Dylan's Song Sequencing in Albums and Concerts

Andy Hertzfeld 3/11/97
Music 47

I received my grade on 4/22/97: A-

Note: If you have RealAudio 3.0 or higher installed, click on the image of Dylan in the upper left corner to hear his last public performance before the motorcycle crash, an epic performance of Like a Rolling Stone, complete with an introduction of the band. If you click on an album image below, it will play the appropriate song. Click on the RealAudio bubble to the left to download the player.


The song sequencing of an album or concert can have a major effect on the overall perception and impact of the work. It is also an interesting window into the artistic values of the creator. This paper will examine Bob Dylan's typically idiosyncratic use of song sequencing in both his albums and concerts to help break free from the burden of his audience's expections. It will also discuss a number of other persistent trends.

While Dylan was evolving rapidly in the early stages of his career, each album was a distinct watershed and unique statement that showcased a new style and worldview. The first song on each album was usually an anthemic announcement of his current stance while the last song of the album tended to be a song of farewell and transition, pushing back against the expectations of his audience while freeing himself to move on to his next stage of growth.

As Dylan's evolution inevitably slowed as he matured, he no longer had the same need to use the last song to make space for radical changes ahead. He began to use the last song differently, often setting it apart from the rest of the album to enrichen the work by reflecting upon it from a different angle.

When performing in concert, Dylan likes to suprise his audience. He has a tendency to choose a relatively obscure song for the opening number, often with some special significance to the occasion of the performance. He also tends to structure his sets flexibly in a well-defined framework; some song slots are almost always the same each night while others are constantly changing. There is almost always an acoustic mini-set toward the middle of the concert, a kind of show within the show with a different emotional feel from the main portion.

Opening songs as announcements or declarations of change

Most artists intuitively try to use the first song of an album to engage their audience and establish the theme of the album. Record companies will often insist that the most accessible song go first, figuring to make the most of the listener's limited attention span. While Dylan has usually made sure that the first song was one of his strongest, he also carefully chose (or wrote) the first song to be a statement of purpose and a stirring introduction to the rest of the album that followed.

"The Times They Are A-Changin" is an excellent example of a first song as announcement and statement of purpose. It is a passionate anthem and a clarion call for change, which begins the album by explicitly addressing the audience ("come gather round people, wherever you roam"), inviting people from all walks of life ("writers and critics", "senators and congressmen", "mothers and fathers") to join the ongoing "battle outside that's raging". It effectively establishes an atmosphere of drama and portent ("it will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls"), setting the overall tone for the more specific explorations of social injustice that follow.

Dylan's next album, "Another Side of Bob Dylan", rejects the role of protest singer in favor of exploring subjective, personal relationships. "All I Really Want To Do", which begins the album, is quite literally a statement of intent, announcing that he has no desire to mold or control his lover, who metaphorically stands for the audience and their ferocious expectations. Dylan's vocal is humorous and ironic, announcing an emotional shift from the serious social concerns of the previous album. In many ways, the song is the mirror image of the album closer, "It Ain't Me, Babe" (discussed below), expressing the same sentiments (prizing individual freedom) from the opposite angle, phrased as an invitation instead of a farewell.

The rock and roll instrumentation of "Subterranean Homesick Blues", which leads off "Bringing It All Back Home", serves as an unmistakable notice of a major change in Dylan's style. The pounding beat and stacatto delivery announce his new approach emphatically; no other song from the electric first side would do even half as well. The insistent internal rhyming of his newly surrealistic lyrics add to the effect, while his oblique aphorisms ("You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows", "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters") are just as rebellious as ever, but much more hip. Note that Dylan could have chosen to lead the album off with the acoustic side as a gentler transition, but he obviously wanted to confront his audience right away.

"Like A Rolling Stone", which leads off his next album, Highway 61 Revisited, is one of Dylan's greatest songs and an excellent example of a lead-off song that announces another new view of the world, both musically and lyrically. While it is superficially a put-down of a fallen socialite ("Miss Lonely"), it is ultimately both a celebration and illustration of freedom ("when you aint got nothing, you got nothing to lose". ), the freedom to find your own truth, capturing both the terror and the ecstacy of self-determination ("being on your own, with no direction home"). The surging exhilaration of the music answers the question ("How does it feel?") at the center of the song: it feels great!

