“Senor” (1978)


Senor” is an exhausting song, or rather its about exhaustion.  Its universe is the long trail, the dusty unending road, where people on it just keep asking questions like, “Do you know where we’re headin’?” and “How long are we gonna be ridin’?”  It’s a song begging to use the word “still.”  And Dylan does use it all at once three times in the third verse:

There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck
There’s an iron cross still hangin’ down from around her neck
There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said, “Forget me not”

And its use creates an internal rhyming with “blowin,’” “hangin,” and “playin.” Those words are gerunds, nouns formed from verbs, action transformed into inaction. Verb into noun.  Movement and stillness.  The forever blowing, hanging, and playing (still playing Bob?), create still pictures–like paintings or photographs do.  The wind still blowin on that upper deck frames the upper deck; as the cross still handing freeze-frames “her neck.” Likewise, the vacant lot is forever not emptied of any folk but forever populated by a marching band.
It works on so many poetic levels and so does his voice when he sings this verse.  Have a listen from this live performance:

“Make You Feel My Love” (1997)

Listen closely to this verse from “Make You Feel My Love
When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love

Something sneaky to the ear is going on here.  When I initially heard the first line I thought “shadows” was a verb, as if the evening shadows something, but “and” joins “shadows” to “the stars” making that impossible. “appears”/”tears”/years” are the rhyming words.  But “stars appear” with “your tears” does something else for the ear.  I think it’s the t in “stars” as well as the r that accompanies the r in “your” and the t in “tears” that gives it a sing-ability, a tonal unity good for the singer, good for the listener, and distant for the reader.
As Christopher Ricks says, “Every song, by definition, is realized only in performance.”  I think this can be said of this verse–listen closely to the way Dylan sings it and I think you’ll hear  the sounds from those letters mesh into words to create a tone that echoes throughout the song and perhaps the entire cd.

“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” (1968)


The song titles on John Wesley Harding have six “I”‘s in them, two in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”  And that first person perspective makes an indelible impact, especially at the end when the word “glass” appears.  The song is an account of a dream involving participation in an execution.  The speaker’s reaction to the dream, the culpability felt from being responsible for someone’s death, is profound, and it is captured immediately upon his return from sleep:


I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried


The reaction of the “I” in the song is accentuated by the “I” sound that appears ten times in eight lines.  The personal response to the dream arguably is dramatized more than the dream, with the figure left caught in a freeze-frame leaning against glass (Robert Shelton asks, “What is ‘the glass’ he touches before crying? A window, a telescope, or a mirror?) “glass” is left un-rhymed, not peculiarly so as a pattern is present.  The odd numbered lines do not have rhyming end words.  Anger, loneliness, and terror combine to cause bowing and crying.  “glass” plays a memorable role in the “I”‘s distraught condition.

In all of Dylan’s “dream” songs this may be the one with the most emotion with the touch of glass the only support for a grieving man. In all, the response seems to be more about the “I” than St. Augustine’s, a self that has died, a self that was once “alive with fiery breath,” a self seen through a “looking-glass” of a dream, a self no longer.


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Here’s Bob and Joan singing it at Madison Square Garden during the Rolling Thunder tour in 1975.

“High Water Rising (For Charley Patton)” (2001)

Call it “cultural plunder” (Lott) or “yoking” (Yaffe) “High Water” is an amalgam of allusions, references, borrowings, gleanings,  and sifting.  That said, the prophet in Dylan sure got it right that after 9/11 (Love and Theft released on 9/11) many people have lived feeling that their heads are just above water.  The song is packed with messages of how tough, rough, and bad it is “out there.”  The verse with a “head”/”lead”/”said” rhyme helps reinforce this sentiment:

High water risin’, six inches ’bove my head
Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin’ to do
“Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”
It’s rough out there
High water everywhere

There’s keeping just above the dangers and threats, almost drowning, not dark yet but getting there, and we’re in this together–this is all over the place, happening to me and you stuff that nightmares are made of in this verse.  Coffins droppin like balloons is quite an image.  There’s staying above but going over implied in these lines, too.  Things go over like lead balloons.  Greil Marcus notes that what drops harder than anything in this song is the word “care” and the way Dylan says it in the line, “Either one, I don’t care”/High water everywhere.”  Dylan not caring goes over like a lead balloon. The finger pointing songs we grew up on made him seem to care so much.  Now he “used to care but things have changed.”  Staying above and going over, heady advice for our time though, downright caring, when we look again and see that what we saw is no longer standing there.

