Bob Dylan's Masterpiece: "Blood on the Tracks"

Updated on March 10, 2019
Jean Bakula profile image

Jean is solidly in the musical Classic Rock camp. She also enjoys blues, Motown, acoustic guitar players, and idolizes Bob Dylan.


Favorite Bob Dylan Album

Blood On The Tracks is my favorite Bob Dylan Album of all time. Maybe it’s my favorite album of all time, period. I bought it when it came out on vinyl, in 1975. This album was something of a “come back” for Dylan, and was his fifteenth studio album. I remember listening, amazed at this new sounding Dylan, talking about personal issues in his own life, something unusual for a reclusive person.

This is the ultimate break up album. You can wallow around and listen to it for days. But it always ends with Dylan back up on his feet, ready to love again. These are the songs of a person who has endured terrible emotional wounds. It’s about a person suffering, confused, and exasperated about someone he loves and himself, feeling shattered about it. There is no other way to deal with all these emotions, except to try to turn them into something artistic. It’s about someone who lost a love, and lost a big part of himself along with her. He wants her back, but knows it can never be the same as it was, there is too much water under the bridge.

He takes us through his journey to forgive himself for what he did wrong, and try to make sense of life again. Many people consider this to be one of Bob Dylan’s best works of art. He seems bewildered by this, and has been known to reply, “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, you know, people enjoying that kind of pain?”

Shelter From the Storm

Bob and Sara Dylan's Divorce

Most people assume this album is about Bob’s divorce from his wife Sara, and their son Jakob Dylan attests to that. But I have heard other stories, and Bob himself has been known to say, “Everyone always thought it was about my wife.” Maybe he’s just being Bob, trying to be mysterious when nobody can solve the puzzle of who this person really is anyway. At any rate, when you take the album as a whole, it’s about a person who is possessed by someone he loves, and never really gets over her.

This is the thread that runs through all the tracks, and some truly do have blood on them. Bob's son Jacob swears this sounds like the arguments he overheard before his parents split up. Many of the women Dylan writes of seem to be a composite of every one he has loved. I suppose we should trust Jacob, and agree this album was for Sara, as they did stay together for another year after it was released. Too bad some of these singer/writers don't write the "break up" album a few years earlier, it could save marriages.

Bob Dylan and Ex-Wife, Former Model Sara Louwnds

I have never seen a picture of Dylan this much in love. I know George Harrison took many of the most personal Dylan pictures.
I have never seen a picture of Dylan this much in love. I know George Harrison took many of the most personal Dylan pictures. | Source

Some Information about the Songs on the Album

"Tangled Up In Blue" is the first song on Blood On The Tracks, and one of my favorites on the album. I've had this in album form, and several CD's have met bad fates in my car, but I love this album. Nobody can tell a story like Bob Dylan, and this one is a story many of us have been characters in ourselves. You are so crazy in love with someone that you are obsessed, you can't think straight, you chase them, catch them, break up with them when they make you insane, hate them, will do anything to get them back, then lose them yet again. You “split up on a cold dark night both agreein’ it was best.” Or a sad, dark night. He often changes lyrics while singing a number. It’s a never-ending cycle of pleasure and pain, feeling up and down, until finally one of you walks away for good. Or do you? You can run, but you can't hide, and you'll remember this person all your life. Maybe for you the cycle never ends.

Some people can stand that much drama in their love lives. But some have to accept that “we always did feel the same, we just started from a different point of view” and move on. That does not mean this soul mate, this person that feels like your reason for living, ever really lets you go. The problem with soul mates is that when you look at your other half, sometimes it forces you to see things about yourself you don’t really like all that much. It gets to be too much. “So now I’m goin’ back again, I gotta get to her somehow”. You know how it is, can’t live with him/her, can’t live without him/her. Bob knows. He’s been around the block a few times. Sometimes he sounds so old it’s as if he’s saying, “I’ve seen this hundreds of times, and know I’ll see it hundreds more. It’s all the same, and nothing I can do about it.”

More Songs From Blood on the Tracks

Why couldn’t it all just work out so both parties could be happy? “She was born in Spring, but I was born too late. Blame it on a Simple Twist of Fate.” By the time he gets to "You’re a Big Girl Now," he is still trying to decide what really went wrong. “Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast. Oh, but what a shame, that all we shared can’t last." Then he says, “I can change, I swear! Oh, see what you can do. I can make it through. You can make it too.” He wants to try once again.

In "Idiot Wind," Dylan is angry that stories about him are circulating in the press, getting the facts wrong. He was always reclusive and played games with the press. He is gleeful as he launches off on a tirade about what idiots these vultures are. They live for “images, and distorted facts.” Letting off some steam makes him feel “finally free.” He sings along in this vein for a bit, but then admits, “You’ll never know the hurt I suffer, or the pain I rise above. And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness, or your kind of love, and it makes me feel so sorry.” Just the weight of those thoughts makes me want to cry. They are so beautiful, and so true.

"You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" is anticlimactic; she really is gone this time, although he does not want to face this awful truth. He looks for her in different cities, hoping to run into her by accident, even though he rationally knows this isn't going to happen.

