A Note About The Interpretations

This is just a note to explain why I’m putting forward the sorts of interpretations of songs which I am, and how these might be seen in relation to other interpretations which people may feel sure in some sense are ‘right’. I hope I won’t be see as laying down the law; I’m fully aware that many people will disagree with me. But I thought it might be helpful for anyone interested enough, and befuddled by the interpretations here, to know what my approach is.

Essentially, I suggest, we might identify five levels on which a song lyric or poem can be legitimately interpreted. Although I’ll refer to higher and lower levels, this is just to differentiate them. I’m not necessarily casting aspersions on ones I label ‘lower’. Although it’s possible to come up with some sort of very crude rank ordering, it’s crucial to recognise that interpretations at every level have some value.  Rather than trying to assign relative values, it will often be more helpful to simply see a particular interpretation as corroborated by certain evidence from the work in question, but clashing with certain other evidence.  Nevertheless, for two interpretations supported by the same amount of evidence, if it can be shown that one ‘achieves more’ than the other, then there’s no harm in calling that the better interpretation.

By ‘evidence’ I mean whatever is in the work which becomes the basis of an interpretation. Any other evidence appealed to in support of an interpretation is to be treated as peripheral. It is the work which is being interpreted, and not these extraneous factors. This should not be taken as saying that the listener’s own experience is not relevant in deciding what a song’s about. It is. But what the listener brings by way of experience is just a way into the meaning and shouldn’t be confused with the meaning itself. Illicit evidence would include remarks made by people who know the author and claim to have an insight into his intentions. And it would include staements by the author himself. Michael Gray, in Song And Dance Man, usefully quotes D.H. Lawrence in this respect: ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale’.

And so as not to get embroiled in issues about what is to count as constituting the boundaries of ‘the work’, for present purposes I shall assume that the work under consideration is just the lyric, and normally in the form it’s published on Dylan’s official site.

So what are the different levels, or ways of interpreting a song?

1. First I’d include the very basic intimation we have on hearing a song for the first few times and knowing we like it. We might like it sufficiently to say how we rate it. And we might quote bits from it, finding them moving or sublime.  I happen to find the lines ‘By marble slabs and in fields of stone/ you make your humble wishes known’ very beautiful in a calmly disurbing way, but I’m not yet sure why. And many people are particularly moved by the line ‘The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face’. Our appreciation of a line is not to be disparaged just because we can’t immediately justify it, or deal with it in context .

2. Related to this view is the next level where we see parts of the song as having relevance to our own lives. Again, we quote – but the lines we quote are those which seem relevant to a particular situation. These lines we do understand, at least in isolation from the rest of the song, and they might well enable us to succinctly express what’s pertinent about the situation. Accordingly someone might use ‘Her profession is her religion’ as a way of characterising a colleague who takes her job too seriously.

3. The next level is one where we try to relate the song to events in the life of the writer. Again, just as at earlier levels, there must be sufficient evidence available from the work if the interpretation is to even count as legitimate. It’s not enough that someone known to the writer says it’s about such and such. Nevertheless a modicum of internal evidence might be available, say, for taking Visions Of Johanna to be about an incident involving Dylan and Joan Baez.  Some people have pointed to structural similarity between events in the song and the events making up such an incident.  Despite its technical legitimacy, however, I wouldn’t give much credence to this sort of interpretation. There are two reasons. First,  it could only be taken as applying to the very small amount of the song giving rise to it. And secondly, an interpretation limited to the trivially biographical would seem to be of little value in itself, and therefore to risk damning the song as trivial. Furthermore, such an interpretation will always pale beside one which can show the song to be of significant value (as providing an insight into human nature, for example).

4. After that, we have successful attempts to show how a sizeable amount of the work will support a particular interpretation. Although the interpreter is aiming to do justice to as much of the song as possible, he consciously avoids trying to make certain parts of the song fit the interpretation when it’s obvious that they’re unlikely to. But the interpretation he comes up with can be said to be legitimate with respect to the fairly substantial subsection of the song’s features which were taken into account. On this view the song ‘Tempest’ could be held to be about the actual sinking of the Titanic. The evidence is that the ship is mentioned by name, it sinks, the orchestra continued playing, many lives were lost, there are references to the film ‘Titanic’, and so on. The interpretation is legitimate, but only with respect to a certain fairly large body of evidence. It fails to take into account all the other evidence which might be mustered. This would include, for example, the fact that it’s a storm and not an iceberg which sinks the ship, the religious and other imagery, the behaviour of the watchman, the treatment of time and space, and even the song in the context of the album as a whole. Ultimately the song is no more ‘about’ the Titanic than Visions of Johanna is ‘about’ Joan Baez.

5. Finally there is the global level. Here an attempt is made to say what the whole song ‘is about’. In principle this could be successful – if the song is in fact a coherent whole. It’s possible that no interpretation will succeed in being genuinely global, though. There will often be parts of the song which don’t fit. In such cases the more modest aim will be to come up with an interpretation which does justice to as much of the song as possible. We may find more than one interpretation to be equally supported by available evidence, and in some cases there will be no way of establishing which is the superior. In those cases we simply have to accept that there is no one thing that the song can rightly be said to be about. The richer the song, the more likely this is to be the case. Nevertheless there’s no harm in making a global interpretation the aim, even if it turns out that the song or parts of it support a variety of interpretations.

On this site, it is the last of these types of interpretation which I am attempting – global interpretation. This is not because I think that such interpretation will be superior in all ways to those at other levels. Even if its being about the Titanic doesn’t fit into a global interpretation of Tempest, something can still be gained from taking it that way.  There are, however, several reasons for pursuing a global interpretation. First it’s likely to be more manageable. There are likely to be a colossal – for all I know, an infinite – number of interpretations possible at the lower levels whereas at the higher levels, where a lot of evidence has to be accommodated, the number will inevitably be more limited. Secondly, such an interpretation is likely to do more justice to the song as a whole, if it is indeed a unified work, simply by virtue of showing how a range of disparate parts are related to each other. Thirdly, one gets a greater sense of having ‘understood’ a song if one can say what it’s ‘about’, or what it achieves, as a whole – even though that sense won’t be altogether justified because of what’s been left out. While an interpretation based on limited evidence may occasionally be valuable in a way that a  global one isn’t, normally the value of an interpretation  will be proportional to the amount of evidence from the song which supports it.


David Weir 30.10.15
Updated 3.01.16