Between the complex metaphysics of When The Deal Goes Down and the luxurious poetry of Workingman’s Blues No. 2, we get a little light relief as Dylan communes once again with the ‘ghosts’ who loom behind the surfaces of Modern Times. Someday Baby is another ‘my baby done left me’ blues. Like Rolling and Tumbling it is an adaptation of an earlier song which has been developed through the work of a number of leading blues singers. The first known version, titled Worried Life Blues, was written and recorded by legendary blues pianist ‘Big Maceo’ Merriweather in 1941. Various versions of the song, some called Someday Baby, have been recorded by Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. A number of these artists have adapted or comprehensively rewritten the lyrics and many have claimed ‘authorship’ of the song. What all these versions have in common is the expression by the singer of a desire for eventual revenge against an unnamed female. The singer is always telling us that eventually she will come to regret leaving him in the lurch. The song consists of a series of excuses the singer makes to himself for how his ‘revenge’ will be delayed. Very often, the tone of the singer’s hurt is exaggerated and, by implication, self mocking, so that the song becomes – like so many blues songs – a kind of self-commentary. As with Rolling and Tumbling Dylan completely rewrites the verses, but the attitude he conveys is very similar to that of his antecedents. He pleads with us to ‘pity po’ me’ but his tone he adopts makes us question whether we should take this plea at face value.

The music here is more relaxed than Rolling and Tumbling, and the expression of the singer more equivocal. The lyrics are modest, as unpoetic and subdued as the singer’s tone. Only occasionally does a more deliberately self-analytical tenor creep in. It is at these moments that we are reminded of Dylan’s characteristically self-conscious use of the blues idiom. Modern Times is, like Time Out Of Mind (1997) , Blood On The Tracks (1975) and New Morning (1970), a kind of very personal testament; a series of songs through which Dylan attempts to work out his own personal place in the scheme of things. On New Morning he attempts to balance a simple joy in family life in the country with nagging self-doubt about what he should be doing. But the prevailing tone is of contentment. On the ‘divorce album’ Blood On The Tracks the main feeling we get is of rage, woven through complex stories about lovers who can never agree as to ‘what is best’. In Time Out Of Mind, as Dylan confronts his own mortality, we begin with a kind of tired disgust and end with dazed, exhausted detachment. Modern Times contains all these emotions, from the apocalyptic rage of Ain’t Talkin’ to the romantic heartbreak of Nettie Moore to the philosophical resignation of When The Deal Goes Down and Spirit On The Water. Yet its prevailing mood, at least so far, is of proud self-assurance. At the end of Time Out Of Mind’s closer Highlands the singer asserts that he has …new eyes/everything seems far away… Through those ‘new eyes’ Dylan now confronts the sources of his art. Having conjured up the inspirational forces that constitute his ‘new-found faith’ in creativity, he calls their spirits to him and lets them fill him up. In doing so he invokes the mysterious process of how the blues conveys emotion, a process that has been one of the central fascinations of his career. While the album’s more poetic pieces reference the blues as part of a wider lyrical vision, the more lyrically basic blues numbers convey their message through the subtle use of nuance.

On Someday Baby Dylan never sounds in the least depressed. At worst he offers a shrug at the world’s unfairness. The band is tight and disciplined, playing in a relaxed way that nevertheless hints at a certain tension. Dylan’s vocal is smooth and understated, even rising in pitch slightly as he sings the chorus line …someday baby, you ain’t gonna worry po’ me any more… One of his most distinctive vocal techniques has always been his use of unexpected stresses, a way of singing that has allowed him to continually reinvent the meaning of his songs and keep them wholly alive. Here, in contrast to his natural gruffness, the singing is smooth and assured. Only at the really crucial moments in the song, where genuine questions are being asked, does he sound less than certain of what he is telling us. One such moment is the end of verse two. As he complains …well, you take my money, and you turn me out… his voice glides over the syllables. But then, during the next line …you fill me up with/nothin’ but self doubt… he lingers just slightly on the first syllable of …nothin’… as if he is hesitating slightly over what he is about to say. Of course, his ‘baby’ has just ripped him off for all his money and thrown him out of his own home, so he has some right to be a little cross. But ‘self doubt’ seems a rather mild punishment for him to endure and seems a remarkably self-conscious phrase to use during a blues song.

