The Secrets Behind Dylan's Songs

Clinton Heylin uses notebooks, session logs and scribblings to piece togther the stories surrounding Dylan's greatest compositions

Bob Dylan
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Bob Dylan
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The latest book by Bob Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin, Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan 1957-1973, tackles a seemingly impossible task: documenting the nuts-and-bolts creative process behind every song that Dylan wrote from 1957 to 1973. Using Dylan's own notebooks, studio-session logs, interviews and bootleg recordings, Heylin finds the inspirations and stories behind some of the icon's greatest compositions, debunking persistent rumors along the way. "There are two types of Dylan myths," says Heylin. "One is the myth that Dylan himself creates, and the other is the myth that fans create." Here are the tales behind five key cuts.

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," 1963
This protest song is about a Baltimore barmaid who died after being hit with a cane by a wealthy tobacco farmer. Heylin says that Dylan got nearly every fact about the event wrong — from the description of the attack to details of the trial. Heylin's research into other ripped-from-the-headlines Dylan songs ("Hurricane," "Only a Pawn in Their Game") revealed them to be equally erroneous. "He's very lucky that he didn't get his ass sued," says Heylin. "I love the song, but it's a shameful piece of writing."

Dylan's "Hurricane": A Look Back

"It Ain't Me Babe," 1964
Heylin knows exactly when this song, unlike most Dylan compositions, was written. "We have an original draft on hotel stationery from May 1964," he says. "And then he performed it for the first time two days later." Heylin got access to copies of Dylan's handwritten lyrics for Another Side of Bob Dylan and Blood on the Tracks, allowing him to watch the material take shape. "It's fascinating," he says. "It's a shame you can't do it for every album, but we should be grateful. We have more manuscripts for Dylan than we have for Shakespeare."

"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," 1966
The final track on Blonde on Blonde is a 13-minute tribute to Dylan's then-wife, Sara Lownds ("Lowlands" is a pun on her last name). Though on 1975's "Sara" Dylan sings about writing the song in New York's Chelsea Hotel, Heylin asserts that most of the song was written in an eight-hour stretch in a Nashville studio – while the hired musicians waited: "Bob was desperately scrambling around for words, while the band was literally playing cards."

Sara Dylan Files for Divorce

"Sign on the Cross," 1967
This seven-minute biblically inspired epic from the Basement Tapes is only available on bootlegs, even though it's one of the most acclaimed tracks from the Big Pink sessions. "They lost the reel it was on and found it years later," Heylin says. Will the complete Basement Tapes ever be officially released? "What worries me is that many of the master tapes are now owned by a Canadian fan of the Band," Heylin says. "He might be a prick and not give them up."

"Forever Young," 1973
Dylan wrote this sentimental tribute to his children while living in Arizona, where he moved to escape his rabid fans in New York. Heylin speculates that the song was written in response to a Neil Young tune. "The big song at the time was 'Heart of Gold,'" Dylan said in 1985. "[I'd] turn on the radio, and there I am, but it's not me." Heylin also thinks that the title is a pun: "Dylan's saying he's forever Young, which is a dig at Neil for imitating Dylan."

This story is from the April 30th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1077: April 30, 2009