Dylan @ 80: Whispering To Himself

Bob Dylan is 80 this May 24th. To mark this strange and in some ways alarming moment, I've reworked an essay I wrote a decade ago about one of the many songs that might be called his greatest. 

(A version of this essay was first published in Italian in a Dylan tribute collection, Un sentiero verso le stelle. Sulla strada con Bob Dylan: [A path to the stars. On the road with Bob Dylan {Pacini Editore, 2011, Ed. Paolo Vites}] and in English in Village magazine, June 2011. I might have written a new essay about another song, except that the point of this is not what is called ‘criticism’ but a stab at the expression of wonder in something other than superlatives. Like the song it celebrates, it is a kind of last word.)

I wouldn’t, in normal circumstances, go so far as to assert that any of Bob Dylan’s songs is his ‘best’. Even with any of the more obvious candidates, that would risk being too big a statement, though in a dozen or more cases it might be plausible. But if you put a gun to my head this very moment and demanded that, on pain of death for getting it wrong, I name his best song, I feel I would have a fighting chance of surviving if I mentioned Mama, You've Been On My Mind.

The strange thing is that I don’t think of it as a song. It’s deeper than that. Of course, there are versions of it that turn it into a song, including some horrendous duets Dylan did with Joan Baez. But there is a version in existence in which the song lives in a different way, as something more than the sum of its parts, as something so special you have to wonder why it is only to be found in one apparently throwaway version on the Bootleg collection, just one of many interesting tracks that got left to one side, for one reason or another or no reason that anyone seems to remember. This version is not available — at least not in full — in any online format. But there is a snatch of it to be found here, in this Facebook clip

(I’m told you can hear the song on Spotify, but I’m not sure I believe it. I was once briefly on Spotify but something bothered me about it, so I quit. If anyone still has Spotify they may be able to hear the full song at the link below. Apologies if it doesn’t work — it’ll probably be because it was never meant to.


There’s something appropriate in the sense of elusiveness about the Facebook 17 seconds, as though the song, in its original and most perfect form, has become extinct, or has been re-created as a fragment from a memory of an old man of 80 or 800, as though a remnant excavated after many centuries have passed, to give a clue as to the intention, the mind, the life of the author. You can find the full version on CD (The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 [Rare and Unreleased] 1961-1991), but the fecundity of bad versions online, combined with the near-total absence of this one, seems to suggest something, as though the song had come to be a secret known only between the truly attentive. It seems to have to do with the speed, which in this first version seems to be more or less right — only a suspicion on the slow side. It’s one of those songs that need to be sung just a little bit slower than seems possible. Once you’ve heard it, even this brief snatch, it becomes impossible to listen with patience to any of the other versions available, which are all way too fast, to the point of being a different song, or different songs, altogether.

Dylan himself seems not to understand the power of the original, but this is not unusual, or at least this seems to be his way of going on with certain of his own songs, like he’s trying to get out of singing his best ones. He sings the song infrequently these days, but invariably following the form of the many bastardised variations that appear to have originated with the Baez duet — too fast, too flippant, too throwaway. He seems not to grasp the gravity of his own song, or, perhaps, grasping it, decides to engage, as he often does, in misdirection, putting the song out there and then trying to erase it with inferior versions. There are one or two variations that are better than others, though each in its way beguilingly sabotaged by frivolity or hurry. 

This is one of the best of the bad lot, a live version from a concert in Besancon, France, on July 4th, 1994, still way too fast but better than any of the others to be found online these days:

The first time I heard the song, in the original Bootleg version, it jumped up and floored me, and, as I found myself listening again and again, ignoring everything else on what is actually an astonishingly good collection, I found myself wondering about it, about why Dylan had left things like this, had never returned to what was real and raw about this song, had never sought to capture it in a formal, official recording.

The sleevenotes accompanying the Bootleg Series tell us it was recorded in the middle of 1964. They also mention the several versions Dylan was later to do with Baez — when he would mercilessly ham the song up to the level of parody — and the solo version Baez herself released — ridiculously called Daddy, You’ve Been On My Mind — on her 1965 album, Farewell Angelina. The note also mentions several other versions of the song that Dylan recorded or participated in. One, described as ‘a rather ponderous version as a Witmark demo with piano accompaniment in the summer of 1964’, another with George Harrison in1970, in a New York session of which nothing was ever officially released. 