In the next verse, the singer sounds like he might lose his cool. …You drive me so hard… he asserts …almost to the grave…. his voice becoming suddenly guttural on the final word. But the overall delivery is still so smooth that it’s hard to believe he’s really so hurt. This impression is verified after a short instrumental passage, with snatches of unflashy guitar building up the tension, when we hear that …I’m so hard pressed, my mind tied up in knots /I keep recycling the same old thoughts…, his voice gliding over ‘thoughts’, as if the singer’s problem is not really with the woman but himself. Thus the violent declaration that he will …wring your neck… in the next verse seems unconvincing, especially as he claims that he would only do it to preserve his ‘self respect’. The singer tries to be angry, telling the girl she can …take your clothes/put ‘em in a sack… and that he …gon’ drive you from your home… but it feels like an empty boast. Finally the singer can only reflect that …living this way ain’t a natural thing to do… and rather pathetically laments …why was I born to love you?. After a short instrumental passage, the track fades away. Nothing, as Dylan once had it, is revealed. But it’s hard to see this as any kind of anguished love song. It seems that Dylan is once again addressing his muse. It is the ‘Tambourine Man’, the spirit of inspiration, that he was ‘born to love’ and it is the pressure of expectation on him that has driven him nearly ‘to the grave’. He is ‘so hooked’ on his muse’s charms that he must continue to serenade the creative spirit, no matter how ‘unnatural’ it may seem to him to continue doing so. Yet he is worried that self-doubt and lack of inspiration (those ‘same old thoughts’) will overwhelm him. But the lack of any convincing panic in his voice or in the music conveys the impression that this is very unlikely to happen. In Someday Baby the singer fears that his muse may desert him. One day, he tells us, he will be gone, down a road from which there is no return. The tussle with his ‘self-doubt’ will then be finally over. That day still seems a very long way away. But the song is a reminder of the constant struggle between the artist and his imagination, between creation and the void. Modern Times represents the triumph of that struggle, demonstrating eloquently how Dylan has risen from the depths of lack of inspiration to forge a new, more self-aware, form of artistic expression.

Now we are halfway through the album, what would once have been the ‘end of Side One’. For the most part, the songs so far have been gently personal, playful, affirmative, philosophical. But from here on things begin to take a darker turn. The singer begins to survey what lies ‘beyond the horizon’ of his own perceptions. He begins to look outward, to the world outside. Having defined his own position, he is about to take the true measure of our ‘Modern Times’


Thanks for all your encouraging responses. I’d be happy to hear any comments you might like to make and hope to respond to everybody who writes in.

I’m happy to set up links to other ‘bloggers’ out there writing about anything relevant – let me know and I’ll link to you. I recommend the very cool Visions of Dylan

You might also be interested in taking a look at my website, From The Pen Of Chris Gregory.  This showcases my previously published books on THE PRISONER and STAR TREK and some of my poems and plays.

For daily news of Dylan and Dylan-related stuff check out  Expecting Rain

The official Dylan site (with all the lyrics except Modern Times) is here

For discussions on Dylan, check out Bob Dylan Forum

Next up will be Workingman’s Blues No. 2.

Technorati Profile

Also look out for the first publication of an extract from my forthcoming book on The Beatles, featuring a ‘fictionalised’ account of their meeting with Dylan. Watch this space!!




Ol’ Glory is a-flyin’ now

In that breeze that never ceases,

My heart it fairly bursts with pride

As the heavenly wind increases


The stars and stripes are way up high,

Over Macdonalds and The 7-11,

Things have really gotten goin’

Since we invaded heaven


Long ago it all got written down

In the book of revelations,

It was the Lord himself who allowed

We was the chosen nation


Well, we could-a mobilised the marine corps,

But we’d had enough sittin’ and waitin’

We just wheeled them beauties outa them silos..