Image result for the twin towers on 9/11

Dylan appears to care about this song having performed it 712 times over the last 17 years.  Here’s one of those times, Irvine, CA, August, 3, 2013:


“Handy “Dandy” (1990)

Christopher Ricks hands us over eight pages on “Handy Dandy” in his chapter from Dylan’s Vision of Sin that focuses on Envy. He gives attention to the song linking him and Michael Gray to how they both find the song terrific.  Ricks distinguishes himself from Gray in how he sees the song as scary, and he ties what he calls the “You’ll say / He’ll say routine” in at as part of the fright, “as if someone is being instructed in a code of behavior.”  This makes the “said”/”dead” rhyme ominous, threading the motif of threat through the song:


You say, “What are ya made of?”
He says, “Can you repeat what you said?”
You’ll say, “What are you afraid of?”
He’ll say, “Nothin’! Neither ’live nor dead.”

Yes, as Ricks notes, what’s neither live nor dead is money, HD is made of money, and probably drug money, i.e. the candy that he’s just like with sugar (on top? over the top?).

Ricks refers the game handy-dandy, defined the OED as “A children’s game in which a small object is shaken between the hands by one of the players, and, the hands being suddenly closed, the other player is required to guess in which hand the object remains.”  The expression has been used to mean “change of places, alternately, in rapid alternation.”   Sounds a little like Dylan himself.  Is Dylan the “hand-dandy” in the song?  Here are a couple of turn of the century dandies:

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And here’s an audio of the only time Bob performed it live, June 27, 2008:



“George Jackson” (1971)

“Blackmen born in the U.S. and fortunate enough to live past the age of 18 are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison. For most of us, it simply looms as the next phase in a sequence of humiliations.”  -George Jackson-
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In the last verse of “George Jackson,” Dylan rhymes “yard” with “guards,” the last words of lines 2 and 4:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

This is the rhyming pattern in the song; each 2nd and 4th lines end in a rhyme.  Otherwise, the rhyming is limited to the “down”/”ground” one that ends each verse:

I woke up this mornin’
There were tears in my bed
They killed a man I really loved
Shot him through the head
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

Sent him off to prison
For a seventy-dollar robbery
Closed the door behind him
And they threw away the key
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

He wouldn’t take shit from no one
He wouldn’t bow down or kneel
Authorities, they hated him
Because he was just too real
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

Prison guards, they cursed him
As they watched him from above
But they were frightened of his power
They were scared of his love.
Lord, Lord,
So they cut George Jackson down.
Lord, Lord,
They laid him in the ground.

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

In the “yard”/”guard” rhyme Dylan does one of his “either one or the other” a la “Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord . . .” binary in “Gotta Serve Somebody.” This one has teeth though; indeed the world as “one big prison yard” and we as either prisoners or guards is convincing, as is the way Joan Baez sings the song:

Some background of Jackson taken from the Freedom Archives website:

“Black Panther leader George Jackson was born on September 23, 1941 in Chicago, Illinois. At age 18, he was sentenced to serve an indeterminate term in San Quentin State Prison for a $70 gas station robbery. On August 21, 1971, the FBI, the state of California and other law enforcement agencies killed Jackson with multiple bullets to his chest, but they failed to kill the revolutionary struggle of Black and poor prison inmates that he was instrumental in organizing throughout this country.

Jackson educated himself behind prison bars to the point where his clear vision of historical and contemporary reality and his ability to communicate his perspective had frightened the U.S. power structure into physically liquidating him. Jackson’s survival for so many years in vicious jails, his self-education, and his publication of Soledad Brother were tremendous personal achievements.

His assassination sparked the September 13, 1971 rebellion at Attica State Prison in New York, prompting the bloodiest suppression of an inmate uprising in U.S. history.”

“Forever Young” (1974)

Dylan wrote “Forever Young” in Tucson, AR around the time he was working with Sam Peckinpah on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  He hoped to avoid sentimentality in the song, admitting he was, “thinking of one of [his] boys (Jakob?) and not wanting to be too sentimental.  Christopher Ricks feels Dylan gets his wish since the song can’t avoid “sensing something dark that is in the air.”  In the first verse, one such line with that sensing includes the word “stars”:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
Ricks argues that the William Blake poem “For Children” (which may or may not have been familiar to Dylan) contains the “dark sensing” that Dylan’s song alludes to.  In the Blake poem, “A tiny man mounts a ladder propped against a quarter moon,” and in the background are seven stars, the caption under the illustration at this moment in the poem reads, “I want, I want.”
Better to build ladders directly to the stars, yes?  And do it with some humility–Dylan’s song after all is about granting, not wanting (no “I want you” or any one or thing for that matter in this song).  It’s about wishes, may you, may you, may you over and over again, and you will never want, in the sense of lack, for nothing.
Here’s the immortal version of “Forever Young” from The Last Waltz:

“Day Of The Locusts” (1969)

[This blog posting is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Professing Dylan (2016), a book about teaching Dylan, published by Philips Memphis Publishing and edited by Frances Hunter (1939-2016) of Arkansas State University with a forward written by Michael Gray.]