Dylan's next album, "Blonde on Blonde", is a sprawling double album that consolidates the breakthroughs made on the previous two records. Perhaps because it's a double album, the first song is used somewhat differently than the pattern we've been discussing. "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" is essentially a novelty song, a way of making fun of the burden of expectations placed on him. It is still somewhat about his relationship with the audience ("They'll stone you when you're playing the guitar"), defusing the pressure by turning it into a joke. The party atmosphere of the recording session further this impression, as do the offhand lyrics which sound like they were improvised on the spot.

The title song that begins "John Wesley Harding" sets the tone for another major transformation, as Dylan radically simplifies both his music and lyrics. It does this in a very modest way, which is appropriate for an album that itself is quite modest (at least on the surface) compared to his previous work. The album signals a new persective for Dylan, perhaps caused by his newly burgeoning family life. He forsakes the intense, subjective exploration of individuality that he explored on his prior few albums for an examination of morality, responsibility and a person's relationship to their society. Since John Wesley Harding is an outlaw hero who "was a friend to the poor" that "was never known to hurt an honest man", the song introduces the album's key themes.

"Girl From the North Country", the track that begins Dylan's next album, Nashville Skyline, announces another major stylistic shift, as Dylan embraces the sound and lyric content of country music, once again defying his audience's expectations. "Girl From the North Country" was one of Dylan's earliest songs (from the Freewheeling album), so the choice to open a new album with it was implicitly conservative and backward looking. He duets on it with Johnny Cash, an icon of the country music establishment. As if that wasn't enough, Dylan's singing voice is dramatically transformed; it's much sweeter and less edgy, to the point where it was hard to recognize him, matching a similar change in the lyric content and ambitions of the song writing.

It was hard to see how Dylan could back even further away from his earlier personas, but he managed to do it with his next album, Self Portrait, a two-record set that seemed purposefully designed to alienate all of the early fans who were still sticking with him. He hardly wrote any of the songs on Self Portrait, and the opening song, "All the Tired Horses", seemed to imply that he had very little inspiration left, asking the question "All the tired horses in the sun, how'm I gonna get any riding done?". He didn't even seem to have enough energy to sing the song (it was sung by female backing vocalists).

Closing songs as song of farewell or transition

On most of his early works, Dylan made the last song of his albums a song of farewell and transition, as if he was evolving so fast that he had to set up his next stage of growth before the current one was even complete. "The Times They Are A-Changin" is far and away Dylan's most political and socially minded album. It was his first album released after "Blowing in the Wind" established him as one of the leaders of the emerging protest/folk boom, and it cemented his image as a politically oriented songwriter in the image of Woody Guthrie, a champion of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Even though seven of the album's ten songs primarily address social issues, he chose to close the album with "Restless Farewell" which explicitly declares that he has no responsibility to continue to carry that mantle.

"Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract and bother me.
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face,
And the dust of rumor covers me.
But if the arrow is straight, and the point is slick,
It can pierce through the dust no matter how thick.
So I'll make my stand and remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn."

And sure enough, Dylan did bid farewell to the protest movement with his next album, "Another Side of Bob Dylan". As we discussed above, it focuses on personal relationships and subjective reality, as Dylan follows his artistic instincts inward instead of following the expectations of his audience, which was just coronating him as the king of the protest movement. The album closes with "It Ain't Me, Babe", a lover's song of rejection that is also clearly a metaphor for Dylan's relationship with his audience, as he insists that "it ain't me, babe, no, no, no, it ain't me, babe, it ain't me you're looking for."

Dylan's next album, "Bringing it All Back Home", closes with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", another song of farewell that uses a failing love affair as a metaphor like "It Ain't Me, Babe", but this time on a much deeper level, addressing the spiritual hunger behind Dylan's urgent need for growth and change. The song tells the listener to "leave your stepping stones behind" because "something calls for you", to "strike another match, go start anew". There is a sense of urgency ("But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast") and foreboding ("seasick sailors", "reindeer armies"). At some level, Dylan is justifying his shrugging off of personas and images during his continuing search for deeper truth.