Yep, we nuked that bastard Satan


In his divine wisdom, his holiness and grace,

The Lord he said we done his work so well,

He gave us the mineral rights and contracts

For the exclusive exploitation of hell


But then, goddammit. he tried to stop us

Gettin’ in on his territory,

He didn’t want no commercialisation,

Leastways, that was his story…


Well, we begged, we pleaded him

To let in our corporations,

We even tried to get a resolution

At the United Nations


Now, we never wanted to cause no fuss,

Or start no unholy ruction,

But we just had to point out that his thunderbolts

Were weapons of mass destruction


We also had do tell him that though he ruled

By a process of divine selection,

When our marines had taken over

He’d have to stand for election..


Anyways, the work was done

In a couple of weeks we’d freed his nation,

With our precision-guided missiles

We’d kick-started heaven’s liberation


Well, as you might well expect

We met just a little resistance,

So if you see any of them renegade archangels

We’d be happy for your assistance.


Ol’ Glory is a-flyin’ now,

On this proud and wondrous day,

The Lord himself is tied up and bound

Behind the wire at Guantanamo Bay











…We all wear the same thorny crown

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Modern Times is its lyrical and emotional clarity. The lyrics of 2001’s Love And Theft, like so many Dylan albums before it, featured often wildly allusive patterns of reference. But here the songs are carefully constructed to convey specific emotions and themes in a way that we may not generally think of as ‘Dylanesque’. When The Deal Goes Down is perhaps the most precisely written and the least ambiguous piece on the album. It deals with mortality and the fragility of existence ‘in this earthly domain’ with great humility and dignity. As ever with Dylan, we are presented with a number of apparently very different reference points. Its rich fusion of natural imagery and restrained ‘plain speak’ is reminiscent of the poetry of Robert Frost. It is delivered in a breathy, almost whispered Willie Nelson-style croon which befits its bittersweet nature, in a tune based on an old Bing Crosby number. There is a sparing use of archaic language, including some lines lifted from the work of Civil War poet Henry Timrod. The song is also infused with the spirit, and some of the imagery, of the blues. Yet these disparate elements are quite seamlessly combined in a transcendent, sometimes almost heartbreaking, performance. The song is a kind of open confession, in which the singer lays forth his spiritual confusion in what becomes a kind of conversation with his audience, the rest of the world and himself.


When The Deal Goes Down is especially reminiscent of two earlier Dylan songs, both of which wrestle with loss of faith, mortality and the mysteries of the cosmos. Every Grain of Sand (1981) was written at the end of his most overtly religious period, following his dramatic conversion to Born Again Christianity in 1979. But here the moral certainty of the songs of two years before is replaced by profound self-doubt. Although he declares that he can …see the Master’s hand…. in every aspect of creation, he finally confesses that …sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me… as if his whole experience of God has been merely one of his own projections. By the time of Not Dark Yet (1997) the singer faces a complete loss of faith, feeling that his …soul has turned into steel…. and telling us that …sometimes my burden is more than I can bear… When The Deal Goes Down attempts to provide a resolution to this ongoing spiritual crisis. What makes the song so moving is the way it depicts a struggle for, and perhaps a final attainment of, a kind of grace, or spiritual enlightenment, achieved not through any conventionally ‘religious’ path but through making a personal ‘deal’ with the spirit of creativity. Dylan has stated that he now places his faith not in any deity but in the old songs he constantly revisits and refers to in his art, many of them (such as Hank Williams’ manic gospel number I Saw The Light) rather turbulent expressions of faith. As with Spirit On The Water and Rolling And Tumbling, Dylan makes the spirit of creativity his touchstone, his ‘God’, his ‘Tambourine Man’.


