Song Structure in Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks

In many of the songs on Blood On The Tracks, Dylan adopts what I call a ‘single-stanza’ structure, which he uses very skillfully to highlight the emotional and thematic resonances of the lyrics.

Tangled Up In Blue, Simple Twist of Fate, You’re A Big Girl Now, Lily, Rosemary and The Jack Of Hearts, Shelter From The Storm, Buckets of Rain; these all use this single-stanza approach to form (one could also include Meet Me In The Morning, although in this case it is a standard 3-line lyric, 12-bar blues). These songs are built more like traditional poetic ballads than standard rock or pop songs; they would be mapped A-A-A, etc…, rather than the standard A-B-A-B-A-C-A-B pop, rock, jazz and folk song form.

Simple Twist of Fate, for example, has a seven-line structure:

They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark
She looked at him and he felt a spark
Tingle to his bones
’Twas then he felt alone
And wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate.

The emphasis is on that sixth line, where the final word is lengthened, the pitch heightened, and Dylan’s voice hits a kind of crescendo, with a slight downward glide. Thus we feel more strongly the yearning wish ‘that he’d gone straight’, and the physical force of the heat that hits him ‘like a freight (train)’; we experience a gut-wrenching empathy for the emptiness to which he ‘just could not relate’ and the anguish behind the final cry, ‘how long must he wait?’

The song Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts uses the single-stanza form to highlight the highly enigmatic character/symbol/presence that is the Jack of Hearts, in a tightly controlled but highly ambiguous narrative. The final line of each stanza is used to focus the song on the central character, the Jack of Hearts, and his influence over an entire town, but despite his dominating presence he remains shrouded in mystery. Christopher Ricks (in his lecture at the Cambridge Forum) sees the type of the ‘thief’ and shades of Alice in Wonderland in the Jack of Hearts, but comes to no conclusions about what his place in the song ‘means’. We gather from the lyrics that he is part of the gang of robbers, and that he has emotional relationships with both Lily and Rosemary. Big Jim recognises him instantly – ‘I know I’ve seen that face somewhere’ – sensing a rival and a threat. And yet he never takes any direct part in the action. He inhabits the corners and empty spaces of the room (Big Jim ‘was staring into space, over at the Jack of Hearts’), and is clearly capable of representing many personalities (‘there was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts’). He plays no part in the robbery, but the other thieves can ‘go no further’ without him, and at the end of the song he is defined by his absence – ‘the only person on the scene missing was the Jack of Hearts’. It seems to me that this is not a person at all, but an aspect of the psyche for each of the characters in the drama – lines like ‘she was gazing into the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts’ hint at this.

In Tangled Up In Blue there is a similar exploitation of structure to create extra layers of meaning in the song. Michael Gray, in his book Song and Dance Man III, draws attention to the ‘rhyming spill-overs’ towards the end of each verse, which increase in their emotional effect throughout the song as they become ‘at the same time more agile and clever as rhymes’:

She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the lace-
s of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

But me I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point
Of view –
Tangled up in blue.

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