication meant to survive suspended in time for eternity, as Dylan has more or less suggested, or simply Dylan angry at his soon-to-be ex-wife, Sara, one fact remains: “Idiot Wind” is a blistering verbal assault that never lets up throughout its nearly eight-minute run time.
Dylan, or the narrator, attacks people who are telling lies about him in the media before laying into an unnamed female target. The jabs include references to the woman being dead in a ditch and the speaker wondering how she is even able to breathe on her own.
The imagery is violent and disturbing. Even Dylan’s delivery is all-in with the song’s fury. He sings-shouts the words from start to finish, spitting out the lyrics like poison. It might be worth noting that initial takes of “Idiot Wind” found Dylan performing the song as a mournful ballad, alone with his acoustic guitar, while the album version features a full band and Dylan’s more energetic vocal delivery.
Those first few quiet cuts of the song reflect a narrator who is admitting his own hurt but is still no less angry. The released version is all rage.
Here again, the emotions I feel when I listen to “Idiot Wind” are ones I suppose most people would consider negative: sadness and anger.
Why, then, is it a “good” song? I think the reason is that Dylan is able to use his greatest tools, his words and his ragged voice, to project his own emotions so clearly.
His tone is fierce and unbridled, and yet his lyrics remain so eloquently structured as to suggest the self-control of a master poet. It would seem Dylan created these eight venomous minutes during some kind of tantrum, but the word construction suggests otherwise.
Do I enjoy listening to “Idiot Wind,” given all this? Yes and no. The performance is solid and will do when I’m feeling pissy, myself. When I’m not, the song is grating and even unpleasant. Dylan’s emotions can clash with my own.
Sometimes, I can enjoyably let that anger wash over me. Other times, it just isn’t for me. But that’s the force of this song.
I had a select amount of angry Dylan songs that I almost chose for this one, but “Masters of War” won out for its unabashed take on the global nuclear tensions of the early 1960s. Dylan recorded the song for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).
“Masters of War” is unusual in the Dylan pantheon because it does away with the ambiguous poetry that characterizes most of Dylan’s work.
The song speaks directly to those “masters” who were threatening the world with nuclear war at the time. Instead of couching his feelings in any kind of allegorical stories, Dylan monotones his anger in lines about the masters hiding away while young soldiers die.
It’s a moralistic condemnation of warmongering, which Dylan saw as irresponsible to the entire world population. How dare you keep ramping up hostilities, Dylan is saying, while expecting all the young people to do the eventual fighting for you?
Later, Dylan questions whether all the money the masters have made in their positions of power will be enough to earn them forgiveness for their sins. The killing stroke comes in the final verse, as Dylan states flatly that he hopes these people die, and that he will follow their bodies as they are lowered into the ground forever.
“Masters of War” leaves almost nothing to the imagination. While the Cold War leaders continue to threaten one another with mutual destruction, Dylan thinks of the safety of everyone who would actually be put in harm’s way because of that.
Another aspect of this song I find worth noting, aside from its directness, is Dylan’s vocal delivery.
Unlike his performance of “Idiot Wind” 12 years later, Dylan sings “Masters of War” in measured tones. It’s controlled anger. He has thought through what he wants to say. The repetitive sounds of his guitar and vocals tell me that this performance expresses a different anger than “Idiot Wind.” This one sounds menacing.
I can feel Dylan’s emotions infecting me when I hear this. I’m a calm person by nature, but if I felt strongly enough about something, I can also see myself penning something like “Masters of War.” If anything, listening to the threatening tone of Dylan’s voice puts me in a state of mind in which I begin considering the world’s troubles from the most sober of perspectives.
Dylan and Sadness
We end this investigation into music and emotions in Bob Dylan’s repertoire with a closer look at sadness in Dylan songs.
With “Dirge,” I mentioned the basic psychological fact of people sometimes using anger as a deep cover for sadness and hurt. Being sad is admitting to ourselves that someone or something has gotten to us where it pains us the most.
Expressing that sadness tells the world we are vulnerable and opens us up to ridicule and other forms of criticism. Yet, sadness is what we can find in Bob Dylan songs from throughout his career. When I think about Dylan, I can truly say, “Here is a man who’s at least honest with himself.”
If we’re talking about sadness in Dylan songs, I could write a book. But let’s cover just a few and discuss how Dylan uses words to convey that sadness to listeners.
Dylan didn’t always need to be cryptic, apocalyptic, or even especially poetic to express a sentiment. That’s the case with “Most of the Time,” which opened side 2 of his critically acclaimed 1989 record Oh Mercy.
