Frequently Asked Questions

This is a collection of some of the questions I get with some frequency (or at least: the things I ask myself once in a while). Some are about specific songs, some are related to playing style, and some are about this site, about tabbing technique etc. None of this is conclusive, it’s just things that keep coming up, that I thought I might do something about, some day. Consider this a first step.

About specific songs Hattie Carroll I’m Not There (1956) Dylanesque? My Back pages (the song) What is Desolation Row about? Did Dylan steal “Dignity”? Did Dylan steal “Canadee-I-O”? (separate file) Stuck in the Middle with You Eve of Destruction Why don’t you tab any Travelling Wilburys songs? “You got a lot of nerve” Questions about playing style Don’t Think Twice / Fingerpicking And another one on the same topic, about details Dylan the soloist Questions about this site What’s the story behind this site? How do you tab songs? Why is the site address so long? Who are you anyway?

About specific songs

Hattie Carroll

I have been trying to find out what the scholars think Dylan meant in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” in the line “…or criticize all fears.” What would someone be like who criticized all fears, and what would that have to do with a person who prematurely reacted to the unfolding tragedy of that song? Help!


You’ve got a good question there – actually one of the very few good ones of the “what does the line ‘…’ mean?” kind. And it has, as you may have noticed, puzzled the “scholars”. I don’t consider myself a Dylan scholar, at least not a Dylan lyric scholar, but if I were to attempt a suggestion, I’d say the clue lies in at least two things.  One is the preceding line: “You who philosophize disgrace”, i.e. the ones who takes a purely rational point of view on disgrace and the injustices of society, the ones for whom the Hattie Carroll incident was a racial “issue” – just a racial issue, a pretext for making a critical point about society, but without regard for the real issue, at least for the ones involved: the personal tragedy of Hattie. If one forgets that – which is easily done, even more so today that in the 60s, I think – whatever tears one has to shed, will to some extent be dishonest. And conversely: a response to “issues” like this must be open to a personal reaction – “Fear” – and whoever claims that one has to get beyond the personal – the ones who “criticize all fears” – to view the case objectively, are wrong.

That’s the point that I think Dylan conveys brilliantly – and if the text line you quoted perhaps is unclear, the way he sings the song straightens out that unclarity. It may be that the “philosophical” punch line is the last refrain with its “Now is the time for your tears” (i.e. when the legal system, the representative of the rational perspective on the “issue”, breaks down). But in most live renditions, it is the third verse that carries the song emotionally: that’s both where the fundamental social injustice is outlined, in the very concrete representation of the structural repression (“[Hattie Carroll] never sat once at the head of the table, she […] emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level”), and the narration of the murder-by-whim is literally hammered down in the singing, which pungently emphasizes the internal rhymes of the text:

Got killed
by a blow,
lay slain
by a cane
That sailed
through the air
and came down
through the room,
and de termined
to de stroy
all the gentle.
And she never
done nothing
to William

(just writing down this sends shivers down my spine…)

When the final verse concludes that the rational, distanced observer of injustice finally can bring out his rag, that’s in a certain sense an unimportant afterthought: “we” (the narrator and his listeners) have already seen the real point: that injustice can never be detatched from actual injustices into an abstract system. Besides, with the rag “buried deep in his face”, there’s little chance that he’ll see the point anyway.

I’m Not There (1956)

Someone wrote in a post to r.m.d.:

Don’t mean to put a damper, but not only are those lyrics [at My Back Pages] not official, they’re not even close. I don’t think anyone has a definitive set of lyrics for this song.

Don’t mean to defend myself, but I would say that there are no definitive lyrics to that song. Even if it were possible to transcribe all the sounds that he makes (and even that is tough), it would still be hard to turn it into a coherent text which you can analyse and understand.

In that sense “I’m not there” is Dylan’s most musical song: Music is the cultural production or activity that comes closest to language both in medium (sound) and in complexity of structure, yet at the same time the one that least obviously can make claims on a conceptual meaning. This is what gives it the impression of saying something, without actually doing so. The meaning is veiled in the same way as the meaning of an utterance in a language that one does not understand is veiled: there seems to be a meaning there, but it is hidden.

Regarded this way, music is experienced in ways that are analoguous to other kinds of experiences that are not understandable, that go beyond the intelligible, but where a meaning is often desired: matters of faith, death, life, emotional and physical experience.

This is where the greatness of I’m not there (1956) lies, since the snippets of intelligible words and phrases that float by, play into this sphere of things of the deepest importance (just the refrain: I’m not there, I’m gone…), and combines and recombines in ways that become a play with the boundaries of meaning. I’m not saying that it would not have been a better song hat it been finished – I think it would (or might) – but the charm of the existing version lies in the “almost-but-not-quite-graspability” of a meaning that gives the impression of being profound, and profoundly important.

Oh well, maybe I am defending myself after all.




Somehow related to the previous:

I was just wondering what makes a song Dylanesque?

The short answer is: the assembly of seemingly unrelated images in a way that presents itself as if making sense (or in a way that actively defies the entire notion of making sense, in a rationalistic sense, anyway), but by doing so approximates the way the assemby of memories, associations, mental constructions and combinations is called forth (mostly unconsciously) every time we think a thought. Thus, when being “dylanesque” (in the sense defined above), Dylan doesn’t really explicitly say something specific, but by presenting images that could have been thought or experienced by someone (anyone), he presents the listener with a possibility to piece them together in a way that is familiar to him. Since the possibilitities of interpretation are kept open, the same song can be understood in many different ways, by different people, or by the same listener at different times. That’s part of the reason why his songs don’t age.

The long answer is only accessible after years and years of meditiation over the question (and a pile of albums), and will, like a true zen koan, dissolve and prove untrue once it is reached. (Enlightening, huh? :-)

a third one, quite related too:

My Back pages (the song)

“What in the world is he talking about in this song?”

I wish I could tell you what it’s all about, but I know just as much as you. It’s one of the few Dylan-songs that have never meant much to me. I think I have found the main image (older then – younger now) a bit too blunt, un-double-edged despite it’s seeming double-edged-ness, if you see what I mean.
I suppose the song is an expression of the insight that words have power, and the more so the more you isolate them; that things are always (or can always be made) more nuanced; that not complication, but simplification is what is negative. This is reflected both in what is said, and in how it is said – it’s as if every phrase evades a specific meaning – it is always relativized, contradicted even, even to the point where words and phrases become meaningless (such as the first phrase – I mean, come on, what does “Crimson flames tied through my ears / Rollin’ high and mighty traps” actually mean? Nothing, but it still manages to convey the more general sentiment, that is not tied to the conceptual meaning of each single word or sentence, that meaning is relative).

Likewise, the phrase: “‘Equality’, I spoke the word / as if a wedding vow”, reveals both the solemnity with which any word could be approached – because of its power or its importance – and, when opposed by the refrain, the danger of raising single words to the pedestal, either as political slogans or as guidelines for personal ambitions and aspirations: even though the word is held in high esteem, it is nevertheless discarded, together with everything else that belongs to the “older then” side of the equation.

The ultimate danger of the “older then” position is expressed in the penultimate verse: “Fearing not that I’d become my enemy / In the instant that I speak”. Words have power, and if you try to pin down their meaning, they will always slip through your fingers. There’s a saying that every word in arabic has four different meanings: the basic meaning, the very opposite, something on a camel and an obscenity.

From the foregoing I will have to conclude that I really like the song quite a lot. I think part of my troubles with My Back Pages stems from the fact that English is not my first language, and although I usually feel quite comfortable talking and writing in English, My Back pages is the kind of text that plays on the immediate associations, connotations that go with certain words, and on the clashes that can occur, if not between the direct meanings of words, then between their connotations. I can manage to get a grasp on some of these subtleties after concentrated work with the text, but it doesn’t spring automatically to my mind, as it would had the text been in Norwegian.

An implication of my answer is also that it’s too simple to say that it’s just a farewell to protest song, although that’s certainly a central issue. But I still don’t think Dylan either has a clue about what some of the lines mean.




What is Desolation Row about?

I usually don’t do this, but ok… I can only tell you what I hear in the song, which is no offical opinion at all. I hear it as a love song of some kind, lost, never begun, whatever. The song is full of imagery of frustrated people, not getting in touch with eachother or themselves, or if so, then only violently (riot squad, sexless patients trying to blow it up). I hear the final verse as a reflection of the same feeling in the “I”-person’s relationship (It doesn’t say explicitly that the letters are love letters, but that’s the way I hear it).

Another reason for assuming this, is the similarity with Gates of Eden, which has the same set of figures and surrealistic collages as D-row, and which is also more clearly a love song, and about communication, and which again ends with a stanza which lets the whole thing narrow down to a question of (unattained) love.

On the same subject:

(from a post to r.m.d.):

Hi I´m looking for a interpretation for Desolation Row. I figured out its about WW 2 but I can´t get it all right. Does anyone know more about it? Please send me a personal e-mail, thanks!

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown         Jews
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner              N.Chamberlain?
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad is restless                     The nazi army
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight                  Lady?
From Desolation Row

How about letting “brown passports” mean “brown passports”, Bette Davies be Bette Davies, and Romeo be the lover of Juliet, and see what happens. It may still turn out to be a great set of lyrics… For the metaphorical interpretation, go to (or rather: don’t) weberman’s site.

(For the record: I'm not claiming that any interpretation other than the literal one is wrong, only that it may not be necessary.)

Did Dylan steal “Dignity”?

There was a rumor, reflected also in a couple of questions to this site, that Dylan had stolen the song Dignity, his only hit from the early 90s. The story goes as follows: Singer/songwriter James Damiano claims to have brought a number of songs of his to Dylan’s organization, among them “Steel Guitars”. Shortly after that, Dylan releases the song “Dignity”, which Damiano recognized as his own “Steel Guitars”.

I first thought there was something to the story, and I was about to write a note about it, in Damiano’s favour, when Damiano himself started his “spamming” campaign (fall 1999), where he distributed documents from his case to just about every newsgroup on the Usenet. Among the items distributed was the following  graph, which was supposed to demonstrate the similarities between the two melodies:


damiano_no_dignity.jpg (71731 bytes)


The graph is a strong reduction of the songs, to a relatively small number of structural pitches, without regard for rhythm, meter, phrasing etc. “Dignity” is reduced to the tones b g – d’ e’ g’ e’ d’ b d’ – g a b g – only barely recognizable as the end of the first line (b g) and the rest of the verse. These tones are then related to a similar reduced graph of the tune “Steel Guitars”. The graph was accompanied by the following comment:

Doctor Green who graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University explains in his analysis that “The melodic arc found in both Bob Dylan’s ’Dignity’ and James Damiano’s ’Steel Guitars’ is more than a collection of shared pitches. It seems to embody the melodic shape or character of both songs. When played on it’s own it is reminiscent of both compositions” Yet Judge Simandle writes” To the ear of this court, there is no substantial similarity in the melody of the two songs.” The record reflects that Judge Simandle has no formal musical education. The record also reflects that James Damiano’s first copyright filing for “Steel Guitars” was filed in 1982, nine years before Bob Dylan’s filing for a copyright registration with the Library of Congress. Bob Dylan’s copyright filing for “Dignity” was filed in 1991 James Damiano’s 1982 copyright registration included the melody line of Bob Dylan’s “Dignity” and also the lyrical hook of , “Dignity” Bob Dylan’s copyright filing for “Dignity” was filed in 1991.

To this I replied:


Nice to finally get to see the analysis itself – which doesn’t give much support to the infringement case, I’m afraid: A reduced diagram of a melody, stripped of both harmony and rhythm, doesn’t prove anything, because it doesn’t say very much about the music (not even about the original melody, in fact), especially not in a musical language that is based on a formulaic melodic style, such as rock/blues. The statement that “(2) and (3) can be considered the same note when they precede (1)” is pure nonsense (and misspelt too). There is no such general law or principle in harmonic analysis – the wider context will be more decisive.

As for the similarity of the melodies (judging from the reduced graph, that is) – they are not as similar as the mathematician has it. The most distinctive features of this little snippet of Dylan’s song (which is the one I know) is the high g’, the descending fifth towards the end of the selection, and the descending third (coupled with the lack of a dominant chord where it would have been expected) at the very end. None of these elements are present in the Damiano song.

This is not to say that Dylan may not have been influenced by Damiano’s song – I haven’t heard it – only that that this piece of evidence in isolation is hardly worth the bytes that the jpg-file occupy.


Damiano countered:

To those people who have seen the above newsgroup post may I say that Mr. Eyolf Ostrem claims to be a musicologist however he left no e-mail address or contact information. One can conclude from that fact that Mr. Ostream does not even exist.

I was of course relieved:


Nice to finally get an authoritative opinion concerning my existence. In fact, I had serious suspicions yesterday when I woke up and looked in the mirror and I couldn’t see anybody there. (Then I realized: that wasn’t me, that was John Lennon, and besides, it wasn’t a mirror after all, it was a window (but not the one that leads to the future)). As for “Mr Ostream”, I don’t know. He may not exist.

Bob Dylan spent 3 million dollars on this litigation and produced one so called “musicologist” in which this experts credentials were never discolsed. Through investigation I was told that Dylan”s music expert did not even have a degree and was only a musician.

Mr. Ostrem also is incorrect when he stated “especially not in a musical language that is based on a formulaic melodic style, such as rock/blues.” What Mr. Ostem does not know is that a study was done on the very melody line and Doctor Green stated in his analysis that ”the melody line is not common in the corpus of popular music”. Mr Ostrem also did not cite his credentials. Nor did he define musicologist. We only know that he is a memeber of the Bob Dylan web ring “Edlis” and his name apperas on an Edlis Bob Dylan page at the following address:

I think it is only fair to ask Mr. Østrem to kindly list his credentials concerning music theory.

Well, either Dylan (or his office; I seriously doubt that Dylan himself has ever concerned himself with this case) is stupid or he has more contacts in the music business than among musicologists. Which is fair enough – that’s where he’s supposed to be anyway.

As for Damiano’s counter-arguments: The analysis quoted in the attached jpg file, is based on a reduction of the melody to what the analyst considers the essential scale steps of the melody. This method of analysis, at least as utilized in this case, draws on what is called Schenker analysis, which is taught ad nauseam at every american musicological department. One of the main problems with Schenker analysis is that it favors pitch content, and that it tends to conceal details of the music belonging to other parameters, such as rhythm, phrasing etc. The late Bo Alphonse, former professor in musicology at the McGill Univ. in Montreal, has lucidly demonstrated the consequences of this bias, by showing that two pieces that sound completely different (a Chopin prelude and a Beetoven movement, I think it was), are virtually identical already on the first level of reduction (i.e. the level that corresponds most closely to Dr Green’s line).

The lesson learned from this, is that all reductive analysis runs the risk of concealing important elements by considering them as surface ornament. The “surface” is, after all, the only place where the music is actually sounding; the rest is analysis.

As for the melody, in its reduced form it is basically broken g major triad with a 6th added for pentationic spice. If this isn’t formulaic and common in popular music, I don’t know what is. The broken triad is old as the rocks, and the figure 5-6-1 [g-a-d’] is, I would say, one of the more common cliche’s. Then again, that particular figure is not found in Damiano’s song, judging from the graph. One can hardly say that it is incorrect that the melody at this point is highly formulaic.

I welcome comments on my other points, concerning the alleged similarity of the melody, which still disregards some of the most distinct features of Dylan’s melody, and the analytical methods used to monkey-wrench the two melodies into the same mold. I also welcome a serious discussion concerning the content of all this, which I consider more important than titles (which I haven’t acquired yet [which I’ve actually acquired since then]) and credentials (I am a doctoral student, soon-to-be doctor, in musicology at Uppsala University, Sweden [I am now a doctor in Musicology]).

BTW, I’ve been looking for this Doctor Green in periodicals of musicology, but I haven’t been able to find him anywhere. What is his full name? Does he even exist…?


[For a discussion of what a musicologist is, I refer to this article, which in an updated version has been published in the Swedish Journal of Musicology, 2001]


[As a final note, I’d like to say that – despite the tone of my replies, which was a result of the weird experience of suddenly not existing – I have nothing against Damiano, and if Dylan actually has stolen his song, I think Damiano should get his due credits. My point was mainly a musicological one, concerning reductive analysis, and that in my view, based on the arguments above, the analysis does not support his claims. I have never heard his song, though, nor seen the sheet music; that would give a much better basis for a comparison.]