The song begins with the sound of locusts, though more like the melodic leg-rubbing sound of crickets.  The chorus refers to how they, the locusts, were singing to Dylan, but the listener gets to hear them, too, so we are in a sense privy to this invitation or entrance in to such singing. The tears and perspiration on the benches acknowledge the celebratory transformation that graduates anticipate, but Dylan is distanced from that–it is the locusts he hears, though he sees the tears and perspiration.

The second verse refers to darkness and the smell of a tomb.  But there is a sudden light–the hope perhaps shown to him from nature,

I glanced into the chamber where the judges were talking
Darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb
I was ready to leave, I was already walkin’
But the next time I looked there was light in the room

and perhaps not limited to the singing of the locusts but to the birds “flying from tree to tree” in the first verse.

The third verse is probably a direct reference to Crosby’s anger–an emotion felt by Dylan and projected out from his friend, who upon departure called the Princeton administration a “[b]unch of dickheads on auto-stroke” (qtd. in Dylan, Chronicles).  But Dylan shuns this emotion. It is not the one he wants to pursue in this song.  Instead he pursues joy.

In the fourth verse, he picks up his sweetheart and heads out to nature, blissfully removed to a place where he could become himself again and not the representation or image-extended identity of someone else.

I put down my robe, picked up my diploma
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota
Sure was glad to get out of there alive
And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody
And the locusts sang with a high whinin’ trill
Yeah, the locusts sang and they was singing for me
Singing for me, well, singing for me

The song uses alternating rhymes throughout with “distance” appearing as an echo rhyme twice.  Keeping one’s distance from harmful settings and being distant from one’s self when one’s identify is compromised are messages echoing in the song.  What’s off in the distance, too, may just be where one needs to be so that what becomes distant  becomes relevant to a quote from another Dylan song,

What looks large from a distance
Close up ain’t never that big

(“Tight Connection To My Heart”)


“To Ramona” (1964)

Michael Gray calls “To Ramona” one of two songs off Another Side of Bob Dylan that comes “across as early flashes of the creative explosion” soon to be.  It’s a five verse song with a significant thematic rhyme “fed”/”head” beginning the third, middle verse:
I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
By worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin’ and returnin’
On back to the South
You’ve been fooled into thinking
That the finishin’ end is at hand
Yet there’s no one to beat you
No one t’ defeat you
’Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad

The rhyme feeds images that last, a head twisted and foam from the mouth. The foam comes from others–worthless fodder, scraps of crap Dylan would get used to from the media, would come to know all to well what it was, and even more so how do deal with it–only self-pity could be the real crippling damaging force.
“head“/”fed” is the only rhyming couplet in that verse.  But what I really like is how the ending -d sound is echoed later in it at other line ending words, “hand” and “bad.”  “head” which begins the verse almost helps “hand” and “bad” become a rhyme, especially when Dylan sings it compressing just the right words and expanding just the right sounds to do it, with that “early flash” of “creative explosion” as can be heard in this live performance at Newcastle, England on May 6, 1965:

“Temporary Like Achilles” (1966)

You love someone but he/she sends you no regards, sends someone out to have you barred  . . . now that’s pretty hard to deal with. In Temporary Like Achilles,” things get harder and harder for the would be lover, while the words that rhyme with the word “hard” keep piling up.  “heart” and “hard” have a kind of assonance, and the heart being referred to is questioned as being made of stone, solid rock even.  The “guard” rhyme with “hard” helps phrase the deepest question, puts it back on the object of the devotion:
Just what do you think you have to guard?
You know I want your lovin’
Honey, but you’re so hard
If nothing else gets her (assuming gender)  to let down her guard this might, but if the guard is actually someone like Achilles, well this is going to get even harder:
Achilles is in your alleyway
He don’t want me here, he does brag
He’s pointing to the sky
And he’s hungry, like a man in drag
How come you get someone like him to be your guard?
You know I want your lovin’
Honey, but you’re so hard
Now Achilles is rock solid hard, all brawn, but he once did dress in drag, ordered to by his mother to make him avoid going to war. But he was hungry for battle, his nature was to be a warrior. Capture Achilles in that moment of his myth and make him your guard? Well that’s bound to be temporary.  Maybe there’s hope in breaking down or losing that guard altogether after all.
Back to the myth: here is a painting from Greek Mythology Link of the moment when Odysseus discovers Achilles’ disguise: