Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright



The last great song on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. The first track on the second side, it could almost actually be the best thing on the whole album (it’s not, but it’s close), which is saying quite a lot. Dylan will go on to write a whole raft of break-up songs, but this is the template for all the rest of them. These are the cool lyrics, with an undercurrent of hurt, and with the false veneer that says ‘nothing really bothers me’. This is the kind of song that most people wish they could sing when they getting dumped, but few of them actually can.

In the summer of 1963 Dylan was seeing both Joan Baez and Suze Rotolo (his longtime on-again off-again girlfriend who is hugging his arm on the cover of Freewheelin’). Baez performed this song during her set at the Newport Folk Festival, and introduced it, with Rotolo in the audience, thusly: “Here’s another Bobby song. This is a song about a love affair that has lasted too long”. Rotolo, of course, walked out. Some day someone is going to make the great Bob Dylan romance film, and it’s going to be all about the summer of 1963. I have to say, my mental of image of Baez is so gauzy and clouded with her semi-saintliness that I just can’t imagine her being cruel to someone. I probably need to snap out of that.

I should note that I haven’t written about Dylan’s break-out performance at Newport this week because I haven’t been able to watch The Other Side of the Mirror, the documentary about his three Newport performances. I ordered a copy from Amazon, and it looks now like it will arrive next week. I may wait and just review all three years of Newport shows at once in two weeks time. There’s a lot of material on YouTube, of course, but it seems preferable to just watch the film.

Back to the topic at hand: “Don’t Think Twice” is a major accomplishment for the young Dylan, an inspired and hauntingly emotional song that helps establish his range.

Having listened to Freewheelin’ every day for a week, this is how I’ve got it broken down:

Girl From the North Country

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

Blowin’ in the Wind

Oxford Town

Masters of War

Bob Dylan’s Dream

The rest of the album is fine, but not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s Joan, but not from Newport. Still a great version though:

Girl From the North Country


I’m hoping to set down a few words about every great Bob Dylan song as I make my way through this Long and Wasted Year. “Girl From the North Country”, the second song on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, is certainly one of those. A truly heartbreaking song, it has genuine emotional power. Not for nothing did they use it as the emotional centrepiece of Silver Linings Playbook (although they used the Nashville Skyline version – more on that in about six weeks when I’m allowed to listen to it).

It’s a simple song, and a beautiful one. Based on “Scarborough Fair”, which he learned in London at the end of 1962, it has been covered by just about everyone from Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to The Waterboys and Eddie Vedder. Rosanne Cash covered it on her album The List, on which she did only songs that her father had recommended to her as essential. Here she is talking about it and singing it:

Searching for a good early Dylan version of it on YouTube I ran across this curiosity. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t from 1963, so it’s out of place here, but I’m posting it anyway, because it is awesome:

This is one of the Dylan songs where I don’t think he ever did a bad version of it.

(Sorry to post three things right in a row – long day prevented me from getting things that I’d written up earlier. I’m going to bed to listen to the Carnegie Hall concert again)

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall



One couplet makes all the difference.

Despite what Nat Hentoff claims in the liner notes for Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the singer wrote A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in the summer of 1962 – well before the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in October of that year. Indeed, Hentoff’s claim that the song is a reaction to that crisis is demonstrably false as Dylan performed it on stage for the first time on September 22, 1962.

That performance, part of a hootenanny organized by Pete Seeger, is a fascinating one. Dylan performed all five verses of the song that runs over seven minutes (apparently each of the performers was given only ten minutes of stage time, something that he violated) with some slight variations to the lyrics as they were recorded and are regularly performed. Some of these may be simple errors that come from singing a lengthy song in public for the first time. Dylan says that he has climbed to the “top of six misty mountains” rather than to the “side of twelve”. In the third verse he regularly uses the verb “saw” rather than “heard”. In the final verse he sings “dark forest” rather than “black forest”. As I say, minor stuff.

There are two big differences between the Carnegie Hall performance and the final version of the song. In the third verse, he adds a final line that eventually disappears: “I heard the sound of a one person who cried and was human”. It’s a nice line, but it doesn’t add a whole lot to the verse, and, indeed, seems slightly redundant. The line appears on the version of the song he recorded for the Witmark Demos, but it is gone from Freewheelin’.

The more significant difference, and one that has a huge impact, is the change to the first two lines of every verse. Dylan asks in the first verse: “Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed boy? Oh, where have you been, my baby, my own?”. This is a striking alteration from the familiar version which rhymes “blue-eyed son” with “darling young one”. It’s jarring, not simply because it is unfamiliar, but because the elegance of the rhyming couplet is absent. Dylan seems to have recognized this quickly, as it is only at Carnegie Hall that he seems to have sung it this way – by the time of the Witmark Demo recording it has reached the final version.

The extra line and the change to “son” are interesting examples of Dylan editing his work, and you can see the song evolve over a number of recordings before it crystallizes. In the 1970s (and later) Dylan would begin to tamper dramatically with the structure of his songs (compare this version with the one from the Rolling Thunder tour show at the Montreal Forum that can be found on Bootleg Series 5, which is the most uptempo and fun apocalyptic vision of all time (well, except maybe REM. And Timbuk 3)).

A Hard Rain is my favourite song from Freewheelin’. Unlike Blowin’ in the Wind, there is a lot that can be done with it (again, the Montreal show is a great example of this). Lyrically it’s a remarkably complex song, full of starkly dramatic imagery. A great deal has been made of interpreting Dylan’s symbolism (he does this himself during his 1963 interview with Studs Terkel, telling him that “pellets of poison” are the lies of the news media), which, as a professor of English literature I should probably endorse. But I don’t. I like the song’s images as images and have no desire to nail them down. And more to the point I love the way that Dylan wails “haaaard” on this one like a primal scream. Blowin’ in the Wind is the song that has the simplicity to speak to millions, but I prefer Hard Rain for its ability to show us Dylan in full-on poetic mode, channeling the symbolists. In time this tendency will overwhelm him, but in 1963 it was all so fresh and powerful.