If you search for it on YouTube, you get people who sing the song and don’t tell you it was Dylan that wrote it. You get people who sing it so badly that you wonder why they bother. You get Dylan and Baez cheerfully murdering it. You get a Johnny Cash version in which he inexplicably changes the lyric, including the opening line, arguably the greatest in all of popular music, for reasons unstated but worth speculating about. But if you want to hear Dylan sing it as it was meant to be sung, you need to get the Bootleg Series and expect to be playing nothing else for a week.

Dylan wrote, recorded and released lots of songs. Many of them are carried by stories or statements or riddles or just clever hooks that make you wonder about the immense sense of irony that resides within this man, this poet, this seeker, this joker. For north of half a century he has been standing on the edge of the world looking in, reflecting or refracting some things that caught his eye, uttering them in ways that always suggest a stab at truthfulness, then moving on as though unsure what he has done. Almost none of his songs are finished, and some are no more than begun. Some of them seem to go on forever and other seems to end as though he’s forgotten why they started — containing ‘too much and not enough’, as he put it once himself, coating their subjects in words as though to convey the inadequacy of description.

But this song, this statement, this riddle, this joke, has something more in it than most of the others. It seems to have Dylan in it in a way that (many of) the rest of his songs do not, which may be why he avoids treating it seriously.  


Dylan is a storyteller, a creator: there is no need for him to be present in his songs, and there are no reasons for us to jump to the conclusion that we have glimpsed him in any or the whole of them. At any given moment it might be him or not, and most probably not. I don’t suggest the character in this song, fast or slow of it, is Dylan. It might be, but it doesn’t really matter. The voice is Dylan’s and he gives this voice to the character as he does in many other songs. There is an unusual baldness and clarity to the delivery that suggests it is Dylan talking, but you never know. His voice carries none of the affectation it sometimes has when he is trying to find the right pose or attitude for a song. Anyone who has read his autobiographical work Chronicles Volume I will know that he likes to lay false trails and explode existing understandings. But there is a trueness here that is difficult to avoid. His voice is up close in a way that it rarely is. It is as though he has stopped to get real, if only this once. 

The song, if it can be called a song, is great because it is not a song. There is no real hook to hide behind. It has no chorus, just the repeated title line. Moreover, the song is itself concerned with laying false trails, about the duplicity that lies behind the word and the note and the face and the name. Deep down, he has said more than once, nobody’s got a name.

And yet the song that is not a song is, in another sense, banal. It is a kind of love song, on the surface of things a throwaway afterthought about a relationship that ended some time ago. Except that it is not throwaway. It is not an afterthought. It is a cry from deep within the heart of one who has loved too much and lost not just the love but also the capacity to face that loss. It is the plea of someone whose life has been stilled by the fallout from desire and the encounter with its limits. It is a song about the way human longing has the capacity to leave you crippled if you direct it at the wrong target. The song doesn’t say this; it shows it. In this respect it might be called a ‘religious’ song, in the sense that it treads a line along the limit of human illusion, or self-delusion, a walk along the boundary with transcendence without looking over.

But with Dylan you never know. It could be another of those occasional songs of his that is inspired not by a real woman but by the Muse that he often treats as a woman who has jilted him many times and then permanently. Girl From the Red River Shore, written in the mid-1990s, is one such song, and in some ways seems to carry a resonance of this one, written three decades before it:

Well, I went back to see about her once/Went back to straighten it out/Everybody that I talked to had seen us there/Said they didn't know who I was talking about.

Well the sun went down on me a long time ago/I’ve had to pull back from the door/I wish I could have spent every hour of my life/With the girl from the red river shore.

If anyone who is not Irish may be called an honorary Irishman, then Bob Dylan is that man. He discovered Irish folk music in the early 1960s, watching the Clancy Brothers play in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, NYC, and subsequently never made any secret of the fact that he had lifted most of his earlier tunes from folk songs dug up by the Clancys and the Donegal family group, The McPeakes. Some of his songs have their roots unmistakably in the Blues, but others seem to be as though a reimagined eruption of the line of a music we Irish know to have been truncated or interrupted by dislocation and cultural scorched earth and thereby denied an organic life in its own place in the modern world. It is as though Dylan, through the medium of his poaching, was taking personal responsibility for completing the threads left hanging by Ireland’s dark history. If so, we have reason to be proud and thankful as he enters the final furlong.

