The Meaning Behind Bob Dylan’s Timeless “Tangled Up in Blue”

Bob Dylan explores the concept of time and the complexities of human relationships in one of his career-defining songs, “Tangled Up in Blue.” The song has lived quite a life since it was released in 1975. Dylan started writing it in 1974 after his reunion tour with The Band when he returned home to Minnesota. It’s one of the songs that wound up on one of his groundbreaking albums, Blood on the Tracks.

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Meaning Behind the Song

The song came to Dylan as his marriage to his first wife Sara Dylan was dissolving. But he also got artistic inspiration from another source: painter Norman Raeben. Months before he started writing “Tangled Up,” Dylan was taking painting lessons with Raeben at Carnegie Hall in New York City and was supposedly inspired by his teacher’s view of time.

“I was convinced I wasn’t going to do anything else, and I had the good fortune to meet a man in New York City who taught me how to see. He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt,” Dylan explained to Rolling Stone about working with Raeben. “And I didn’t know how to pull it off. I wasn’t sure it could be done in songs because I’d never written a song like that. But when I started doing it, the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks. Everybody agrees that that was pretty different, and what’s different about it is that there’s a code in the lyrics and also 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.”

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Dylan then translated that into the lengthy song where he seemingly takes on the persona of a wanderer. The first verse finds him as a man about to wed a divorcee as he heads to the East Coast. He later ventures down to New Orleans where he’s employed on a fishing boat and meets a woman in a topless place / And I stopped in for a beer.

She was married when we first met / Soon to be divorced / I helped her out of a jam, I guess / But I used a little too much force, are lyrics that seemingly reference his relationship with Sara, as she was married to a man named Hans at the time she met Dylan. The song ends years later with Dylan’s character still living his nomadic existence on the road. But me, I’m still on the road / Heading for another joint / We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue, he concludes.

“That was another one of those things where I was trying to do something that I didn’t think had ever been done before. In terms of trying to tell a story and be a present character in it without it being some kind of fake, sappy attempted tearjerker,” Dylan is quoted as saying in the 1987 book, Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock’s Great Songwriters. “I was trying to be somebody in the present time while conjuring up a lot of past images. I was trying to do it in a conscious way.”

Even though Dylan recorded it for Blood on the Tracks, that didn’t stop him from making tweaks years later. One version finds him replacing the original lines, And she opened up a book of poems / And handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet / From the thirteenth century, with And she opened up the Bible / And she started quoting it to me / Jeremiah, chapter 17, / From verses 21 and 33.

“I wanted to defy time so that the story took place in the present and the past at the same time,” Dylan added in Written in My Soul. “When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.”

“Tangled Up in Blue” was a critical success and is widely regarded as one of his best songs of all time. It reached No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975.

Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

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