The song begins like a slow country waltz, with some mournful steel guitar and tense percussive brush strokes. In the first verse Dylan describes the state of spiritual confusion he has found himself in, confessing that he is ‘bewildered’ and that …we live and we die/We know not why… Any prayers that may be offered up are like invisible clouds, floating away unnoticed. The ‘pathways of life’ are dark and the singer stands in the symbolic landscape of …the world’s ancient light/Where wisdom grows up in strife… The declaration of …But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down… is the first statement of defiant faith, apparently contradicting what has gone before. Although the song sounds nothing like the blues, it has begun in the typical manner of a blues lament – by stating the singer’s troubles. The phrase ‘when the deal goes down’ is used in a number of blues songs, including Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down by Dylan’s particular favourites The Mississippi Sheiks and Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, originally recorded by Charlie Poole and The North Carolina Ramblers in 1925 (and covered by Dylan on several occasions). The ‘deal’ in these songs is a gambling metaphor which the singers extend to life in general, the idea being that you have to face life with whatever ‘hand’ you are dealt. Here, despite what the singer identifies as the apparent purposelessness of life, he is determined to hold onto the ‘cards’ he has been given.


As the band sticks to the minimal backdrop, Dylan continues with his understated delivery. The song continues to shift between the personal to the universal. The first lines of the second verse ...We eat and we drink, we feel and we think/far down the street we stray… suggests, in a philosophical tone, that we are all fallible creatures who will inevitably ‘stray’ from the path of virtue. The singer is ‘haunted’ by regret for ….things I never meant or wished to say…  The second half of the verse moves from plainspeak into more imagistic expression. …The midnight rain follows the train… is the song’s most ‘Dylanesque’ line, itself derived from blues imagery. ‘Rain’ is a frequent image in Dylan’s work, frequently symbolising chaotic confusion and spiritual desolation. …I’m out in the rain/And you are on dry land… Dylan cries in 1975’s You’re A Big Girl Now, expressing his exclusion and desolation. ..Everybody’s making love… he sings in Desolation Row (1965) …or else expecting rain… In A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall lies and confusion threaten to flood the entire world. Here the ‘midnight rain’ stands as a metaphor for life’s troubles, following the train which symbolises the progress of a human life. The next line …we all wear the same thorny crown… delivered with a kind of light, sighing compassion, is perhaps the song’s most resonant image, suggesting that the burden of sin is carried by us all. Despite the obvious reference to Jesus, this is decidedly not a line he would have used on Slow Train Coming or Saved. Dylan’s work has always been steeped in Biblical imagery and a concern with what he once called ‘the politics of sin’ has always been one of his central themes. The delivery of the line here is so moving because of the sense of dignity he imparts to what amounts to an almost tearfully world-weary acceptance of the inevitability of the burden we must all bear. Whereas in Not Dark Yet the burden seems to be too much for him, here he is able to bear it lightly. The next line, the exquisite …soul to soul, our shadows roll… further emphasises the idea that ultimately we are all equally mortal, our ‘shadows’ merging together in the spiritual world. Dylan caresses the words, with their neat internal rhyme suggesting his acceptance of a kind of universal harmony. The tile line at the end of the verse now begins with ‘and’ rather than ‘but’. The contradictions of the first verse have clearly, to some extent, been resolved.


The third verse depicts the singer in a twilight, moonlit world – as if he is the ‘pale ghost’ from Spirit On The Water. The mood of reconciliation continues. …We learn to live… he tell us …and then we forgive/ o’er the road we’re bound to go… The anachronistic expression give the lines a kind of timeless quality, with the reference to the ‘road’ of life echoing the ‘street’ on which we ‘stray’ from the first verse. Perhaps Dylan was recalling Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken with its final declaration that …I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence/Two road diverged in a wood and I/Took the one less travelled by/And that one has made all the difference… The tone of resigned acceptance of fate and the idea that the choices we make that determine our lives are not always thought through parallels Dylan’s position here. The next lines, partly ‘sampled’ from Timrod, focus again on the fragility of life: …more frailer than the flowers/these precious hours… Dylan adds the remarkable …that keep us so tightly bound… suggesting that we often keep the ‘flower’ of our lives, and of our creativity, ‘tightly bound’ like pressed flowers in an old book. The implication seems to be that life is infinitely precious and that it should not be wasted in futile struggle. Following this, the final lines are now triumphant, with the singer greeting his muse like a revelation, a …vision from the skies…