This song — the ‘Mama’ song — from the earliest years while he was still hanging out with the Clancy Brothers in Greenwich Village, has the feel, if not the air, of an Irish ballad in the first person. It is not an Irish air, but the feel of it has something of the confidential tenor of a sean nós set against a minimal instrumentation. 

The delivery of the song is clear and straightforward. He gets right into it, with just the merest couple of bars of introduction on the guitar. His voice, when it enters before you expect, is not in any way Dylanised. He is not, you instantly know, about to make a big announcement, or tell a funny story, or weave a riddle, or stand back from somebody else’s life and embark on a long narrative. There is an urgency about the beginning that seems to infuse the song with an energy that never leaves it, even at the end, even when it is over.

There is no affectation or attitudinising. If Dylan is here an actor, then he is playing it straight, right down the middle, adopting a tone that is clearly calculated to avoid any intimation of irony or pretence. If he is singing a song about his life he is singing it in a manner that seeks above all to render himself, as singer, occluded.  

Behind the voice of the singer, just behind it, is the voice of the protagonist, the ‘character’, and he has an unmistakably different tone to that of the singer. He is deeply, unbearably, sad. Somehow Dylan manages to convey this without himself seeming to be sad, without being so sad, for example, that he is unable to sing.

Most of the song is delivered in a voice that is downbeat, and yet energised. What Dylan achieves here is in theory impossible: He conveys a sense of the detachment of melancholia without compromising the clarity of his ‘performance’, if as such it may be described. Most of this is already there in the way the song is written, in the long vowels of key words and phrases — ‘hazy’, ‘narrow’, ‘sorrow’, all words that drag so as to require no little effort in their enunciation, thereby conveying rather than saying things.

There is also a sense of him having to work hard to maintain the delivery, something between the lines that suggests a series of renewals of a level of energy and determination that is requiring a big effort. This creates a double effect, which folds back into the mystery of the ‘character’ in the song, communicating that he’s putting up a front. It doesn’t really fool anyone, but still it suggests a kind of veracity, or courage, even as you hear and observe that what he is doing is probably an attempt at manipulation. You know how low he has been brought; you understand about his hopes and how frail he knows them to be; you follow his journey through them and come to the same conclusions as he has himself. It suggests honesty, but of a strange, translucent kind that shows underneath the duplicity of the intelligence that is framing the statement. He is being honest about his doubtfulness as to his capacity for honesty. 

The clue is in the first lines, perhaps, as I said, the greatest first lines (and here there is no need for the gun) in the history of pop songs that are not pop songs. Say it any way you like, at any speed: 

Perhaps it’s the colour of the sun cut flat/And coverin’ the crossroads I’m standin’ at.

Rewind and play it again. ‘Perhaps [sometimes he sings ‘maybe’] it’s the colour of the sun cut flat/And coverin’ the crossroads I’m standin’ at’.

The sun cut flat? It is a line that is either handed straight from heaven or dredged from the depths of a killer hangover. Something about the slight-ly ex-agg-er-at-ed slow-ness of the delivery suggests the latter, exposing the state in which it was created. You may register, somewhere, that, though an unbelievably beautiful line, it somehow sounds excessively sentimental or something, coming from the mouth of this character, of whom we know nothing yet except what he has just said, and except that the way he has said it tells us almost everything we need in order to recognise him. The line and its delivery — the combination of them —somehow allow us  — to paraphrase Henry James —to guess the unseen from the seen, to judge the whole by the pattern of the weave. 

Even as he delivers the line we feel his self-consciousness in delivering it. And yet we are captivated by its exquisiteness. It is too big a line for almost anyone to sing, which is perhaps why Johnny Cash mangled it and buried it deep in the mix of the song.

But we want to know who is saying it, because already there is a story, and an unleashing of speculation. We are with this character at the crossroads, can feel his sense of dislocation, his distorted perspective, his idle gazing at a world that suddenly reveals itself in a strange new way that might almost make him smile at the twisted strangeness of his perception, turning him into a poet in spite of himself. And we know that the crossroads presents him with a dilemma that he must fairly immediately resolve.