Stuck in the Middle with You

An mp3-file is apparently in circulation, where this song is credited to Dylan. It is not a song by Dylan at all, but a 70s’ hit by Stealers Wheel

Eve of Destruction

This is not a Dylan song, but a song by Barry McGuire.

Why don’t you tab any Travelling Wilburys songs?

The reason why I haven’t done anything with those, is that there used to be an exellent TW site, with tabs, info, even indications of which lines were sung by which Wilbury, so there was no need. Recently I found that they have been contacted by some copyright holder, and have taken down the whole site. So right now I’m just hoping that it was Harrison or Petty and not Dylan who was after them…

What is the song called, that . . .

. . . begins: “You got a lot of nerve…?”

It’s called Positively 4th street, and was released as a single Sep 1965, and on Greatest Hits (1967), and again on Biograph (1985).

Questions about playing style

Don’t Think Twice / Fingerpicking

Im very keen to learn the above song, as on the Freewheelin. Your intro to the song is excellent and I have managed to get as far as the start of the lyrics – which took me about a week! I couldnt find the tab anywhere else – (I spent about 4 hours looking) I would really like to learn the rest of the song but am finding it very difficult. Would you happen to have tabbed the rest of the song at al?


I looked through my old files, but I couldn’t find a tab for the rest of the song – sorry. It isn’t that hard though: just finger the chords and play them finger-picking style. You could use the intro as a model, but the picking is much simpler in the verse – usually just plain:

  C                 G                 Am                       /g

and so on in the same style.


If you find this complicated, I would strongly recommend you to practice the fingerpicking in general, rather than spending hours and hours on learning specific details in specific tabs (which is why I am not going to supply the tab for the whole song…) :-). In this song there are two things going on. One is the general picking, which is fairly straightforward: just get the thumb moving and the rest comes by itself (with practice, of course…)

The other thing is the delicate hammer-on technique, which looks more difficult on paper than it is in reality. You have to get the right hand so fluent that you can play the general picking patterns without thinking – or rather: while you’re thinking of something else, watching TV, speaking with someone, etc. Then you can start doing things with the right hand, and the two things that are difficult here, are (as you’ve of course already noticed) to let the hammering-on finger of the left hand hit the string simultaneously with the thumb-stroke of the right hand, and that to get those shifts fluent, you have to change the whole chord just before the chord changes, so to speak, to avoid doing the same movement twice. An example is the move from G7 to Am between the first two bars. 

You’ll find an even more finger-bending example in “Suze”, where there’s a whole chain of such chord changes.

The same kind of things occur here and there during the singing too, but to a lesser degree. I’d recommend to work toward a thorough command of the picking-style, then adding that kind of ornaments, if you like to.

Hope this helps.




And another one on the same topic, about details:

I’m a novice to guitar player from Ireland with a  small favour to ask of you.  As I’m very taken by Dylan’s performance of the old Stephen Foster ballad ’Hard Times’, from the album ’Good as I Been To You’, I was wondering if it would be possible for you to provide some more information on that particular performance (in particular, getting the right texture for the notes), so that I can play it.  […] A novice like me would benefit alot from a little more detail (it’s more down to my lack of knowledge than to the transcriptions). 

I may have done away with Hard Times a little too hastily… Although it’s basically as I write in the tab, that the simple chords are elaborated with sus4s and hammer-ons, that may not be much of a help for a beginner. On the other hand, there is a difference between a worked-out arrangement (which I find it worth tabbing) and this kind of ornament, which is incidental and might therefore be better placed in a more general description of playing style. Since I haven’t written such a piece (yet – it’s coming), however, I may add some more details to Hard times.

I suspect that Arthur McBride may look a bit intimidating, with the long tab and all, but it’s not as hard as it looks. I’d recommend – as an exercise that I think will be quite rewarding, beyond playing this one song – to play the simple chords and try to pick out the melody line, or as much of it that is necessary/possible, on the bass strings. That’s basically what’s in the tab, but instead of staring blindly at the tab, which records more or less exactly what Dylan plays, it will be more useful for your ear and your playing – your musicality in general – to take the lead from the principle and work out the details for yourself. At least that’s what I think.




Dylan the soloist

Dylan has a range of standard ways of moving around (and in) his songs, that is truly fascinating and worthy of a more extended study. I also believe that it would be more interesting in such a wider context than just tabbing the details of particular performances – since all those licks go back to improvisational systems that in part are his very own.

