“Every one of them words rang true”: The best Bob Dylan lyrics about reading, writing, and literature

Bob Dylan, probably about to go home and read some poetry.
Bob Dylan, probably about to go home and read some poetry.
Image: AP Photo/Godot
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My high school poetry teacher couldn’t get enough of Bob Dylan. He had us pour over the lyrics to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” in class, and brought in photocopies of the songwriter’s deliciously unreliable magazine interviews. Once, he even showed us a novelty dollar bill he’d acquired, with Bob Dylan’s face on it. When he needed to be alone and think, he said, he’d drive around in his pickup listening to a favorite mix tape—two full sides of “Tangled Up in Blue”—on endless repeat.

For my poetry teacher, and for all the literary scholars obsessed with the scruffy, gravelly-voiced bard, today must be a very happy day indeed. The iconic singer-songwriter was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature on Oct. 13, in honor of his “poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

On the surface, it may seem strange for a musician to receive a prize typically awarded to people who write, well, books. But there’s no denying that Dylan is as passionate a reader and writer as any traditional author. Literary references abound in his lyrics, as Benjamin Wright explains in Highbrow Magazine‘s “The Weird and Wonderful Literary World of Bob Dylan,” and his songs reveal a longstanding preoccupation with the difficult alchemy of transmuting murky thoughts into words on a page. Below are just a few lyrics that offer insight into the bookish side of Bobby D.

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963

I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

Poet Allen Ginsberg has said that this foreboding protest song, purportedly written in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, made him weep the first time he heard it. In the above lines, Dylan reveals a writer’s sensibility in the face of injustice: first a litany of the suffering he’s seen, and then the promise to take it all in and turn it into art. [Lyrics]

The Times They Are a-Changin,” The Times They Are a-Changin (1964)

Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a’ changin’!

Like any good writer, Dylan understands that in times of social upheaval, it’s better to be a strong observer than to draw premature conclusions. [Lyrics]

Ballad of a Thin Man,” Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well-known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Dylan may read a lot, but he has a healthy skepticism of how much books can stand in for common sense. Likewise, if you’re the kind of person who treats the canon as holy, you probably won’t get along with Dylan—who once called the poetry of Robert Frost “soft-boiled egg shit.” [Lyrics]

Desolation Row,” Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers

As with all Dylan lyrics, it’s hard to say exactly what he meant when he wrote that Modernist poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were “fighting in the captain’s tower.” But the lyrics could be interpreted as a criticism of writers associated more with erudition and abstraction than the lives of common folk. [Lyrics]

Tangled Up in Blue,” Blood on the Tracks, 1975

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue

These lyrics, among Dylan’s most-cited, capture the piercing feeling of stumbling upon the right book at the right time. [Lyrics]

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” Blood on the Tracks (1975)

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Dylan counts Symbolist poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine among his biggest literary influences. In Chronicles, Volume 1, he writes of Rimbaud: “I came across one of his letters called ‘Je suis un autre,’ which translates into ‘I is someone else.’ When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense.” [Lyrics]

Not Dark Yet,” Time Out of Mind (1997)

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin’ what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

In this wryly pessimistic song, even a heartfelt letter can’t shake Dylan out of his cynical state. [Lyrics]

Highlands,” Time Out of Mind (1997)

She says “You don’t read women authors do ya?”
at least that’s what I think I hear her say
Well I say “How would you know, and what would it matter anyway”

Well she says “Ya just don’t seem like ya do”, I said “You’re way wrong”
She says “Which ones have you read then?”, I say “Read Erica Jong”

To be fair, if I ran into Dylan at a coffee shop I’d probably wind up nagging him about this as well. Fear of Flying is great, but I hope you’re up to speed on Elena Ferrante and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie too, man. [Lyrics]

I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” Together Through Life, 2009

I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver
And I’m reading James Joyce
Some people they tell me
I got the blood of the land in my voice

As Wright notes in Highbrow, Dylan seems to have mixed feelings about James Joyce. In Chronicles, Dylan says of his attempt to read Ulysses: ”I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it. James Joyce seemed like the most arrogant man who ever lived, had both his eyes wide open and great faculty of speech, but what he say, I knew not what.” Yet he does mention Joyce in this song—perhaps because, much like Infinite Jest, Ulysses is the kind of difficult book people always want to tell you they’re reading, even if they never quite make it to the end. [Lyrics]