The final verse sees the spiritual seeker reaffirming his newfound acceptance of life’s turbulent path. Instead of following a ‘road ‘he follows a more natural ‘winding stream’. He tells us that picks up a rose, the Blakean symbol of love, life and death and that, rather comically … it poked through my clothes… as if he does not feel it pricking him now. He is immune to its effects. Although he lives in …this earthly domain/full of disappointment and pain… he now fully accepts his place in the scheme of things. Despite the ‘deafening noise’ of life’s mad confusion, he accepts the ‘transient joys’ of life, even though … I know they’re not what they seem… He confesses that he ‘owes his heart’ to his muse. He fully accepts the hand that life has dealt him. And he implies that when death comes – when his ‘deal’ finally ‘goes down’ he will be reunited with the spirit of creativity that he now places his faith in. Thus When The Deal Goes Down is a kind of summation of the journey through spiritual confusion symbolised in Every Grain of Sand’s heartaching line …the bitter dance of loneliness, fading into space… It rejects the dark visions of much of what follows, such as the terrifying final line of 1985’s apocalyptic Dark Eyes : …a million faces at my feet/and all I see are dark eyes… and the jaded, resigned millenialist moralism of 1989’s Ring Them Bells : …Ring Them Bells/For the chosen few/Who will judge the many/When the game is through…. Since the late ‘80s Dylan has pursued, through his Never Ending Tour, a thorough exploration of the sources of his inspiration. Caught in the grip of spiritual despair and artistic desperation he declared himself …determined to stand… whether or not he could still retain his faith. Now, with Modern Times he triumphantly reasserts his ‘conversion’ to a new kind of faith – faith in himself and humanity. When The Deal Goes Down dramatises the struggle he has been through to reach this point. Now freed from the shackles of dogmatic thinking that have plagued him for so many years, he has produced a fundamentally humanistic collection of songs which confronts mortality and the vicissitudes of life itself with heartfelt compassion and great courage.




Thanks for all your encouraging responses. I’d be happy to hear any comments you might like to make and hope to respond to everybody who writes in.


I’m happy to set up links to other ‘bloggers’ out there writing about anything relevant – let me know and I’ll link to you. I recommend the very cool Visions of Dylan

You might also be interested in taking a look at my website, FromThe Pen Of Chris Gregory.  This showcases my previously published books on THE PRISONER and STAR TREK and some of my poems and plays.

For daily news of Dylan and Dylan-related stuff check out Expecting Rain

The official Dylan site (with all the lyrics except Modern Times) is here

Olaf Bjorner’s site is the place for concert listings

For discussions on Dylan, check out Bob Dylan Forum

Next up will be Someday Baby. Also look out for the first publication of an extract from my forthcoming book on The Beatles, featuring a ‘fictionalised’ account of their meeting with Dylan. Watch this space!!




Bob Dylan’s Modern Times Track By Track

19 October 20


POEM: GREAT WHITE WHALE 2) Even The Doctors Cried


Even the doctors cried, they said.

Even the doctors, their emotions

Cauterised by having to deal

With endless

Lines of  hopeless cases,

Even the doctors,

With their dead eyes

And blank expressions,

Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders,

To stop the gangs of hungry looters

Coming to the hospital to steal

The food from the dying patients,

Even the doctors cried, they said

Because he was so beautiful.


The boy lay on a filthy towel

His arms blown off, his eyes

Vast pools of bewildered

Fear and nameless wonder,

All his loved ones reduced

To collateral dust, his universe

Collapsed, sucked back

Into a big bang

Of dying stars in reverse.

Even the doctors cried, they said

Because he was so beautiful


All the boy could see

Was a blur of flashing cameras.

Each syndicated photo flashed around a world

In awe of him

Because he was so beautiful


The commentators crowded round him

Bidding for first preference on his soul,

Because he was so beautiful


Even the doctors cried, they said.

His face, radiant

His eyes, focused

On a land

So far away, glimpsing

A picture that cannot be taken

A soul

That cannot be stolen,


In the glare of the unforgiving

Camera eye.


All he could see were the bright

Faces of angels,

Waiting in paradise for him,

Waiting to deliver him

From this waking dream.

