Things have changed for Bob Dylan, and it isn’t just the times. As he crosses America again and again on his so-called “never-ending tour” (which is a misnomer unless he’s immortal), he performs much the same set list nightly, a list culled primarily from his last four or so studio albums. Even in the late ‘80s, he generally performed a variety of songs from all periods of his catalog, albeit in vastly different versions than those immortalized in the studio. In an early interview Dylan identified himself as “a song and dance man,” which has always seemed as though it was meant as a joke. But as time goes by and Dylan’s career is seen in retrospective, that description seems more and more like an accurate portrayal of the way Dylan views himself as an artist.
His most recent releases, 2015’s Shadows In the Night and this year’s Fallen Angels, both feature Dylan performing songs from the Great American Songbook, which seemed like a new approach for the troubadour. In actuality, Dylan’s doing exactly what he’s always done—confounding his audiences with music that isn’t typical, isn’t what you expect, and sometimes isn’t even his. What follows is a list of songs Dylan songs that he’s probably never going sing live again. But each of these songs signaled a sea change to anyone who cared to listen, and many of them (not all) can sit comfortably with his best and most popular work. Here are 10 great forgotten songs by Bob Dylan.
1. “All The Tired Horses”
Here’s a koan for you: If Bob Dylan doesn’t appear on the track, is it still a Bob Dylan song? This hypnotic Zen couplet that Dylan wrote is sung by a chorus of female voices backed up with strings. This was a huge Dylan flip-off to the legions of fans that followed him, dogging him to write more socially conscious songs or otherwise provide guidance to them in troubling times. This opening track of Self-Portrait famously provoked legendary rock writer Greil Marcus to opine, “What is this shit?”
In the late-1960s, Dylan moved away from folk, away from rock, and towards country and roots American music. A number of his songs began to use the iconography of the American West: guns, shootouts, gamblers, mysterious and often lethal women. In November 1972, Dylan and his family moved to Durango, Mexico for the filming of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Dylan acted in the film, playing a character appropriately named Alias and wrote songs for the soundtrack, which he released as an album. “Billy” is a great Dylan song, simply performed, but once again Dylan confused his audience, who had no idea what cowboy Bob was up to.
3. “Caribbean Wind”
Another tactic that Dylan often uses to keep fans off balance is writing an epic song as the emotional centerpiece of an album, and then leaving it off the album. This has happened a couple of times, but in the case of “Caribbean Wind,” it’s especially hard to understand. It was recorded during sessions for the album Shot of Love, the final in Dylan’s trilogy of born-again Christian albums. The song’s lyrics are about lost love, a common Dylan theme, and also seem to signal a movement towards a larger perspective. Dylan’s Christian work was largely dogmatic and filled with Old Testament fire, but there were signs he was becoming disillusioned with that, and “Caribbean Wind” mixed love, spirituality, Christianity, and Dylan’s sharp eye for iconic imagery in a way that completely stunned his fans. The song never made it to the album, though, remaining in the vaults until 1985’s Biograph, when it surfaced in a much different version. He has not played the song live since a 1980 performance in San Francisco.
4. “Girl From The North Country” (with Johnny Cash)
In 1969 the U.S. was in turmoil. The American public increasingly disavows the Vietnam War, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and women sought equal rights, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. And what did Bob Dylan do? He headed to Nashville, where he recorded some low-key, but elegant songs with a basic group that included steel guitar. Dylan wanted to simplify the sound of his music, but he also was hard at work simplifying his lyrics. On John Wesley Harding he tried to make every line, every image advance the song’s theme or advance the story’s plot. On Nashville Skyline he really just wanted the end result to be a well-crafted song, and he succeeded with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” and “I Threw It All Away.” He also had a new, deep crooner voice, apparently brought about by his quitting cigarettes. To cement this new style, Dylan took one of the most beautiful songs from his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and performed it with Johnny Cash.
5. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”
Blonde on Blonde was the apex of Dylan’s psychedelic, stream of consciousness, rock and roll style. Just 18 months later in the fall of 1967, Dylan went into the studio to record John Wesley Harding. During much of that time he was holed up with The Band recording informal sessions that came to be known as The Basement Tapes. Interestingly, none of the songs he worked on there appeared on John Wesley Harding, but he did have a set of new songs he wrote for the new album. These songs used bold, vivid imagery that Dylan fans had come to expect, but they were different: earthier, a bit darker, and filled with the imagery of Americana and the bible. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” packs a powerful lyrical punch in three short stanzas. The opening line references the famous protest song “Joe Hill” while the closing couplet quotes Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre.” The dream Dylan describes is of St. Augustine, and of how Dylan realizes that he is part of the mob that puts Augustine to death upon awakening. Halfway between his folkie protest early years and the coming Christian years, Dylan is telling his confused fans that he is not their prophet, but that they are not alone.
6. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”
This is the third song in the second half of this show, at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, where Dylan came out with The Band playing electric rock versions of his songs. Dylan and The Band rip through this traditional number that Dylan recorded acoustically on his debut album. Robbie Robertson slashes through a guitar solo, and even Garth Hudson’s organ playing is a bit aggressive. There’s applause, but the audience’s confusion and sense of betrayal is palpable. This is the same show where an audience member yells out “Judas!” before the band breaks into “Like a Rolling Stone.”
The video link is The Band with Dylan performing the song at The Last Waltz in 1976. As is fitting for the group’s final public performance, the song has a more celebratory feel than the Manchester show. The decision to use electric bands and perform rock songs was finally vindicated for Dylan, and it opened up his ability to move in virtually any direction musically, an ability he took full advantage of over the next 15 years.
7. “Crash on the Levee (Down In the Flood)”
Originally recorded in 1967, this track (along with most of the Basement Tapes sessions) was widely bootlegged before being officially released by Columbia Records in 1975. This 1971 live performance is a powerful blues-rock groove fueled by Levon Helm’s drumming, Robbie Robertson’s country blues guitar and Garth Hudson’s carnival ride organ work. Dylan’s fierce vocal declarations ride over it all, his voice pushed to new levels by the chugging freight train of The Band. Dylan had found a group of collaborators who gloried in the act of just being musicians—getting up every day and playing music, writing songs, talking and arguing about songs, recording, hanging out, and creating with no real goal, no record to make, no record company listening in. It was an idyllic existence that led Dylan to surmise that perhaps he could get out of the voice of a generation box he had painted himself into.
8. “Changing of the Guard”
Street Legal followed on the heels of the successful Desire and the legendary Rolling Thunder Review tour. Dylan had gone through a messy divorce from his wife Sara, and had ended Desire with his most direct love song to her, with no narrative or distance from the feelings described in the song. It was as personal as Dylan really ever got. Conversely, Street Legal opens with one of Bob’s most inscrutable lyrics, backed by a band that sounds fairly similar to Rolling Thunder. But there’s also a group of female backup singers (who figure prominently throughout the album and onstage) and a saxophone, which seems likely to have been influenced by the work of Clarence Clemons in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Reaction at the time was relatively negative, with one reviewer dubbing it a Las Vegas version of Dylan. The songs, though, are pretty good, part of the cycle of work that began with Blood on the Tracks and continued through Desire. It all boils down to how you feel about Dylan with backing vocals and sax. People were less than enthusiastic at the time, but in retrospect, the album has earned a measure of recognition. It was also his last work before he was born again and recorded his trio of Christian albums.
9. “Neighborhood Bully”
Dylan’s 1983 release Infidels marked the end of his evangelical phase, though the album still features Biblical imagery. Indeed Dylan had re-embraced his Judaism somewhat, reportedly attending classes with Brooklyn’s Lubavitch Hasidim. The previous year Israel had invaded Lebanon and destroyed Beirut in an attempt to get rid of Palestinian militias stationed near the border. The world saw this as an act of aggression as opposed to the Six Day War, which had been an act of self-defense. Dylan had reportedly always been pro-Israel, which may have strained his relationships with the liberal protest factions for whom he was supposed to be a spokesman. In any event, his feelings regarding the topic were made very clear on this Mark Knopfler-produced track.
The song definitely rattled some Dylan listeners, who were interested in his emergence from born again Christian-land, but ultimately the song and controversy receded into the distance, and Infidels was seen as something of a return to form for Dylan, despite its dated 1980s sound engineered by Knopfler.
Neighborhood Bully – Bob Dylan from Noehed on Vimeo.
10. “Red River Shore”
Another of Dylan’s abandoned masterpieces, this haunting song speaks of love that never comes into existence, of love that is unrequited, and even of love that makes the lover contemplate the resurrection of the beloved. It’s a song like “Mystery Train” or “In the Pines” that envelops the idea of Zen nothingness, and of death itself, expressing it in music and words but ultimately acknowledging that it can’t be expressed, only felt. His work becomes quieter, and the world that he and producer Daniel Lanois create is one of shadow, of dreams and nightmares and late night dives where the ultimate truths are sung in low tones.
The woman that Dylan keeps missing in this song is one that keeps moving, who is whole and content within herself, and so Dylan can offer her nothing. It’s one of the many songs that Dylan has written about leaving someone behind or being left behind himself. But unlike “One Too Many Morning” or “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” this song shows Dylan continuing to grow as a songwriter and to pull his listeners along with him into territory where they’d rather not go, something he’s always been willing to do.