I could indicate some of those: the two most characteristic signs of his solos and licks are his double stop solos and his two note solos. The double-stops have been mentioned by a lot of musicians with whom he has worked, as something unique to his style. He plays solos that consist of chord shapes that are moved up and down the neck, in quite stylized and fixed ways, which means that it would be a rather manageable task to describe the system(s). You can find samples of it in the tabs (on my site) of Abandoned love, Mozambique and – perhaps more illustrative of his current technique – I’m in the mood for love. Study those and you’ll have a beginning of a grasp of what he’s doing. It’s all very systematic (really) and quite simple (as always with Dylan’s guitar techniques) – “simple” not in the derogatory, but in the Archimedean sense – the Heureka effect.

The second area of his solos is the two-note wonders – the way he stubbornly, consistently and at times seemingly un-musically sticks to two notes (typically the tonic – the key note – or the dominant (the fifth note above the tonic) and the minor third below it (i.e. three frets down). In a song in C major that would mean c-a and g-e. Love minus zero [off Unplugged], combines these two techniques in a brilliant way.

A third technique, that he has more or less abandoned now, since he stopped playing without the band, but which is very prominent in the period around World Gone Wrong and GAIBTY, i.e. the years around 1990, is his way of picking out the melody of the song while strumming the chords. You belong to me is probably one of the best examples of this technique.


Questions about this site

What’s the story behind this site?

The story behind it is that Time out of mind was released in Sweden a few days before it came out in the rest of the world. I had just started working on a Dylan home page – the “Articles” section of the site. I thought it could be fun to have a site with the chords to the newest album, waiting for the world when they could buy it, so I did.

Then I started making occasional tabs to the songs that weren’t available elsewhere, or where the tabs were so inaccurate that they did more harm than good. This turned out to be a job without end, since there was always some new live version to incorporate. When I’d passed 200 tabs (I think it was) I just decided that “I’ll do them all.” And that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since. :-)


How do you tab songs?

The alternate tunings and the capos are really just a matter of hearing the sound of the chord structures – when you get used to it (and the ear may have something to do with it) you hear a G shape (full bass, high isolated key note on the 1st string), a C shape (full bass again, often with an audible G on the 6th string, no spaces between the notes of the chord, the third (e) on the first string), a D shape (a third on the 1st string (f#), either no deep bass, or a f# in the bass too), etc. All chords sound differently. Once you hear that, where to put the capo is really no problem at all.

The same (or basically the same) goes for the open tunings: once you get accustomed to them, you hear those too. The tricky part is the songs with odd, unusual tunings. I sweated over Blackjack davy for a long time, trying out different alt. tunings, then I ended up with a standard tuning in the end…

How long it takes to tab a song depends on the complexity of the songs, and on which level of precision I choose. Just taking out the chords is usually the simplest task. The time consuming part is to write out everything, transcribe the lyrics, checking recording dates, author/composer etc., determining the detailed tabs, etc. I get a lot of helpful hints, to the effect of: “I see you haven’t tabbed song x yet – I think it goes in B and uses the chords B, E and F#”. It’s always hard to have to explain that not knowing that, wasn’t really the problem…

Why was the site address so long? (obsolete)

Because this was never meant to be a Dylan site to begin with, but a site where I put up some articles I was writing – as I was writing them. The idea was that an interested audience (”readience”?) could come by once in a while and see how the ideas in a scholarly paper developed from day to day. It didn’t work out so well…

One of the texts was vaguely related to the renaissance composer Jacob Obrecht (1458-1505), an old hero of mine, and so I chose that as a username on the Swedish free home page provider Passagen.

When I started adding Dylan things, I thought I might put that in some “back pages”, so I added that as a sub-directory.

To begin with the focus was on the articles (what’s now the “Self-Ordained Professors” section), and the chords were put in another sub-directory.

Taken together, this produces the wonderfully catchy, easy-to-remember address


In case you wondered . . .

But now things have changed to the commercial-sounding

Who are you anyway?

Who? Me?

kant.jpg (12670 bytes)


One thing is for certain: I’m not as fat as that guy in the picture (and I can’t draw).