So he could live for ever

With his father and his brother

And his beautiful mother

Dancing in the never ending

Light of Allah’s eyes..


Even the doctors cried, they said.

Because he was so beautiful.











..I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs…

And so the thoughts revolve around the poet’s mind. He’s been up all night. Sleep has been impossible. He sits on the edge of the bed, watching the young woman sleeping, her luxuriant dark hair tossed across her face. He leans closer, brushes a few strands away. He can smell the light traces of perfume, drawing him closer and closer. He is tempted to kiss her neck, just at that spot that makes her shiver. But he knows he must not wake her. He draws back, walks over to the window, and watches the first rays of dawn rising over the tenements downtown. His notebook is on the table. But still the words will not come to him. So he closes his eyes. Begins to tap his feet. Maybe if he concentrates hard enough he will begin to hear some music…


Rolling And Tumbling is the first of three blues songs on Modern Times which are clearly based on established models. Since the album was released, blues scholars and Dylan enthusiasts have been feverishly digging around to find the sources, not only of these three songs, but of many of the lines from the other songs on the album. We now know, for instance, that a number of lines – scattered throughout the album – have been ‘lifted’ from the obscure American Civil War poet Henry Timrod (‘Timrod’, we are told, is also ‘nearly’ an anagram of ‘Modern Times!). Just as with the case of the expropriation of phrases from a Japanese novel in Love And Theft’s Floater, the ‘Timrod’ connection has provided column inches in national newspapers. The question has arisen – yet again – whether Dylan is a ‘plagiarist’. Those who know Dylan’s work well can only smile at this. From his earliest days, his songs have been ‘developed’ from other songs. Almost all the songs on his breakthrough album Freewheelin (1963) took their melodies and basic structure from traditional folk songs – Girl Of The North Country from Scarborough Fair, Bob Dylan’s Dream from Lord Franklin, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall from Lord Randall, Masters of War from Nottamun Town and so on. Such instances can be found throughout Dylan’s career. In a recent interview Dylan revealed that his songwriting generally begins with him playing old folk, blues or country tunes to himself and then gradually changing the words arounds. It is a method not uncommon amongst songwriters in his field. Blues singers in particular have always adapted and developed existing songs to their own ends. In Dylan’s case, this methodology gives his work a particular type of resonance – one song refers to another, or quite possibly several other songs – making the work rooted in cultural traditions and enriching the song’s poetic content by suggesting that it somehow ‘contains’ the work of previous poet/songwriters.


Since the early 1990s, when Dylan’s transformation into the renewed artist of today began, he has turned this method of anchoring his songs within the folk and blues traditions into a kind of modus operandi. Seven years passed between the release of the patchy Under The Red Sky (1990) and the brilliant resurgence of Time Out Of Mind (1997), during which time Dylan engaged in a thorough exploration of the art of songwriting itself, the ultimate aim of which was to renew his own sources of inspiration. As well as the two albums of traditional songs Good As You Been To Me (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1994) he performed literally hundreds of ‘covers’ on his Never Ending Tour, ranging from sea shanties to the work of contemporary songwriters. Very often these cover versions were the highlights of the gigs. At times he seemed to be merely ‘churning out’ his old hits while his own interest seemed to be most focused on this exhaustive exploration of his ‘roots’. As a result Time Out Of Mind was steeped in quotation from and reference to a plethora of folk and blues classics. Throughout his succeeding work, Dylan has continued to reference the huge body of work that appears to ‘stand behind’ his new songs. The majority of this material originated in the pre-rock and roll decades, from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Over the last year he’s been treating listeners to his fabulously quirky selection of tunes from this era on his Theme Time Radio Hour show.