The words are ‘poetic’, but, as in all great poetic lines, they dissolve immediately into an image. The clouds suddenly drift away, allowing the scene to become bathed in sunshine. We see him standing there, in the sunshine, at the crossroads, a little dazed but peaceful with it. And yet, with a consciousness slightly altered by something-or-other, seeing the light on the ground as though it has been sliced form the sun and dropped there not long before.

He is speaking to someone, but as yet we don’t know to whom. It could be me, you, the listeners, but the words are too self-conscious for that. They suggest a shared history of some kind, perhaps a history of similar moments of concelebrated strangeness and beauty and beautiful twisted strangeness. The line is too shocking and too odd to be delivered as the opener to a song intended to address the random hearer directly. You don’t speak like that to the first person who happens along the road, not even if you’re Bob Dylan, perhaps especially if you’re Bob Dylan. No, the listener is immediately made to feel that he is privy to, if not exactly eavesdropping on something intimate, some deep and personal moment of introspection or recollection. This man is speaking as though to himself, but perhaps through himself to someone who lies deep within his memory and imagination. And deep down in that part of our listening intelligence that knows what everything is as it happens, we already know that this person — whoever she might be — weighs heavily on his mind. In telling he shows; in showing he tells.

The line might be more than poetry. It might be truthful. He might be engaging is some kind of quasi-therapeutic blurting out, perhaps confessing the extent of a pain that has eased somewhat but not much. He is at a crossroads. He is at a crossroads after something that’s happened, some dark episode, some great loss, some enormous hurt. But, after a period in this darkness, he finds himself ready to move again, and has taken or dragged himself to the crossroads to consider the possibility of moving on. The sun has come out, but his mood is too dark to put it quite like that. He sees the brightness with an irony forged in pain, beaten on the anvil of desolation. Someone, some tight victualler of the universe, has sliced off a sliver of the sun and cast it across his path as though to — it is not clear — cheer or mock him. Perhaps he is not cheered by tripping across this sample of the sun. Perhaps he does not trust it. 

Or perhaps he is conceding that, after a time in the burrow of his sorrow, he finds himself passably resilient again in the teeth of sunshine and possibility. 

The next line, coming after the opening couplet, changes everything, relieving the tension of the questions raised by the opener. It is a rethink, a step backwards from the impulse that led to that first blurt of poeticism. He has gone too far, risked betraying his hand. The opener has revealed too much of his inner life, tapped too clumsily into the store of nostalgia that has caught him here as warmly as the sunlight. 

He steps back a little from the excesses of his opening gambit:

Or maybe it's the weather or somethin’ like that . . . 

He is not, after all, a poet, or at least he has not after all been moved to poetry. He pulls his hand back closer to his chest, hoping it is not too late. 

Or perhaps not. Perhaps this too is part of the story of shared moments, jointly-forged ironies, mutual mockeries of pretensions and sentimentalities that come too naturally. Perhaps he is not catching himself just in time, but rather deepening the parody of the love that has been rattling around his consciousness after — perhaps, perhaps not  —a period of forgetting.

 But Mama, you been on my mind.

Mama’. It is deep and personal. This is no ‘baby’ song, no ‘honey’ song”, no ‘moon in June’ song. There is history here, deep history, shared and understood in its depth. There is a specificity here that seems to address someone in particular, someone to whom the connection is profound, heavy, primal, even archetypal. We, the eavesdroppers, can but listen and learn more.

But he has said pretty much all he wants to say already. The rest of the song amounts to no more than tinkering with the statement, taking bits of it back, embellishing them and proffering them again, sometimes slightly more riskily, sometimes in a slightly more or less qualified fashion. He has come out with it and he hopes that it has landed lightly and that he has tripped all the right switches and none of the wrong ones. He wants his approach to be wary and yet sincere. He is prepared for a rebuff but is willing to take that chance, because the prize, we already intuit, is something he cannot be without, even as he concedes it as unattainable.

Is this too much to say yet? I don’t think so. The words on their own are ambiguous. It could be just a piece of empty rhetoric like you expect and get in lots of pop songs, a hollowed-out recollection of the feeling behind the pain. And yet . . .  the sincerity that rises from the clarity of the delivery makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that we are listening to someone confessing to a great love, but in a roundabout way that reserves just the merest possibility of a denial that we also intuit is vital to the dignity of the speaker.

