Bob Dylan’s immortal lines

A selection of some of my favourites lyrics from Dylan’s vast oeuvre


Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. Photo: AFP
Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. Photo: AFP

A recent article in the New Republic, headlined ‘Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?’, carried the introduction “Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure”.

Ah well. As Dylan said, “…don’t speak too soon/For the wheel’s still in spin..”

The 75-year-old American singer-songwriter was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. He is the first songwriter to win the award, and the first American to win the award since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993.

Van Morrison once described Dylan as ‘the greatest living poet’, and to be a Dylan fan is to believe in those words as an indisputable truth. For over five decades the legendary musician has breathed poetry of startling elegance and urgency into his songs. His prolific output once defined an American era, became the voice of social protest, and pushed the boundaries of songwriting in many directions. In his songs, many great songwriting and poetic traditions—folk, protest, jazz, blues, ballads, rock-n-roll—have met and melded and created new idioms. His lyrics have dripped with honeyed love, dazzled with metrical dexterity, burnt with scathing commentary, unspooled in epic narratives and mystified in obtuse, but always passionate wordplay.

Also Read: Why Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for literature

Here is a selection of some of our favourites lines from Dylan’s vast oeuvre.

I pity the poor immigrant; From John Wesley Harding, 1967:

This could have been written for Donald Trump.

I pity the poor immigrant,

Who wishes he would’ve stayed home,

Who uses all his power to do evil

But in the end is always left so alone.

That man whom with his fingers cheats

And who lies with ev’ry breath,

Who passionately hates his life

And likewise, fears his death.

I pity the poor immigrant

Whose strength is spent in vain,

Whose heaven is like Ironsides,

Whose tears are like rain,

Who eats but is not satisfied,

Who hears but does not see,

Who falls in love with wealth itself

And turns his back on me.

Song for Woody; From Bob Dylan, 1962:

A homage to his hero, the protest singer Woody Guthrie, that announces the arrival of a major new voice in politically conscious singing.

Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song

About a funny old world that’s coming along

Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn

It looks like it’s dying and it’s hardly been born.

Also Read: Bob Dylan wins 2016 Nobel prize for literature

Don’t think twice, it’s alright; Freewheelin’, 1963:

Love, and heartbreak—Dylan is as proficient in exploring these as he is with social commentary.

So it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal

Like you never did before

An’ it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal

I can’t hear you any more

I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ walkin’ down the road

I once loved a woman, a child I’m told

I give her my heart but she wanted my soul

But don’t think twice, it’s all right

The Times They Are a-Changin’; From The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964: Along with ‘Blowing in the Wind’, perhaps Dylan’s most well known lines.

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize 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’.

‘Cause the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

The battle outside ragin’

Will soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’.

The lonesome death of Hattie Carrol; From The Times They Are a-Changing, 1964: A hard-hitting song that rages against discrimination and brutality.

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen.

She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children

Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage

And never sat once at the head of the table

And didn’t even talk to the people at the table

Who just cleaned up all the food from the table

And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,

Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane

That sailed through the air and came down through the room,

Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.

And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.

And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,

Take the rag away from your face.

Now ain’t the time for your tears

It Ain’t Me Babe; From Another side of Bob Dylan, 1964:

Another lyrical tribute to lost love.

Go ‘way from my window

Leave at your own chosen speed

I’m not the one you want, babe

I’m not the one you need

You say you’re lookin’ for someone

Who’s never weak but always strong

To protect you an’ defend you

Whether you are right or wrong

Someone to open each and every door

But it ain’t me, babe

No, no, no, it ain’t me babe

It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.

Go lightly from the ledge, babe

Go lightly on the ground

I’m not the one you want, babe

I will only let your down….

Subterranean Homesick Blues; From Bringing it all back home, 1965:

An irreverent, funny, rhythmic ride.

Get sick, get well

Hang around a ink well

Ring bell, hard to tell

If anything is goin’ to 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

By losers, cheaters

Six-time users

Hangin’ ‘round the theaters

Girl by the whirlpool

Lookin’ for a new fool

Don’t follow leaders

Watch the parkin’ meters

Ballad of a thin man; From Highway 61 Revisited, 1965:

You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Dylan.

You hand in your ticket

And you go watch the geek

Who immediately walks up to you

When he hears you speak

And says, “How does it feel

To be such a freak?”

And you say, “Impossible”

As he hands you a bone

Because something is happening here

But you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mister Jones?

You have many contacts

Among the lumberjacks

To get you facts

When someone attacks your imagination

But nobody has any respect

Anyway they already expect you

To just give a check

To tax-deductible charity organizations

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

Visions of Johanna; From Blonde on Blonde, 1966:

When it’s good poetry, you don’t really need to know what it all means.

Inside the museums,

Infinity goes up on trial

Voices echo this is what

salvation must be like after a while

But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues

You can tell by the way she smiles

See the primitive wallflower freeze

When the jelly-faced women all sneeze

Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze

I can’t find my knees”

Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule

But these visions of Johanna,

they make it all seem so cruel

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