Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize for Literature, 2016

Hello there! In this week’s blog we will depart from our normal formula. In honor of Bob Dylan’s winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, we are going to feature three songs by the inimitable Mr. Dylan.

In our normal blog posts, we include just a sampling of the song lyrics. However, in honor of Nobel Laureate Dylan, it seems appropriate to include the entire lyrics for each of these songs.

Like so many of Dylan’s tunes, there exist dozens of covers of each song. However, we have included these particular songs for three reasons. First, each of these tunes had a strong impact on us at the time they were released. In particular, we found each song’s lyrics very striking.

Despite the existence of many ‘covers,’ we feel that Bob Dylan’s version of each of these songs is quite unique. Unless we mention otherwise, we have not found a cover version that stands up to the original.

All of these songs were released early in Bob Dylan’s career, on three different albums. We will present them in chronological order. So, here we go.

Bob Dylan, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right:

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right was included on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the second album by Dylan, released in 1963. The cover of that album is shown below left.  The song was also released as a single.

Below is a photo of Bob Dylan about three years later, in the studio rehearsing for his album Highway 61 Revisited.

Embed from Getty Images

Apparently
The melody is based on the public domain traditional song “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone?” The melody was taught to Dylan by folksinger Paul Clayton, who had used the melody in his song “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?”

Cover of the 1963 album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

Cover of the 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Dylan not only used an existing melody for his song, but he borrowed a couple of the lines from Clayton’s song Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone? The lines “T’ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, darlin’,” and, “So I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road,” were taken nearly verbatim from Clayton’s earlier tune.

Although Dylan’s single did not make it into the pop charts, a 1963 cover of the song by Peter, Paul and Mary made it as high as #9 on the Billboard charts.

The lyrics to Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right are caustic and depressing. A man is leaving his woman, and reviews their relationship in an extremely negative light.

Well, it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If’n you don’t know by now.
And it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It’ll never do somehow.

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window, and I’ll be gone
You’re the reason I’m travelin’ on
Don’t think twice, it’s all right.

And it ain’t no use in turning on your light, babe
The light I never knowed.
And it ain’t no use in turning on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road.

But I wish there was somethin’ you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
We never did too much talking anyway
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

No it ain’t no use in calling out my name, gal
Like you never done before
And it ain’t no use in calling out my name, gal
I can’t hear you any more.

I’m a-thinking and a-wonderin’ walking down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I am told
I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

So long honey, baby
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye is too good a word, babe
So I’ll just say fare thee well

I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

Not only was Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right bleak and desolate, but the singer appears to have little empathy for the girl he is walking away from.

In reviewing their relationship, he simply states “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind, you could have done better but I don’t mind. You just kinda wasted my precious time.” Ouch!

The tone of the song was sufficiently biting that it was hard to get off my mind. It is one of Dylan’s early songs that was seared into my brain.

Here is the audio to Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

As was his style at the time, the record simply involves Dylan singing and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. The guitar work, rapid acoustic finger-picking, was unlike Dylan’s usual fairly simple strumming.

As a result, many people believed that the guitar work on this tune was due to Bruce Langhorne, who played guitar on several Dylan songs. However, there exist live solo performances by Dylan where he produces similar finger-picking work.

The harmonica work on this song, particularly right at the end, is very effective. The ‘lonesome train whistle’ sound achieved by Dylan is especially appropriate for a tune where the singer is headed out on the road.

I remember that when we got together to sing folk tunes in the 60s, we used to pair Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right with another mean relationship song, Gordon Lightfoot’s That’s What You Get For Lovin’ Me. That song featured the lines “So don’t you shed a tear for me, ‘cause I ain’t the love you thought I’d be. I got a hundred more like you, so don’t be blue. I’ll have a thousand ‘fore I’m through.”

Here is a second live version of Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. This features Bob Dylan with Eric Clapton, from a 1999 benefit concert.

Isn’t this great? Clapton and his band convert this into a bouncy country song. Both Dylan and Clapton contribute lovely guitar licks that propel the song along. The bass, organ and drums perfectly complement the guitars and Dylan’s vocals.