The history, whatever it is, is telling him he can be prepared for a rebuff. 

I don't mean trouble, please don't put me down or get upset . . .   

We gain a greater sense here of what is at stake, the scale of the risk being taken. There has been ‘trouble’ in the past, bad trouble. She gets upset. Maybe she had a habit of putting him down, or at least this is how he chooses to see it. it may be tactical: He hopes that enough work has already been done to prevent any of the possible responses he has, in indicating them, hoped to forestall. But he has, or believes he has, some reason to hope: Is there some spark left that has been awakened sufficiently to leave aside, for a moment or two, the obvious reasons why no communication should even be contemplated?

 . . . I am not pleadin' or sayin', ‘I can't forget you’. 

A lie, two lies. He is pleading and saying he cannot forget her, but hoping that by saying it he renders it improbable that it’s exactly what he means. That is what he has come to say, or what he is rehearsing in his mind for the moment when he may get to deliver these lines for real.

I do not walk the floor bowed down an' bent but yet . . . 

There is a joke here, but without humour. The mood and the situation it relates to are too tense for laughter and yet there is a shared moment of laughter somewhere behind this line. He has strayed again into that irony they have possessed together. The line refers to a caricature of his personality — or just possibly hers — drawn from their period of  togetherness. It is a way of recasting his plea, so that it seems not so much a plea as a playful recollection.

He states his need, having prepared the way to make the statement ever-so-slightly deniable. He knows that his trick is unlikely to be missed, but it’s the nearest he can come to begging without self-abasement. She will know what he is doing but, because he has spoken within a code that belongs to them only, there is a chance that the chord will draw her towards him rather than repel her.

But then he rethinks.He has gone too far. The rebuff he anticipates may be inevitable. He remembers that she is wont — and is free — to live life as she pleases, and that this has implications which he must take into account. He seems to become conscious that any intimation of jealousy may present a problem, and he has to forestall that straightaway.

Even though my eyes are hazy an' my thoughts they might be narrow/ Where you been don't bother me, or bring me down with sorrow.

There is history here, probably bad stuff. He has in the past slipped the reins of his self-restraining powers. Maybe he’s just a jealous guy. But this confession is covered in a rough blanket of self-parody.  

The line means something like:

‘This is just a polite, casual intervention. Not that bothered, really, so nothing to worry about. Just checkin’ in — unless, of course, you happen to be thinking along the same lines as I would be if I were serious, which of course I . . . may not be . . .’

Except that his choice of words, and the way he sings them, again suggests that he is, indeed, being brought down with sorrow. Behold the paradox: They are, from a poetic point of view, carefully chosen words; and yet, in the conversational context, they ask that they be heard as a succession of garbled thoughts blurted out on a sudden impulse. But really, of course, the plea is as carefully constructed as the poem, which is something we, the listeners, cannot miss. We are in the labyrinth of the mind of the character, which may be the same as the labyrinth of the songwriter, who may or may not be the ‘real’ Bob Dylan describing a process that is not imagined but the writing down of an experience he has had of his own mind.

Obviously, the ‘character’ is taking a punt and hoping there’ll be some reciprocation, but that’s not something he wants to say straight out. We can hear him saying it and yet he is not saying it. We hear it behind the words. We look into his two minds and reconcile what he says with what we have already gathered about his intentions. He’s not jealous, he says. None of it don’t bring him down ‘in sorrow’. But because he has uttered these words, chosen from among a range of possibilities, we glimpse the nature and depth of his sorrow and jealously, and something of the past that precedes it.

He goes further, much too far: 

It don't even matter where you'll be wakin' up tomorrow.

As if he could utter this without first thinking it. As if he could think of it without the thought consuming him completely. But there is a sting of judgment in it too, as well as possibly a pimped-up smear. He arrests the train of his tongue:

Mama, you’re just on my mind

A sense of exhaustion strikes us. Everything is coming out wrong, but he thinks maybe she knows what he’s saying, so it might still be okay. He has a sense of the simplicity of things: that really the only thing that matters is the plea. If she wants back what once was, then she’ll say Yes; if not, the rest of the words don’t matter anyway. And yet, the saying of them might allow enough of his sincerity to break through to make a difference, to signal his emergence from the masks of irony and detachment that might be part of the historical problem, whatever its deep nature.

