Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” Was Inspired by This Unimpressed Musician

Great songwriters know inspiration can come from anywhere, even in non-reciprocal cases, like Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue,” a song inspired by a musician who would later muse they were rather unimpressed with the work—at least the second version, anyway.

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Although Dylan is famously vague about the specific meanings behind his extensive body of work, various interviews and conversations Dylan had throughout the late 1970s reveal the potential inspiration behind his iconic 1974 album ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and its enduring opening track: Joni Mitchell.

The Double Meaning Behind Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”

In the mid to late 1970s, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were reaching the apex of their folk-rock fame. Popular media often pitted the two musicians against one another, presenting them as two competing forces rather than contemporaries. Both prolific and verbose singer-songwriters in their own right, both artists would have skillfully hidden any direct cues they took from the other in their prose.

Take, for example, Dylan’s explanation of his ‘Blood on the Tracks’ opener: “There’s a code in the lyrics,” the songwriter told Rolling Stone in 1978. “There’s no sense of time. There’s no respect for it. You’ve got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little that you can’t imagine not happening.”

Dylan’s summarization of “Tangled Up in Blue” created more questions than answers, but he offered a more straightforward explanation to novelist Ron Rosenbaum. In a 2007 Slate article, Rosenbaum recalled a conversation with the “If Not For You” singer about Joni Mitchell’s magnum opus, ‘Blue.’ According to Rosenbaum, Dylan told him he named his opening track after spending a weekend diving deep into Mitchell’s 1971 release. The “blue” of “Tangled Up In Blue” wasn’t a metaphorical colorization of emotion; it was a subtle reference to a different record altogether.

The Album’s Final Version Disappointed Joni Mitchell

Bob Dylan might have told Ron Rosenbaum that Joni Mitchell helped inspire “Tangled Up In Blue,” but Mitchell didn’t feel like her inspiration was a welcome interpretation of the album. Never one to mince words about music or artists she doesn’t like, Mitchell recalled hearing a bootleg version of ‘Blood on the Tracks’ in the mid-1970s. “It was really good,” Mitchell said in David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter.

“But people said, ‘Oh, it’s like a Joni Mitchell album,’ so he went and recut it with his brother in Minnesota,” Mitchell continued. “They butchered it all up. They stomped all over it. But originally, the writing was different. It was more vulnerable, and the orchestration was subtle, very like when I was using just a little of that stuff to my performances. It was beautiful.” Mitchell loved it so much that she played the bootleg version for parties she held at her Laurel Canyon bungalow—including one Bob Dylan crashed.

Mitchell said that when Dylan arrived at the party, someone told her he wanted to see her. “The bootleg was still playing, and I said, ‘Why didn’t you put that out?’ And he said, ‘Somebody stole the tape.’ Which was not true. He chickened out. People said it was like a Joni Mitchell album. He took the vulnerability out of it, and in the process, he took the depth out. The New York sessions were touching. The Minnesota sessions were not touching at all.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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