The Mystifying Meaning Behind Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The story behind Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” is a perplexing one. The 1975 classic embodies a storyline that fans and critics alike have debated over the years.

While “Shelter from the Storm” plays as part confession or lesson learned, it also embodies a spiritual, existential, poetic rumination on love lost. Fittingly, some critics have compared the track’s depiction of love to that of poets W.B. Yeats and Rainer Maria Rilke.

So What Does It All Mean?

“Shelter from the Storm” is a complex song with simple beginnings. It was born from three chords, a clear melody, and a different song entirely. “Shelter from the Storm” started as a tune called “Up To Me.” During the recording sessions for his album, Blood on the Tracks, Dylan decided to rewrite the song’s lyrics. He kept the same soul-stirring acoustic melody, but recorded what would become “Shelter from the Storm” in its place.

Dylan was reportedly dealing with the separation from his wife and longtime muse, Sara Dylan, as he was writing much of the material for Blood on the Tracks. Many say “Shelter from the Storm” was inspired by their collapsing marriage. Others say dismissing the song – and the album as a whole – as merely autobiographical would do a disservice to the work.

Acoustic strums softly building from the void, “Shelter from the Storm” begins with a narrator, chronicling his past and what feels like another lifetime. It was a time of struggle until he encountered the elusive she. He sings:

‘Twas in another lifetime one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

After every verse, she always offers a safe place to land, a shelter from the storm. He could be burned out from exhaustion buried in the hail / Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail / Hunted like a crocodile ravaged in the corn, and she would still be there to give refuge. Because of this the narrator promises, I’ll always do my best for her on that I give my word.

To read this song as an autobiography, she could definitely be his wife, a woman he sought comfort in during his struggle through early fame. She became a shelter from the storm of stardom, a place where it’s always safe and warm. But halfway through, the tune begins to take a turn.

Now there’s a wall between us something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
“Come in,” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

The narrator took for granted the safety and comfort she provided. With not enough said and too much left unresolved, the narrator now finds there is something between them. Because his shelter is crumbling, he sings nothing really matters much it’s doom alone that counts. He has encountered the old men with broken teeth stranded without love and begs the question, is it hopeless and forlorn? Can a love lost be found again?

The song is peppered with religious imagery and subtle biblical references. He has lost everything. Like Jesus being stripped of his clothes and possessions, the narrator sings, In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes. The narrator begs for forgiveness and it proves futile. I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose / I offered up my innocence, I got repaid with scorn.

At the end of “Shelter from the Storm,” the narrator finds himself living in a foreign country, once again navigating uncharted territory alone. If he could only go back, turn back the clock and do things differently, he might still have his shelter from the storm.

Photo by PL Gould / IMAGES / Getty Images

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