How did Robert Zimmerman pen his most timeless songs? Here’s what we know about 70 of his biggest and best…
‘Subterranean Home Sick Blues'(1965): Dylan took part of the title from the Jack Kerouac novella The Subterraneans, whose characters were loosely based around Beat writers Burroughs and Ginsberg.
‘Mr. Tambourine Man'(1965) What does it mean?: ‘Tambourine Man’ was 60s slang for a drugs dealer and Dylan is said to have written it on a hash-fuelled road trip.
‘Rainy Day Women No. 12 And 35′(1966) What does it mean?: Famous for the line “Everybody must get stoned” and, according to Dylan geeks, if you multiply 12 by 35 you get 420 – a number associated with pot culture. Far out, dude.
‘Tangled Up In Blue'(1975) What does it mean?: Said to be influenced by Cubism (Dylan was taking art classes at this time), this song tackles the end of Dylan’s marriage to his wife Sara, but only by way of looking back at his own life (from his Minnesota upbringing to his coffee house days in New York) in a semi-mythical way.
‘I Want You'(1966) What does it mean?: Dylan had a terse friendship with The Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones and the track was said to be about Dylan’s feelings for Jones’ then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. Others believe it was inspired by Edie Sedgwick.
‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door'(1973) What does it mean?: Written for the film Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid and said to be inspired by the relationship between the two lead characters (“Mama put my guns in the ground/ I can’t shoot them anymore”). Dylan made a cameo in the film.
‘Highway 61 Revisited'(1965) What does it mean?: Dylan said it was inspired by Robert Johnson, the legendary blues singer who was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.
‘It Ain’t Me, Babe'(1964) What does it mean?: Speculation has been rife that this was simply about a one sided relationship or about his terse connection to the folk movement. Most agree that Dylan’s talking about the fact that at the time he reluctantly took the mantle of a figurehead for his generation (“It ain’t me you’re looking for”).
‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ (1966) What does it mean?: Said to be about his wife at the time Sara Lownds. On the song ‘Sara’ recorded much later Dylan sings: “Staying up for nights in the Chelsea Hotel, writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ for you”.
‘Joey’ (1976) What does it mean?: The song was about notorious mobster Joey Gallo. It was criticized at the time for its romantic take on the more violent elements of the gangster’s life.
‘The Times They Are A Changin’’ (1964)
What does it mean?: In the liner notes of Biograph he said about the track: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way… I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.”
‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ (1964)
What does it mean?: This track is about civil rights and more specifically the assassination of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers in his driveway. He first performed the track in front of 200,000 people in Washington, DC prior to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
‘Went To See The Gypsy’ (1970)
What does it mean?: Dylan penned this after first encountering Elvis Presley in Las Vegas. “Went to see the gypsy/Stayin’ in a big hotel/ He smiled when he saw me coming/ And he said ‘well, well, well’”. Dylan is quoted as saying: “Hearing Elvis was like busting out of jail.”
‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ (1965)
What does it mean?: Said to have been inspired by Jack Kerouac’s poetry collection Mexico City Blues. He uses that work as a springboard, to reflect how his own touring, on-the-road lifestyle had become a whirl of sleep deprivation and stimulant consumption.
‘She Belongs To Me’ (1965) What does it mean?: This is about his affair with Joan Baez. The singer, though, had her own career and was too individual to just be Dylan’s significant other. This ambiguity seems evident in the opening lines “She’s got everything she needs/ She’s an artist, she don’t look back”.
‘Tombstone Blues’ (1966)
What does it mean?: Dylan tackles the escalating Vietnam War with references to the President at the time, Lyndon Johnson (he is thought to be “the king of the Philistines”) and the war-mongering mentality. Heavily influenced by the style of his book Tarantula.
‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ (1963)
What does it mean?: Dylan said it wasn’t a “protest song”. It seemed to be, in part, a warning against fans turning the singer into an icon but the importance of never losing the ability to question everything around you.
‘Black Diamond Bay’ (1976)
What does it mean?: Allen Ginsberg called it a “short novel in verse”. It was inspired by a Joseph Conrad novel Victory. In the book ‘Black Diamond Bay’ is a disused coal port in the Far East.