Then, suddenly, he surrenders, as though he has intuited that his mission is futile. 

I’m not askin’ you to say words like ‘yes’ or ‘no’/Please understand me/ I have no place I’m calling you to go.

This may even possibly be spontaneous, a transcendence of manipulation. It is not merely an acknowledgement of powerlessness but, again, the demonstration of it. He shows what he seems merely to be saying. The sense of his weary awareness of the inadequacy of his every effort to clothe his begging in words tells us of the scale of his pessimism. There is nowhere else to go but deeper into his confession, deeper into the hopelessness that he now expects to resume. What began as a plea now becomes an almost final acknowledgment that their life together is history. 

I’m just whispering’ to myself, so I can’t pretend that I don’t know/Mama, you are on my mind.

This time, the final line is in the continuous present tense: you are on my mind. It is the true title of the song. There is nothing casual about it. He’s no longer hiding now. 

You are on my mind. You will always be. On my mind. For ever.

‘Whispering’ is exactly right. Except that he’s not whispering to himself exactly: He’s rehearsing to whisper to her. He’s going through all the feelings he can find in himself, all their contradictions as well as all their implications, in all their intensity and grief, following them to see where they lead, judging how things will look after it is all acknowledged and understood. And yet he is engaging with the subject of his plea as surely as if she were listening right now. But, listening in — eavesdropping. We already understand that this is the final rehearsal for a show doomed to be cancelled.

The harmonica comes in, lonesome as an unwitnessed rainbow. It is given a limited space in which to summon up the feeling that has so far only been gestured towards. It expands the meaning of the song to a breadth that, the way the words have been going, is impossible to state in any other way. When he uses it with deliberation, Dylan always plays the harmonica the same way, and for the same reason: to give time to think, to himself and his audience, to allow thoughts to catch up with feelings. It is never mere adornment. It is never a release. It always seem to repeat the song in another, wordless language that seems to ‘explain’ things a little better. 

But when the voice returns (in the Bootleg version — in most of the others the harmonica is part of a melange of instrumentalism at the end) it is with a new resolve. He has sung the requiem of their love and now prepares himself to turn and face reality without it. He does this in the conventional way, by straying into recrimination. He lets the mood of penitence and pleading slip. He wants her to think about what’s she’s let slip from her grasp. Does she understand what she’s thrown away? For his part, he has finally come to understand that his play has failed, that the history is too heavy and lingering for it to come to anything. A slight bitterness is present, but it is subtle and traceable to his passion, which by definition is a form of flattery. He knows all this. There is no toxicity, or not much — maybe just the toxicity of his knowingness. 

When you wake up in the mornin', baby, look inside your mirror/You know I won't be next to you, you know I won't be near.

That ‘baby’ is interesting and strange, especially in light of the ‘Mama’ of the title, the memory of which renders it something like sarcastic. It reduces her, reduces what they had — petulantly, perhaps, because he knows there’s no hope, no chance. She is like the others now. Or is he still trying? Is he trying to invoke the threat that is implicit in the idea that he has already begun to think less of her? Yes, there is again the merest ambiguous sense of an attack on her character, which he insists, in a sly and subtle way, is bound up for him with the way she was when they were together. It is disappointment as a loaded gun. And yet, there is also this tenderness, this feeling we get that his sadness is for her as much as for himself, a thought that redeems the line and him, which allows us to give him the slightest benefit of the doubt even as our sense of his duplicity grows stronger. But, then again, the hint of duplicity may be a function of his hurt, which somehow redeems him slightly too. 

Does she understand all this?

I'd just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear/As someone who has had you on his mind.

He grows smaller. It is, at one level, a defeated line, a further stepping-back from the hope detectable in some of the early verses and from the insinuated impatience of the recent lines. But there is also the bravado of the romantically dispossessed: No one will ever know her as well. Maybe it’s all been just an exercise in information-gathering, set off in a quiet, idle moment. But, by the way, does she know who she is as well as he does? Can she hope to exist without what they had? He’d just be curious to know her answer to that, and that’s all he really wanted to say. 

Except it’s not. What the song expresses is not a plea, but a ploy, and then a pulling back, followed by another plea dressed as a ploy. What he really wanted to say was something like the sum of all the foregoing possibilities and all the others as well, like a quantum theory of emotional responses in which each gambit follows an infinity of all possible trajectories, as though testing them, but the moves all together end up tripping one another up so that, in the end, only the straightest path reveals itself as possible.