At the heart of this ‘postmodern’ preoccupation with ‘pre-modern’ times lies Dylan’s devotion to the poetry and mystery of the blues. This has been a lifelong preoccupation. As early as 1963 – in the Freewheelin’ sleevenotes – Dylan declared that his ambition was to learn to …carry myself like Big Joe Williams… Very many of his albums were punctuated by his exercises in the idiom – from Highway 61’s It Takes A Lot To Laugh to Blood On The Tracks’ Meet Me In The Morning. His epochal summation of the ethos of the blues in 1983’s Blind Willie McTell was a kind of humble act of supplication to the timeless relevance of the form (although at the time, caught in the grip of artistic and spiritual uncertainty, he lacked the confidence to release it). Having essayed the form in Love And Theft’s Lonesome Day Blues, Cry Awhile and Honest With Me, using the blues as a loose structure for that album’s more scatalogical approach, in the more direct Modern Times he intersperses his meditational ballads with pure evocations of the form. Rolling and Tumbling is built squarely on the version of the song made famous by Muddy Waters and since recorded by a number of prominent rock/blues acts such as Canned Heat, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and Dr. Feelgood. Waters’ version is a development of the earliest known version, Roll and Tumble Blues, recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern in 1929. Robert Johnson adapted parts of the song for his apocalyptic blues If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day. The real ‘author’ of the song is unknown.


Rolling and Tumbling uses the archetypal twelve-bar blues form, with two repeated lines followed by a rhyming line. Dylan’s version preserves the basis of the first verse but extends the song to eleven verses. He throws in various phrases from other blues songs: …I must have bet my money wrong… Let’s go down to the Greenwood Glen… My sufferin’ heart is always on the line… and more. The song is a kind of ‘patchwork quilt’ of references, a presentation of key blues imagery. As such it can be regarded as a kind of ‘dissertation’ on the blues itself, focused as it is on the archetypal ‘woke up this morning/my baby left me’ theme . The band’s playing is relaxed but the performance is full of energy, with Dylan twisting and turning the words around to bring out their full ambiguity. As with the other songs on Modern Times, however, the writing is very precise. The blues is a specific form of expression which has its own symbolism, particularly centred around sexual matters. As a poetic form it often works on several levels of ambiguity. Sex is conveyed in all sorts of colourful ways – references to milk, butter and cows for example are normally related to women’s sexuality. But the really skilful blues performer can stretch the ambiguity further, so that the sexual references may symbolise some deeper struggle. The ability to tease such levels of meaning out of a song depends greatly on the way the singer phrases the words. And Dylan, of course, is a master of phrasing, having developed the ability to alter the meanings of songs by varying the way he times his pronunciation. This is the lesson he has learned from the blues masters.


Rolling and Tumbling is a tribute to those masters. Though it appears to be a song about a woman, its real subject is the how a blues song is formulated. And, through the subtleties of Dylan’s phrasing, it also reflects on the process of composition itself, and of an artist’s struggle to find inspiration. On those prophetic Freewheelin’ sleeve notes Dylan also stresses the understanding he had of this process even at such a tender age. Blues singers, he tells us, sing not just to express their pain but in order to make themselves feel better. The performance of Rolling And Tumbling, although it begins by expressing a soul in turmoil, is sprightly, uptempo, full of joy. He stretches out the word …cried… in the first two lines, lingering on the syllables, as if …I cried the whole night long… is celebratory rather than depressing. The last line of the verse changes the original’s morally confused …I couldn’t tell right from wrong… to the more equivocal …I must have bet my money wrong… In the next verse, after the standard …I got troubles so hard, I can’t stand the strain… he spits out the extraordinary …some lazy slut has charmed away my brains… The (rather offensive) word ‘slut’ sees the singer adopting the hard-drinking, hard-womanising persona that so many blues singers hide behind – he insults the woman here but soon we see how desperate she has made him. The last part of the line suggests that the woman’s wiles have somehow weakened his resolve, or taken away his creative focus.