‘Caribbean Wind’ (1981)
What does it mean?: Dylan himself wasn’t sure what the track what about. He said: “That one, I couldn’t grasp what it was about after I finished it”. However with its references to ‘Israel’ and The Bible’s Song Of Solomon (“She was the rose of Sharon”) it seems to be a religious travelogue told via a love song.
What does it mean?: Originally recorded in the 70s, it was widely bootlegged until it was released in the early 90s on ‘The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3’. The track is about baseball player Catfish Hunter with the lyrics ”Catfish, million dollar man/Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can”.
‘Quinn The Eskimo (Might Quinn)’ (1967)
What does it mean? In Chronicles Volume One he says: “Years earlier I had written a song called ‘The Mighty Quinn’…and I wondered what the movie was about. Eventually I’d sneak off and go there to see it. (It had) Denzel Washington (in it). Funny, that’s just the way I imagined him when I wrote the song…Denzel Washington.”
‘Chimes Of Freedom’ (1964)
What does it mean?: The track deals with the hot topic of civil war, but also takes in political prisoners, outcasts and “every hung-up person in the universe”.
‘Dear Landlord’ (1967)
What does it mean?: The ‘landlord’ is Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager until 1968 and the rather scathing lyrics reflects their strained relationship, hinting at Grossman’s lack of understanding when it came to dealing with his acts. One of Grossman’s other clients, Janis Joplin, later recorded a version of the track.
‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’ (1962)
What does it mean?: Initially inspired by witnessing workers at a bomb shelter turned building site. It also serves as an anti-war comment on the Cuban Missile Crisis (”There’s been rumours of war and wars that have been/ The meaning of the life has been lost in the wind.”)
‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ (1964)
What does it mean? Written for soon-to-be Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico about the relationship with her child, Ari. The two had first met at the time of his “Another Side Of Bob Dylan” album, and Nico was his companion during a short European jaunt between Germany and Greece.
‘Masters Of War’ (1962)
What does it mean? Before JFK was came into power, outgoing president Eisenhower gave an address warning of the post-Cold War “military-industrial-complex”. As a reaction to this, Dylan tackles this theme of men in power and takes them to task for not taking responsibility for the personal cost of their actions.
‘Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’ (1966)
What does it mean? In this song love is a power struggle, a contest (”You say my kisses are not like his/ But this time I’m not gonna tell you why that is.”) Said to be another inspired by Edie Sedgwick.
‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ (1963)
What does it mean?: Although it was left off ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, this track is thought to be one of the first manifestations of Dylan’s spirituality, specifically the idea that God was in everything.
‘Every Grain Of Sand’ (1981)
What does it mean? Although it was recorded during his Born Again period, this song of spirituality seemed to dig deeper than many of his other evangelical numbers. Loaded with Biblical and Blakean imagery, Dylan said the track “just came to (him),” in a bout of divine inspiration.
‘All Along The Watchtower’ (1967)
What does it mean?: Who is ‘the joker’ and who is ‘the thief’? Is it Dylan and Elvis? Is it Jesus and Satan? Lower and upper class? It’s actually thought to be a mix of all the above and, ultimately, the futility of it all. “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke,” he sings.
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ (1965)
What does it mean?: Thought to be inspired at least in part by the Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick whom Dylan had an affair with. His relationship with her was a cause of some friction however, creating an emotional tug of war between Dylan and the Warhol camp in which she was heavily entrenched both emotionally and chemically.
What does it mean?: A protest song about boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter who, it was thought, was falsely accused of murder. Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue played a charity gig for the boxer in New York’s Madison Square Gardens. However, a year after the song came out, Carter was found guilty of the crime and Dylan has not played the song live since 1976.
‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ (1965)
What does it mean?: Who is ‘Mr Jones’? Well after years of not admitting his identity Dylan admitted the shady figure was Max Jones, a Melody Maker journalist who didn’t get Dylan’s lyrics. Which makes sense if you consider lines like: (“You walk into the room/With your pencil in your hand…You try so hard/But you don’t understand”).
‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ (1962)
What does it mean?: Although it is thought to be about the Cuban missile crisis and the evils of nuclear power, Dylan penned the song just a few weeks before it took place in October 1962. Nevertheless, it caught the mood of a society potentially on the cusp of nuclear war. Joan Baez called it: “An anti-nuclear holocaust song.”
‘Desolation Row’ (1965)
What does it mean?: 11 minutes long and featuring a huge cast of characters, it’s been widely debated amongst Dylanologists as to what this song is about. Many believe there are at least 10 stories being told. Others believe that the general sweep of track deals with depression.
‘Girl From The North Country’ (1963)
What does it mean?: Said to be inspired by his relationship with Suze Rotolo. He went to Italy in search of her. In her memoir A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir Of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, she recalled: “Our time together fed his work…He once told me that he couldn’t have written certain songs if he hadn’t know me.”
‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ (1979)
What does it mean?: Dylan had converted from Judaism to Christianity, after seeing a vision of Jesus in a hotel room. The lyrics to ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ was about his new found spirituality. Its gospel tone split fans at the time of its release.
‘I Shall Be Released’ (1967)
What does it mean?: Thought it be both an anti-death penalty track and also, in the spirit of ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, about being released from physical existence. Biographers have said that the song is also Dylan’s reaction to his 1966 motorcycle accident, which left him thinking about his own mortality.
‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ (1967)
What does it mean?: With its very straightforward lyrics, the track is thought to be about a one night stand. It’s also been interpreted as being about his wife Sara and their first kid Jesse.
‘Just Like A Woman’ (1966)
What does it mean?: Another one inspired by Edie Sedgwick, but also some of the lines are said to reference to his relationship with fellow folkie Joan Baez.
‘Lay Lady Lay’ (1969)
What does it mean?: Originally commissioned for the film Midnight Cowboy, the tale of two hustlers, but Dylan later denied that the song made any references to ‘getting laid’.
‘Visions Of Johanna’ (1966)
What does it mean?: ‘Johanna’ is widely believed to be Joan Baez, the folk singer whom Dylan dated in the early part of his career. The track is said to reference the time when he fell for his future wife Sara.
‘Maggie’s Farm’ (1965)
What does it mean?: Based on ‘Down On Penny’s Farm’, a song about a bad landlord by 1920s folk band The Bently Boys. The Bently Boys song was also the inspiration for an earlier Dylan song ‘Hard Times In The Country’.
‘Idiot Wind’ (1975)
What does it mean?: The track is said to be about the many things that were concerning him at the time: the end of his marriage and his view of wife Sara, how his fame has isolated him and his relationship to himself.
‘John Wesley Harding’ (1967)
What does it mean?: The outlaw assassin of the title had murdered 40 people by the time he went to prison in 1878.
‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ (1967)
What does it mean?: Thought to be about his motorcycle accident and the aftermath. His limited movement meant that he really wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
‘Day Of The Locusts’ (1970)
What does it mean?: Inspired by the book of the same name by Nathaneal West about the hangers on who populate the fringes of Hollywood. Dylan was said to use this to talk about his own fame.
‘With God On Our Side’ (1964)
What does it mean?: A revisionist history lesson (no, not like ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’). It has nine eight line verses all questioning the America’s involvement in various wars.
‘One Too Many Mornings’ (1964)
What does it mean?: Said to be about his break up with Suze Rotolo, the couple have seemingly experienced too much together and they are both weary.
‘The Ballad Of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’ (1967)
What does it mean?: A parable alluding to Jesus’ temptation by the devil, was it also a sly dig at Dylan’s manager at the time, Albert Grossman?
‘Forever Young’ (1974)
What does it mean?: It was written for Dylan’s children, which fits the nursery rhyme / hymnal tone of the tune. Diana Ross covered it, you know.
‘Neighborhood Bully’ (1983)
What does it mean?: Some think this track represents Dylan taking a Zionist stance, following his born again Christian phase. But Dylan never admitted this in interviews.
‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ (1965)
What does it mean?: It’s been speculated that this is his ‘kiss off’ to the folk scene before he went electric. It’s also been suggested that it’s about fellow folk singer Paul Clayton who toured with Dylan. Clayton took his own life in 1966.
‘All I Really Want To Do’ (1964)
What does it mean?: Another track about his relationship with Suze Rotolo, Dylan sounds annoyed with the role he has to play to his partner.
‘My Back Pages’ (1964)
What does it mean?: A dialogue between the Dylan of 1964 and the Dylan of the past, thought by many to be him turning his back on the folk / protest movement.
‘From A Buick 6’ (1965)
What does it mean?: Dylan describes a pretty one-sided relationship in which he is dependent on the woman. It’s thought to be about his wife Sara.
‘Queen Jane Approximately’ (1965)
What does it mean?: Queen Jane was widely thought to be Joan Baez, the so called ‘queen of the folkies’. It fits with the time the song was written, when their relationship and his connection with the folk movement were both going cold.
‘The Ballad Of Hollis Brown’ (1964)
What does it mean?: It may be fairly straightforward, but this is, no doubt about it, a tragedy in song form. Hollis Brown is unemployed and lives on the edges of society with his ”wife and five children.” By the end of the song he takes a shotgun and ”seven shots ring out”.
‘Boots Of Spanish Leather’ (1964)
What does it mean? Oblique though it might be, it seems like it references Dylan’s then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo’s trip to Italy when their relationship was at a standstill.
‘When The Ship Comes In’ (1964)
What does it mean?: Is it about the oppressive powers that the civil rights movement was fighting against, or was it, in fact about the hotel manager who wouldn’t let Dylan in because he looked too scruffy. The latter according to Joan Baez.
‘Restless Farewell’ (1964)
What does it mean?: A couple of the song verses deal with an article which appeared in Newsweek which falsely claimed that Dylan had “bought” ‘Blowing’ In the Wind’ from a New Jersey high school student.
‘To Ramona’ (1964)
What does it mean?: This is thought to be about Joan Baez, a song that lovingly addresses the singer’s love for materialism and social climbing over what is really important.
‘Abandoned Love’ (1975)
What does it mean?: This was recorded for the ‘Desire’ sessions and left off in favour of ‘Joey’. It’s thought to be about his break up with wife Sara Lownds (”My head tells me it’s time to make a change/ But my heart is telling me I love you but you’re strange”).
‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ (1966)
What does it mean?: With its lyrics about waiting on ‘Marie’, who is unreliable and the sexually forthright lyrics, it’s thought to be about his romance with Edie Sedgwick. It also contains a verse seemingly predicting his motorcycle accident; ”Well, I don’t know how it happened/ But the river-boat captain; he knows my fate…”.
‘As I Went Out One Morning’ (1967)
What does it mean?: This song makes reference to his acceptance speech when he received a Tom Paine Award from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. He was booed after saying he sympathized with Lee Harvey Oswald.
‘Ballad In Plain D’ (1964)
What does it mean?: Another song about Suze Rotolo, it detailed the conflict between her mother, Mary, and sister Carla. Dylan biographer Brian W Fairbanks called it “more of a poison pen letter than a song”. Mary told a journalist she thought he was a “twerp” with “green teeth”.
‘Beyond The Horizon’ (2006)
What does it mean?: The lyrics appeared to be Dylan’s statement of intent; that he was not ‘past it’. ”You think I’m over the hill/ Think I’m past my prime/ Let me see what you got/ We can have a whooping good time“.
‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ (1965)
What does it mean?:A critique of American culture and colonialism, it plays out like a surreal history lesson with its references to Moby Dick‘s Captain Ahab and Christopher Columbus.
‘Brownsville Girl’ (1986)
What does it mean?: At 11 minutes long and co-written by playwright Sam Shepard it is considered what of Dylan’s greatest narratives. Last year it was, according to reports, being turned into a film a “cross between Bonnie & Clyde and The Shawshank Redemption.”
‘Ain’t Talkin’’ (2006) – What does it mean?: After his late 70 conversion to Christianity, this track from track from ‘Modern Times’ dealt with his oscillating relationship to faith (”I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned”) through a waft of magic realism.