DYLAN: How did he write “Tangled Up In Blue”? What were his inspirations for this song?


Dylan said that “Tangled Up In Blue” took ten years to live and two years to write. The song, written in 1974, is a fictional account of the breakdown of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, which ended in divorce in 1977 (they had married in 1965). It opens his great album Blood on the Tracks, which is often considered one of his 3 or 4 finest albums alongside Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde and many consider it his best. Dylan seemed a bit mystified by this, saying "A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It's hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know?"

The title apparently derives in part from Joni Mitchell’s most classic album, Blue, and as he was composing the final version (if any Dylan song has a purely final version since he often reworks lyrics), he immersed himself in Mitchell’s Blue for a weekend. Structurally, the lyric is in sonnet form, that is 14-line stanzas subdivided by rhyme into three quatrains, closed by a couplet. The sonnet is a challenging form, mastered by such poets as Shakespeare, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and one of Dylan’s key figures who he name checks in the song, Charles Baudelaire, obliquely on the album but occasionally reworked in concert:

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century

The 13th century is six centuries too early for Baudelaire, who was French not Italian, but he has also sung the lines as

Then she opened up a book of poems
And she started quotin' it to me
It was either written by Charles Baudelaire
Or some poet from the 13th century

(he has also sung the lines in reference to verses from Jeremiah).

There is so much to explore in the song, truly a masterpiece.



It’s an interesting question and in my opinion, not as easy to answer as one might think. The quick answer is Woody Guthrie. One can point to how Dylan dressed in his early twenties, that upon arriving in New York he overcame many obstacles to visit his hero in the hospital, the photos from his earliest albums, his song “Song To Woody”, how he sang on those first three albums, and the fact that he said of Woody, “You could learn how to live your life just from listening to his songs”. My favorite piece of evidence is his tour de force “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”: a long moving and powerful, poetic homage Dylan recited in 1963 at New York’s Town Hall.

The reason its not as easy to answer as one might think is because the question specifies “musical” inspiration. One of the components common to many fans of Dylan, is that, to us, his songs and his method of delivery seem to be more than notes, rhythms and melodies - that there is something about the experience that speaks to our world and our place in it that draws us in over and over. The untempered singing and playing, the wisdom of his observations, the way he weaves poetic and the vernacular together… Hardly any of that stuff is “musical”, and yet, without the notes, rhythms, etc., is almost nothing.

Some version of that, is what I think drew Dylan as a young man to the person of Woody Guthrie.

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