Dylan’s voice has endured many years on the road, but he is still compelling on this song. To some degree, the upbeat instrumental accompaniment undercuts the nastiness of the lyrics, but what the heck.

I think this is a great treatment of this classic tune. I have played it over and over again, without remotely getting tired of it. Both Dylan and Clapton seem to be enjoying themselves, even though it’s a bit difficult to assess Dylan’s mood.

I can see a direct line that leads from Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right to Dylan’s great masterpiece, Like A Rolling Stone, which we feature later in this post. In both cases, the singer addresses himself to a woman. In the first case, the pair were clearly lovers; in the second song, they could have been romantically involved, or it’s possible they were just close friends.

In both songs, the tone is caustic and dismissive. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right expresses deep cynicism, even perhaps contempt towards the former lover. Later on, we will deal with the emotions expressed in Like A Rolling Stone.

There are scores of covers of Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right. I will end by mentioning a cover by the Four Seasons. They issued their cover under a pseudonym (“The Wonder Who”), and changed the song title to Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright).

The Four Seasons’ effort is a sneering parody, with the lead vocals sung in falsetto. I can’t bring myself to include it, as it is a loathsome caricature of Dylan’s tune. This song is in my personal Hall of Shame. For a group whose work often veered uncomfortably towards self-parody, The Four Seasons had a lot of nerve releasing this cover – no wonder they issued it under a pseudonym!

Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues:

Subterranean Homesick Blues is the initial song on Dylan’s March, 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home. That album (the cover is shown below left), marked Dylan’s abrupt departure from his previous solo work, where Dylan accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica.

Cover of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia Records, 1965)

Cover of Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia Records, 1965)

Not only did Bringing It All Back Home feature an electric band, but Subterranean Homesick Blues was a hard-rocking, ass-kicking song. No sooner did I drop the phonograph needle on this first song than I said something like, “Holy s*** — Dylan is into something new!”

This tune contains a trademark Dylan feature, a series of rhymes piled one atop the next. But in this song, the net effect of the images is to induce extreme paranoia. Here are the lyrics from “Subterranean.”

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government.
The man in a trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off.

Look out, kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again.
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend.
A man in a coon-skin cap
In the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten.

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed, but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the DA.

Look out, kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don’t tie no bows
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose.
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plainclothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.

Get sick, get well
Hang around an ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything’s gonna sell.
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write Braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail.

Look out kid
You’re gonna get hit
But losers, cheaters
Six-time users
Hang around the theaters.
Girl by the whirlpool is
Lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters.

Ah, get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success.
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift

Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid scandals.
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles.

Here is the “music video” for Subterranean Homesick Blues. This first appeared in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back.

Don’t Look Back covered Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour of England. Although this music video was the last thing filmed by Pennebaker for his documentary, it appears at the very beginning of the movie.

Geez, what a fantastic tune! The song blew me away when I first heard it. Apparently in writing this song, Dylan found inspiration in a number of different areas.

In college, Bob Dylan was attracted to the Beat poets and writers. The title of Subterranean Homesick Blues is a shout-out to Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans.

Dylan greatly appreciated Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing, which to some extent he emulates in this song.

Dylan was also influenced by the rapid-fire patter in Chuck Berry’s songs. He particularly mentioned Chuck’s song Too Much Monkey Business as an inspiration for this tune’s structure.

Finally, the lyrics for Subterranean Homesick Blues may have been inspired by
the Woody Guthrie–Pete Seeger song “Taking It Easy” (“Mom was in the kitchen preparing to eat / Sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast”).

Regardless of the antecedents for this song, Bob Dylan creates something totally new, generally scary, and quite unforgettable.

Who else but Dylan could produce these extraordinary bursts of creativity, jam-packed into a song that lasts only 2:18? And few others could replicate the sensation of living in a society where mysterious forces appear to be watching wherever you go and whatever you do.

Right near the beginning we are told “Look out, kid, it’s somethin’ you did.” What did he do and at what time? “God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again.”