The next few verses alternate between blues cliches and clever, knowing asides which give us some insight into the fact that the singer’s macho stance is merely a front he’s created to hide the fact that the woman has clearly twisted him round her little finger. The self deprecating …I ain’t nobody’s house boy, I ain’t nobody’s well trained maid…almost makes the whole situation farcical. We get two particularly ironically funny lines, delivered in Dylan’s best deadpan tone: …this woman so crazy…he tells us …I ain’t gonna touch another one for years… and then, even more self-mockingly, ..ain’t nothing so depressing as trying to satisfy this woman of mine… The phrasing, while cramming the words into the metre, is immaculate. The song becomes a little darker, though the undiminished fervour of the performance seems to belie this. The singer returns to the classic blues refrain: …Well I got up this morning/Saw the rising sun return…Then he sneers …sooner or later/You too shall burn… as if wishing for revenge. He becomes even gloomier, retreating from morning to night: …the night’s filled with shadows/the years are filled with early doom…which he rhymes (in another miracle of phrasing) with perhaps the song’s key line: …I’ve been conjurin’ up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs… In order to come to terms with this woman draining away his vital energies, sapping his inspiration, he has had to ‘conjour up’ the ghosts of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hambone Willie and all. Dylan delivers the line with relish, twirling his Vincent Price moustache…


Finally he makes a plea for forgiveness, suggesting to the woman that they …forgive each other…and, as a celebration…go down to the Greenwood Glen… (Not, as some have rather comically surmised, a ‘Robin Hood’ reference but an allusion to the black district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, an important centre for jazz and blues in the prewar era). The last verse repeats the first, changing the last few words with what sounds, at first, like a typical ‘signing off’ line in a blues song: …I think I must be traveling on…In fact Dylan sings …traveling wrong… a line which echoes …bet my money wrong… showing that the singer has realised that his approach to his problem with his woman, or his creative problem, has been mistaken. After this clear resolution the track ends abruptly. In Rolling and Tumbling the blues is used as a metaphor for the artist’s struggle with the creative imagination. This is conveyed through the song’s confident, witty execution. Never does Dylan sound the least bit miserable. In fact, the tone of the song, despite its comic asides, is triumphant. A lesson has been learned. The blues, when correctly applied, is powerful medicine. And Dylan has swallowed a good dose here.


I’d love to hear any reactions to this, or suggestions for links

Email me at

Part Four, When The Deal Goes Down, should follow soon…

Other new entries in the blog – poems, film reviews etc can be accessed through the links to the right of the page.

You may be interested in looking at my website, which has a bunch of stuff about my other work.

Check out Visions of Dylan, a very cool new Dylan blogsite.

Expecting Rain is a great source for daily Dylan news

Dylan Chronicles  for all Dylan setlists

For a fascinating article on Dylan and Timrod check out this site


through the links to the right of the page.

You may be interested in looking at my website, which has a bunch of stuff about my other work.

Check out Visions of Dylan, a very cool new Dylan blogsite.

Expecting Rain is a great source for daily Dylan news

Dylan Chronicles  for all Dylan setlists

For a fascinating article on Dylan and Timrod check out this site 


POEM: GREAT WHITE WHALE 1) American Millenium



The founding fathers of America

Are now preparing to set sail,

Lining up behind Captain Ahab,

On a quest for the Great White Whale…


The Fathers dream of a pristine world,

Cleansed of sin by fiery breath…

All those possessed by impure thoughts

Allowed a swift and precise death.

But those who oppose the fathers’ will

Even in far off foreign lands,

Will be crushed by the Lord’s infinite mercy,

Brushed aside by divine hands


The avenging hosts of America

Are sweeping down like a howling gale,

On the unbelievers who defy them,

The worshippers of the Great White Whale


The storm is gathering, the harpoons sharpened,

A massive rumbling in the sky

Announcing the holy retribution

That will rain down from on high.

Satellite pictures have identified

An exact location for the beast,

Now we sit by the TV waiting,

Sharpening our knives for the feast


The white hatted heroes of America

Are primed and ready. They cannot fail

John Wayne and Gary Cooper

Will exterminate the Great White Whale


Now the shock and awe descends,

The terror in the eyes of the uncomprehending,

The mercy of God mysteriously revealed,

A love that is never ending…

Compassion that cannot be measured,

Salvation that cannot be named,

Liberation that cannot be whispered,

This is no time to feel ashamed


Because the founding fathers of America

Know the predestined time is come

When the nations will bow in supplication

To the American Millenium