Bob Dylan isn’t a fixture on the commencement-address circuit, but if he ever wanted an easy paycheck, he could begin with this list of the Top 10 Bob Dylan Lyrics. Any graduation speaker can quote "Blowin’ in the Wind" or "Forever Young" as a space-filler when they talk to the class of 2000-and-whenever. But Dylan has written plenty of wise life advice in his decades-long career as a songwriter. So, before you throw your silly hat in the air and make a total mockery of your college degree, check out what Dylan can tell you about the world. You might learn more here than you did in class.
"Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love)"From: ‘Empire Burlesque’ (1985)
“What looks large from a distance, close up ain’t never that big.”
For the leadoff track to Empire Burlesque, Dylan copped a fair amount of hard-boiled dialogue from old Humphrey Bogart movies. The above line actually comes courtesy of Gary Cooper in Now and Forever. Cooper was talking about cops, and Dylan is singing about a dead man’s final moments, but that doesn’t mean that the idea can’t be transferred to a less film noir concept. Perhaps the point is that anything (whether glorious or dangerous) is only as daunting as you make it.
"Not Dark Yet"From: ‘Time Out of Mind’ (1997)
“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.”
In his later work (Time Out of Mind was album number 30), Dylan has been as likely to dispense some weary wisdom in his lyrics as he is to tell an old joke. Listening to these records is kind of like sitting on the porch and shooting the breeze with your grandfather. You don’t know what’s coming next, but it’ll probably be good. Amid the atmospheric fog of "Not Dark Yet," Dylan delivers this basic truth about the balance of beauty and pain in this world. It’s something most artists know all too well.
"Open the Door, Homer"From: ‘The Basement Tapes’ (1975)
“Take care of all your memories … for you cannot relive them.”
Dylan wrote this tune as an homage to a nonsense song that dates back to an old vaudeville routine, "Open the Door, Richard," and recorded it in Woodstock in 1967 with the Band. As with other Basement Tapes material, the lyrics feature absolutely bizarre advice (flush out your house if you don’t want to house flushes) butting up against kernels of wisdom, such as the line above. So you can garner two lessons from this song: Take care of all your memories, and don’t believe everything you hear.
"It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)"From: ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (1965)
“It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.”
A handful of lines from this finger-pointing song could have made the Top 10 Bob Dylan Lyrics (including “money doesn’t talk, it swears” and “he not busy being born is busy dying”). But it’s the quote above that gets to the heart of the seven-minute masterpiece, in which a sneering Dylan spills his vinegar whine all over the falseness of modern society. This might be his least hopeful “protest song," but there’s a glimpse of freedom in the lyric – a reminder that you’re never as constrained as you might feel. Dylan would start his own mini-rebellion when he went electric the same year he recorded "It’s Alright, Ma."
"The Man in the Long Black Coat"From: ‘Oh Mercy’ (1989)
“Every man's conscience is vile and depraved / You cannot depend on it to be your guide when it’s you who must keep it satisfied.”
Just call Dylan the anti-Jiminy Cricket. But it's a preacher who delivers the advice in this mysterious and murky song (which was inspired by Johnny Cash’s "I Walk the Line"). People often say you should trust your instincts, your gut, your conscience – but what power do these things carry if you can thwart them with rationalization? Dylan doesn’t offer any easy answers. It’s a dark way of looking at things, but, hey, it’s a dark song.
"The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest"From: ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1967)
“Don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.”
This rambling country ballad stands out because Dylan spells out a moral at the end of the song. It follows the tale of the two title characters, one of whom leads the other into a house of ill-repute and, eventually, his demise. More than a decade before Dylan became a born-again Christian and began preaching on his albums, he was teaching about the fleeting value of worldly pleasures, be they money or sex.
"Mississippi"From: ‘Love & Theft’ (2001)
“You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”
One of Dylan's all-time brilliant songs, "Mississippi" has been interpreted as an allegory for the songwriter's entire career. The context only adds resonance to the above lyric. Disowned by folkies, put out of commission by a motorcycle accident, written off as a ’60s relic, ignored as a religious performer, dismissed as a writer who lost his touch – who has had more comebacks than Bob Dylan? As such, it’s an expression of life’s sweet, and sour, realities. You can always recover, but you’ll never be the same.
"Masters of War"From: ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ (1963)
“All the money you made will never buy back your soul.”
Dylan has had a few things to say about money over the years, and more than a few lines could have made our list of the Top 10 Bob Dylan Lyrics. The stakes seem to be the highest in ‘Master of War,’ making the manner in which some people profit (financially and politically) off of the anguish and deaths of others so absolutely horrific. But the lyric is just as potent out of context. Money is never a good path to salvation.
"Love Minus Zero / No Limit"From: ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (1965)
“She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure’s no success at all.”
This song was written about Dylan’s future wife (and also future ex-wife) Sara Lowndes. The lyrics praise her calm demeanor, often in phrases that appear contradictory – like in the line above. But it's far from nonsense. On the one hand, you can succeed in learning more about yourself and your craft when you come up short. On the other hand, you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve achieved something amazing if you have failed. We're sure there’s plenty of philosophy professors who could go way deeper with this one.
'The Times They Are A-Changin'"From: ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1964)
“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
Dylan was speaking to the generation gap in the ’60s when he wrote this timeless classic, pleading with the older folks to lend a hand or get out of the way. But this bit of wisdom is applicable in almost any instance, regardless of the times. Reserving judgment on the unfamiliar is a universal struggle, and keeping an open mind is easier said than done. But this gets to one aspect of Dylan’s songwriting greatness: He reflects the world as it is and, if we’re lucky, spotlights a better way forward.