Then, just a short while later Dylan blasts us with “Walk on tip toes, don’t tie no bows, better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose. Keep a clean nose, watch the plainclothes, you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”

This final line in that verse was the inspiration for naming the Weather Underground, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society.

Many cite this clip as the first-ever “music video.” While the tune is playing, Dylan riffs through a stack of placards that contain sly references to the song’s lyrics. Occasionally the cards are ironic or comical (as when one card reads “20 dollar bills” while the song refers to “11 dollar bills;” or when Dylan sings “parking meters” while the card says “pawking metaws”).

The video was filmed next to London’s Savoy Hotel. Note the bearded man having a conversation at the extreme left in the video; that man is Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

Subterranean Homesick Blues came out in 1965, when the Vietnam War was just heating up, as were anti-war protests. And the government was indeed keeping tabs on war protesters.

At the same time, the use of drugs such as marijuana and LSD was skyrocketing, and Uncle Sam was also keenly interested in both the sources and users of illegal medicinals. A few years later, Cheech and Chong would tap into the paranoia of the drug counterculture with their comedy routine “Dave’s not here.”

So the time was ripe for a song such as this. In fact, as usual Dylan was far ahead of the curve. It was my first introduction to this new side of Dylan.

Until this time, a great deal of Dylan’s commercial success came from other artists covering his songs. Peter, Paul and Mary’s versions of Blowin’ In the Wind and The Times They are A-Changin’ were far more successful than Dylan’s own tunes.

In 1962, I was intrigued by Dylan’s eponymous first album. I lugged it around and played it at several parties. At a couple of events, I was told that I would be thrown out if I didn’t replace Dylan with a different record. So in the early days, I can attest that Dylan’s singing was considered by many to be weird and perhaps even repulsive.

Subterranean Homesick Blues was the first of Dylan’s singles to make it into the Billboard Top 40 pop songs. It peaked just at #39, but it was a start. And it seemed to mark a growing acceptance of Dylan’s work by the general public.

Although there are dozens of covers of Subterranean Homesick Blues, I haven’t found any that even come close to Dylan’s original work.

The flip side of the album Bringing It All Back Home contained some all-time classic tunes.  In earlier blog posts, we covered Mr. Tambourine Man and also It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, both of which were featured on that album.

Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone:

Like A Rolling Stone was one of the songs on Bob Dylan’s sixth album, the August, 1965 release Highway 61 Revisited. That album cover is shown below left.

Cover of Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan's August, 1965 album.

Cover of Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan’s August, 1965 album.

Note that Highway 61 Revisited was released only five months after his first electric album, Bringing It All Back Home. This was a time of extraordinary creativity for Dylan; once he began recording with an electric band, he churned out fantastic songs at an incredible rate.

Like A Rolling Stone was written by Bob Dylan upon returning to the States from his 1965 European tour. This is the tour that was the subject of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back, which was referenced in the preceding section.

Depressed and frustrated by that tour and the response to his musical directions, Dylan considered retiring from the music business. He vented his feelings in an extended piece of poetry that eventually reached 10 to 20 pages.

From that cathartic writing sample, Dylan eventually distilled the song Like A Rolling Stone. In 2014, Dylan’s handwritten notes for that song sold at auction for $2 million, a world record price for the ‘manuscript’ of a popular song.

Like A Rolling Stone is addressed by a man to a woman who could be either a friend or former lover. Although previously she enjoyed wealth and fame, she has now fallen on hard times.

The singer asks “How does it feel … to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?” However, rather than express concern or empathy, the singer appears to show contempt, even perhaps enjoyment, upon observing her dire change in circumstances.

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall.”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you

You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal.

[CHORUS] How does it feel?
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street
And now you’re gonna have to get used to it

You say you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?

[CHORUS]

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you

You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discovered that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal.

[CHORUS]

Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re all drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you’d better take your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe

You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

[CHORUS]

Here is a video of a live performance by Bob Dylan of Like a Rolling Stone.

This is an absolutely fascinating video. Dylan is appearing at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, along with the musicians who had backed up his recording.

Dylan’s performance took place on July 25, 1965, just days after the release of the single for Like A Rolling Stone. The audience at the Newport Folk Festival was deeply divided over Dylan’s set.