With "Highway 61 Revisted", Dylan has finally arrived at a unique voice, worldview and style that feels right to him; he doesn't have as much of a need to signal further changes in the final song. Instead of using the final song as a transition, he uses it to articulate the distinction between his point of view and the mainstream perspective. "Desolation Row", one of Dylan's greatest epics which closes "Highway 61 Revisted", is portrayed as the single place of painful honesty in an absurb, phony universe, the place where Dylan himself occupies ("as Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row"). At the end of song, Dylan refuses to communicate further "not unless you mail them from Desolation Row."

As discussed above, "John Wesley Harding" is primarily about issues of morality and responsibility, but it undergoes a striking transition toward the end of the album. The last two songs, "Down Along the Cove" and "I'll Be Your Baby, Tonight" stand apart from the rest of the album as simple, pure love songs. It's as if the previous song, "Wicked Messenger", ended the main part of the album with the admonition "if ye cannot bring good news, then don't bring any" and then Dylan took that advice literally, backing away from the complexities of his exploration of morality and ending the album with simple blues and country-oriented love songs. "I'll Be Your Baby, Tonight" clearly foreshadows the country style that dominates his next album.

By the time of "Nashville Skyline" Dylan's goals as an artist have changed almost 180 degrees from the days of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" (with "The Basement Tapes" and "John Wesley Harding" as transitional works in between). Now Dylan seems mostly concerned with demythologizing himself and becoming just another pop musician, by embracing the conservative style of country music and writing simple love songs. He no longer has the need to reject the expectations of the audience and so the final song used quite differently, explicitly ending the trend of saying farewell at the end of his albums by stating the opposite, professing that "Tonight I'll be Staying Here With You".

Final songs set apart from the rest of the album

Dylan also has a tendency to somehow set apart the last song or songs of an album in some fashion. The change of focus at the end of "John Wesley Harding" discussed above is one example, but there are many others throughout his career. One striking example is "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"', which ends the two-album set "Blonde on Blonde". It is physically set apart from the rest of the album by occupying the entire final all by itself. It is only a couple of minutes longer than "Desolation Row", which shared its side with three other songs, so Dylan clearly had an artistic motivation for setting it apart. It is a dense, spiritual love song with an ethereal, other-wordly beauty, suffused with a meditative, prayer-like quality that is worlds apart from the sarcastic, ironic humor that dominates the rest of the album, vastly deepening the soul of the entire work.

"New Morning", which followed "Self Portrait" by only a few months in 1970, also ends with a pair of songs that are set apart from the rest of the album. Most of the record is concerned with the domestic bliss of family life (like "Sign on the Window", which declares "Have a bunch of kids who call me 'Pa', that must be what it's all about"), but the album closes with two songs ("Three Angels" and "Father of Night") that are spiritually oriented. They have a prayer-like, religious quality, perhaps hinting that family life alone is not enough.

On two other occasions, Dylan has changed styles for the final song of an album, which creates the effect of it standing apart from the rest of the work, enrichening it by reflecting on the larger work from a different perspective. Even though "Planet Waves" marked a reunion with the Hawks, his backing band from the peak years of 1965-1966 (who subsequently succeeded magnificently on their own as 'the Band'), he chose to end it with a haunting solo performance called 'Wedding Song', which was written and recorded after the rest of the album. It seems to be written to his wife, addressing her concerns about his imminent return to the public arena ("It's never been my duty to remake the world at large, nor is it my intention to sound the battle charge, cause I love you more than all of that..."), but it is shot through with an emotional complexity, implying he is paying a huge price for standing by her ("I'd sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die").

In a similar fashion, "Empire Burlesque" ends with a solo, acoustic performance called "Dark Eyes", which is once again written and performed after the rest of the album was complete, and set off from the rest of the album by it's haunting style and substance. Another example is "Every Grain of Sand", from "Shot of Love", which also has a haunting, spiritual quality that sets it apart from the rest of the record.