On mature reflection, to say that this is Dylan’s best song would indeed be a ridiculous overstatement. Every song he has ever written might be called both his best and his worst, depending on the moment, the light and the speed. Just as the songs all say ‘too much and not enough’, they succeed by rendering audible as echoes how much they have failed to say. 

But still, it could seem to be his best song, because of something that is present other than the song, other than the idea of a performance. Something else is happening, something that arises as a possibility to some extent in every moment when a song is being sung but which here happens as the main event. This Something else is the way the song, as well as being sung, seeks to sing the intention behind itself, to coax or force its meaning out of a performer who knows what it is really about but knows also that the words don’t go the whole distance. It is not necessary for the song to be sung by its author for this to happen. The ‘intention’ of a great song is not something fixed, but something to be discovered, perhaps repeatedly and in different ways, because, though fluid and elusive, it exists as something concrete and real.  The ‘intention’ of a song is like the destination of each of us, unknowable but inevitable, and ours only.

Everyone has a song in them — if not to write, then perchance to sing. Any of us may have the potential to take a song that has never seemed great and make it so, for three or four minutes, to transform something that had seemed pedestrian into something majestic and true beyond what is ‘obvious’ in its words or notes.

The authors of songs sometimes do this with their own songs. But very often they don’t. They write something good or great or promising-but-not-quite-whole, and do their best in performance to take it over the line that nobody else can see. Sometimes someone comes along and finds something in a song that the author never imagined was there. 

Most of the versions of this song that Dylan has thus far recorded seem to be performed by someone who hasn’t the faintest idea what he is singing, as though the song was written by someone else and he kind of liked it but wasn’t sure why. 

But in this, the Bootleg version of Mama, You Been On My Mind — his first performance of the song, for all we know — something different and deeply unusual is happening: Dylan sang the song as it was born to be sung, but almost despite himself. And he did this at the very start, before all the mediocre, bastardised versions. There are different possibilities that might explain this, one of which is that there are two different Dylans, another is that the song was too heavy to be carried around.

The hypothesis here is that something in the song frightens him, so that all the subsequent versions of the song he did were distractions from this one. It reminds me a little of some of the questions I have about my father, who as a young left his home in Sligo — at the heart of what is called Yeats Country, one of the most beautiful places in all of creation — and refused to go back. I believe the reasons he never went back might be akin to the reasons Dylan never again sang this song the way he had sung it the first time: because it became too real to bear, too raw, too much. And this thought prompts another: that for al the emotions and thoughts about emotions to be found in his songs, Dylan himself but rarely exposes his feelings in public, but sings the songs without allowing them to sing him.

In this, the original version, he has sung the song to himself. He has gone to the crossroads where the song was conceived. It is as though the idea of singing the song like this has just occurred to him, and he is aware of the heaviness it brings about in him but has decided, on an impulse, to let it happen, to let the song sing him in terms of his mindset and intention in writing it, to re-enter the process of writing it, but this time as a singer, to let the song rediscover in him the feelings it grew from. He has re-entered the moment of the song’s creation and stayed right to the end, pursuing each and every one of the loops of involution from which it emerged, feeling each line without avoidance. He has done something that cannot be improved upon, that cannot be repeated. It is hardly surprising that he subsequently treated the song with such casual disrespect, for what more was there to be found in it by anyone?

But the song also has too much greatness to be sung like this not just more than once but many times, every night, year after year. Not even Joe Cocker could have handled it. Dylan knows that all his best songs become hollowed out like this, so he has to go away periodically, learn a new trick, apply it to everything and start over. But with this song, it is all already done. All that is left to it, to him, is to play it as an interlude between apparently heavier songs. A throwaway, something that passes for light when of its essence it is all shade.

At the very end of the recording, as the final guitar chords slow to a standstill, a cough can be heard — a cough that is almost too tight to the final notes to be edited out without leaving a scar. It might be someone in the recording booth with Dylan or it might be Dylan himself. Either way, it fits, because, aside from conveying a slight sense of unease, if not awkwardness, in what the song has exposed, it hints at something akin to the sound a full stop might make if full stops were in the business of making sounds.

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