This song is lyrically straightforward, and yet it’s one of the most effective expressions of human emotions in Dylan’s catalog. It gets at how the human brain works in the aftermath of turmoil. Dylan sings about being strong, being a survivor, but only most of the time.
How many of us have felt this way? We encounter great strife in our lives, struggle a bit, and then get into a mindset of being strong again and able to take on the world.
Those feelings are not necessarily permanent. We feel that way…most of the time. Everybody knows those old weaknesses can come creeping in at random. Or they can violently blindside us at the most unexpected moments.
Of course, we recover and get back to our new normals. And we’re all right again, until the next time.
Imagine Dylan, or the narrator of this song, making himself so vulnerable. He is only admitting what many of us feel but don’t discuss. We can present our stone walls to the world almost every minute of every day. The world sees and essentially accepts that illusion of complete strength. But the illusion lasts only so long.
That’s human emotion for you, isn’t it? That’s what sadness appears to be after we’ve recovered from its initial onslaught. I have wondered what was lingering in me in the months and years following traumatic events, the effects of which never seemed to go away completely.
Dylan put into words that otherwise indescribable feeling: I’ve recovered. I’m strong again. Mostly.
Our last song selection is “Not Dark Yet,” which comes from Dylan’s 1997 comeback record Time Out of Mind.
Dylan had not produced much original material in the previous eight years. In the mid-1980s and into the 1990s, he experienced a major career slump, and he was feeling tired and uninspired.
Whether any of this informed how Dylan was feeling about his life and work in 1997, I cannot say for sure. In any event, Daniel Lanois produced that year’s Time Out of Mind, meaning the album bears his characteristic murky and moody atmosphere throughout.
Dylan brought lyrics to match. Each of the songs seems like its own confession of depression, its own rumination on impending doom.
As we’ve been discussing, music and emotions can do funny things to us. Time Out of Mind is a dark work, to be sure.
Why listen to it? Because enveloping yourself in those kinds of feelings can be cathartic. If you let Dylan’s existential crises from this record subsume your thoughts for an hour and 12 minutes, you may just come out the other side having exorcised the demons that were haunting you.
If that’s the case for you, as it has been for me many times, then the mid-album track “Not Dark Yet” is sure to make you feel the most human you’ve ever felt.
The melancholy guitars and other instrumentation accompany Dylan’s foggy-twilight lyrics. He sings of the lengthening shadows, his unhealed scars, his apathy in the face of other people, and the numbness of his body.
The most poignant parts of the song are the last lines of each stanza, in which Dylan sings that, while things aren’t that bad just yet, darkness will be here soon.
One could perform a dissertation-length analysis of lyrics such as these. I think that, from a psychological perspective, there’s no truer expression of human sadness. It sounds like utter indifference, giving up.
To cap it off, Dylan or the narrator knows what’s coming. No, it isn’t dark just now, but darkness is but one moment away. What will the tipping point be? It almost doesn’t matter.
What is concerning, if a person ever said these words to you, would be how that person arrived at this place to begin with. Would there be a way to bring that person back?
I truly don’t know. I can’t listen to “Not Dark Yet” and not hear someone crying out in this way in the moment before death, possibly even a self-imposed death.
The catharsis that songs produce in listeners can be enormously beneficial to us. Imagine going into “Not Dark Yet” with repressed feelings of sadness, perhaps sentiments you have been hiding away from everyone, even from yourself. Maybe the song gets at you like nothing else has. Maybe you express those feelings.
If music can help you cleanse those secreted emotions, I would say it has done its job.
I hope this series–both the previous post on music and emotions and this one specifically related to Bob Dylan’s songs–has laid bare the true force of music on the human mind. Humans are the ones making the music, so we mostly know the elements to infuse into our work to evoke feelings in others.
What we cannot know is how this or that person will take a piece of music, or how the music will infect the person of its own volition.
Dylan’s songs are akin to literature. They are whatever the listener interprets them to be.
Once you realize what emotions a Dylan song is conveying to you, then only you can decide how you respond to those emotions, what they do for you. Do you feel the same? Do you feel differently? Do you like how it makes you feel?
For myself, I know that I have a Dylan song for every day, every occasion, every moment of my life. I know which feelings I want to use Dylan’s music to enhance or suppress, and which songs can actually access those feelings.
I suppose that’s the crux of this two-part series, that Bob Dylan has long been a central figure in my quest to understand the emotional effects of music.
In that sense, Bob has done me a great service: through his own poetic expressions of the complete range of human emotions, he has allowed me to know myself like nothing else has.