Obscure opening songs of concerts

Dylan also has a penchant for choosing unlikely opening songs for his live performances, often choosing obscure songs with a pointed meaning relevant to the current situation. He chose to open his first tour in over seven years in 1974 with an obscure song written in 1962 called "Hero Blues", which never made it to an officially released album. It expresses much the same sentiments as "It Ain't Me, Babe" more humorously ("You need a different kind of man, babe, one that can hold and grab your heart, you need a different kind of man, babe, you need Napolean Bonaparte!"), once again trying to deflate the pressure from the audience's monumental expectations. He only performed it a couple of times, before switching to "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine", another song that metaphorically spurns his audience's expectations. Interestingly, by the second week into the tour he was both beginning and ending the concerts with this song.

The most unusual example of opening his concerts with an unexpected song was during his fall tour of 1990, when he opened around a dozen shows with an instrumental version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", apparently inspired by a gig at West Point during the tour. In 1993, he often opened his shows with an old blues song, either "Hard Times in New York", or "You're Gonna Quit Me".

In 1983, Dylan made a rare television appearance on the David Letterman show, shortly after "Infidels" was released. He was playing with a young new wave band called the Plugz, and they worked up arrangements for over twenty songs to prepare for the show. He shocked them by changing his mind at the last moment, when he started playing an old blues song with improvised lyrics that they hadn't rehearsed at all, called "Don't Start Me Talking", which was obviously a comment on his refusal to be interviewed by David Letterman ("don't start me talking, I'll tell everything I know")

To this day, he continues his tradition of obscure openers by opening his current concerts with blistering hard rock versions of "Down in the Flood" (from the basement tapes) or "The Drifter's Escape" (from John Wesley Harding).

Acoustic/Electric Set Structure

Throughout his career, Dylan has structured shows around acoustic or electric sets. "Bringing It All Back Home" is his only album structured along these lines; all of the songs on the first side are 'electric' versions played with a full rock backing band, while side two contains only acoustic songs, with a single other acoustic guitarist (Bruce Langhorne) adding color.

When Dylan started touring with the Hawks in the fall of 1965, he structured his concerts into two segments, an initial solo acoustic set followed by an electric set after an intermission. On the 1974 tour, he used a more complex structure of playing 6 songs with the Band, followed by a 5 song set by the Band alone, after which Dylan returned for 3 more songs before the intermission. He opened the second half of the show with 5 or 6 solo acoustic songs, followed by another short Band set before returning for a 3 song finale with the Band. The acoustic mini-sets were relatively more varied than the electric ones, possibly because he didn't have to work on arrangements with the other band members.

During his initial Gospel tour in 1979, Dylan chose the most daring set list of his career by refusing to play any song written prior to his recent conversion. The shows were opened by a short set of Gospel songs sung by his backing singer, followed by versions of the songs from "Slow Train Coming" intermixed with many newer, Christian-oriented songs that had not yet been recorded. For the most part, audiences reacted fairly negatively, which added a sharp edge to many of the performances. The following year, he softened his stance by including some of his most well-known earlier songs, but he still defiantly structured the set around his Christian material.

The Never Ending Tour, which began in 1988 and is still going strong almost nine years later, has settled into a well-defined structure the last few years. It consists of a 6 song electric set, followed by a 3 song acoustic set (where the band members, except for the drummer, still accompany him, but on acoustic instruments), which is then followed by another 3 song electric set, which precedes the encores (one of which is acoustic). Usually, the first, third and sixth songs are the same from night to night ("All Along the Watchtower" as invariably occupied the third slot for more than four years now), but the other slots can vary widely. Most songs are either played acoustically or electrically but hardly ever both ways ("Tangled Up in Blue" is an exception, making a transition from electric to acoustic in June 1995 at the TLA shows, although it's been acoustic ever since). The acoustic sets often have a different emotional feeling than the rest of the concert, tending to be sung with great sensitivity and often a wistful sadness.


We have examined various aspects of song sequencing in Dylan's albums and concerts and seen how he structures his albums to further his goals as an artist, especially when he was evolving rapidly in the early stages of his career. I'm looking forward to hearing his much anticipated new album later this year to appreciate the next chapter in the evolution of this remarkable artist.