To many fans of folk music, the appearance of Dylan backed by an electric rock band was almost sacrilegious, especially since Dylan had been the epicenter of the folk protest movement.

So the sight of Dylan not only forsaking folk for rock ‘n roll, but performing a song that appeared vengeful and sneering, was unforgivable. Check out the audience reaction at the end of the song; you will hear loud booing amidst the applause.

I was lucky enough to catch Dylan in May 1966, at his fabled appearance in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The first half of that concert was the old Dylan: solo, with his acoustic guitar and harmonica.

After an intermission (very exciting: the Rolling Stones were sitting in a box at the back of the Hall), Dylan appeared for the second half of the concert with an electric band, The Hawks, soon to be re-named The Band.

At that point, a small number of concert-goers got up and left Royal Albert Hall in protest. The Hawks were a bit disorganized, and both the acoustics and the sound balance were truly awful. But that didn’t matter, because the mood was – well – electric! And the music was unforgettable.

Like A Rolling Stone is an absolutely sensational song, one that changed rock ‘n roll culture forever. The song is ranked #1 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2004 list, The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Should it be #1 on that list? And how long will it remain there? Who knows? But if Like A Rolling Stone is not in the top 5 in your own personal list of rock songs, you should re-consider your assessment criteria.

CBS Records did not know what to make of Dylan’s song. At this point in time the archetypal rock song was either cheerily upbeat (“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”), or else sad and blue (“Baby, baby, baby, where did our love go?”)

Like A Rolling Stone was caustic, sarcastic, possibly even vengeful. It seemed incongruous, and dealt with issues that could make it impossible to achieve commercial success.

Then there was the song’s length. Stretching to over six minutes, it appeared  completely unsuited to the “standard” three-minute format for a song to get airplay on pop radio stations.

CBS initially attempted to “solve” the issue by releasing a single with half the song on one side, and the other half on the other. A few influential DJs began playing both sides back to back; the demand was so great that CBS caved in, and released the entire song on one side of a record.

Another amazing aspect of Like A Rolling Stone was that it came out at the height of the British Invasion. Over the preceding two years, a group of British artists led by the Beatles and Rolling Stones had overwhelmed and nearly wiped out much of the American pop music business.

The folk-music craze had collapsed. Once the Beatles and British Invasion appeared, teen heart-throbs such as Frankie Avalon held on only through his cheesy Beach Blanket movies. Iconic ‘roots’ rockers such as Little Richard Penniman and Chuck Berry found that the market for their new singles had dried up.

Paradoxically, although Little Richard and Berry inspired much of the British Invasion music, the demand for their own songs disappeared. On the other hand, both Penniman and Berry found great success in live appearances at “oldies” concerts.

In a culture dominated by the British Invasion, very few American artists managed to thrive. Bob Dylan, and in particular Like A Rolling Stone, not only succeeded, but his music made a huge impact on groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

There is one great cover of Like A Rolling Stone; that is the live performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. At this time, Hendrix was exploding into the public consciousness. Jimi’s appearance at Monterey was stunning, and this accelerated his meteoric ascent as the greatest guitarist of his generation.

Jimi regularly included Like A Rolling Stone on his playlist, and in the future we may review his performance of this song at Monterey.

By now, Bob Dylan’s catalog of songs is phenomenally long. He continues to release records and shows no signs of stopping the “Never-Ending Tour” that has now occupied him for thirty years.

In 2016, Dylan’s career was capped off by his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature. I love Dylan’s music, and the lyrics in his songs are stimulating and occasionally shocking. On the other hand, it is hard for me to see how his song lyrics satisfy the criterion for a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Dylan has just announced that he will skip the Nobel Prize ceremony, so we don’t know who will accept the award on his behalf. My understanding is that he must present a Nobel Prize lecture within six months, as a condition of receiving the award. Care to bet on whether that lecture ever takes place?

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Bob Dylan
Wikipedia, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
Wikipedia, Subterranean Homesick Blues
Wikipedia, Like A Rolling Stone

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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