Some of These Songs Can be Found on Bootlegs

"Meet Me In The Morning" is a blues number, where he lightheartedly kids, “Honey, we could be in Kansas, before the snow begins to thaw.” But in typical Dylan style, he completely rewrites the song in a version available in The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3. In this changed one, he talks about telling the children that “Mother Took A Trip”, more in keeping with the assumption that Sara has walked out on him. Indeed, she did, at least for a period of time. It appears that while he was writing the material for what would become Blood On The Tracks, he stayed in touch with Joan Baez. But he has hurt her too much to allow her to make herself that vulnerable to him once again as well. Joan was probably the second most important love of his life, though he has been linked with numerous people.

The bootleg album 1-3 covers a few terrific alternate takes of "Tangled Up In Blue" where he changes around all the pronouns, a slow and acoustic "Idiot Wind" where he sounds tired, weary and sad, and "If You See Her, Say Hello", with many word changes in its verses. I heard this for the first time while shopping in a store called The Hippieshop, and ordered it as soon as I got home. It contains many gems, old folk and blues numbers not to be missed. Sometimes Dylan mumbles quite a bit, and when he goes acoustic again you can actually get all of the words. Of course, he will change them in another version.

Another Favorite Number

Another favorite of mine from Blood on the Tracks is "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" - this is a fun one. It’s a long tale about a festival, but amidst the goings on, the Jack of Hearts is drilling a hole in the wall to rob the local bank. Big Jim is a wealthy show off who owns the only diamond mine in town, married to Rosemary, who is tired of being his wife, and likely having a fling with the Jack of Hearts. Lily is "a butterfly" who is also having an affair with the Jack of Hearts, ready to run off with him after the heist. It’s not completely clear how it all shakes out, but it appears that Lily sets Rosemary up for Big Jim’s murder, Rosemary is hung, and Lily and the other members are waiting back in town for the Jack of Hearts, who “made off with quite a haul.” I suspect he took off alone without them, but the song is upbeat, and by this time, you need some levity.

Joan Baez's Life Long Association with Dylan

Joan Baez covers many of Dylan's songs, and does a fabulous job on this one in her beautiful, clear voice. His box set was a happy surprise for me, I discovered beautiful songs I never knew Dylan wrote. He gave away an amazing amount of songs to other groups too.

She also tells the story of their romance in her own song "Diamonds and Rust". She says Dylan called her from a phone booth in the Midwest (yes, in 1974 there were phone booths, no cell phones) and read her all the lyrics to "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," right after he wrote it. She says he sounded like he was “headed for a fall” and her song is definitely an autobiography of their on and off affair together.

In a You Tube Video, you can see much younger versions of both of them together, looking happy, singing, and Joan is holding up her left hand and sporting a large engagement ring. In "Diamonds and Rust," she sings, “Ten years ago, I gave you some cuff links. You brought me something. We all know what memories can bring. They bring diamonds and rust.” She also tells him if that’s what he’s offering her now, “She already paid.” A long time has passed, and now when she sings this song, its "40 years ago."This back and forth between them even in their songs continues until this day, and she often does great imitations of his "mumbling" in her songs. If you can't understand his lyrics, listen to Baez sing one of his songs, and it becomes more clear!

"Up to Me" a Song Not Included Which Should Have Been

There is also another gem that was obviously meant to go on this album, "Up to Me," but for some reason Dylan left it off. I wonder why, it sounds perfect and is in the same style. It can be found on the compilation of Biograph. This bootleg album has a lot of forgotten treasures and even songs that are Dylan's best. I didn't find it until I bought some older Dylan albums, and discovered songs I never heard before. If you love Dylan and don't have it, it's a great addition to your collection. And "Up to Me" fills in a few blanks in the BOTT album.

The End of the Marriage

In "If You See Her Say Hello," by now Dylan admits she could be anywhere, to tell her he’s alright—even if he isn’t. He respects her for breaking it up (whichever time) and understands where she’s coming from. He says “Look me up, if you find the time.”

"Shelter From The Storm," is a tune again written for a woman that evokes this image to him, “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm. Come in, she said, I’ll give you, shelter from the storm". It’s been said he rebelled against Joan’s attempts to care for him. Plus she wanted him to help in her anti-war work, and Dylan had to be free to write and sing as he saw fit. I guess he's not someone who really wants to be sheltered from the storm all too much. He wants to experience everything, and can deal with the emotional fallout later. Or as Baez expresses it in her song, “You burst on the scene already a legend, the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond, you strayed into my arms. And there you stayed, temporarily lost at sea, The Madonna was yours for free, Yes, the girl on the half shell would keep you unharmed.”

At last we come to the finale, a simple number, "Buckets of Rain." “Like your smile as it's on your lips, like the way that you move your hips, I love the cool way you look at me. Everything about you is bringing me misery.” And there the masterpiece ends, with Bob Dylan still feeling the pain, but maybe not quite so much now. The storm has been weathered, he found shelter from it, and moved on. You know, "Like a Rolling Stone."

The Bard Himself


New Release of Blood on the Tracks

It took until November of 2018 for the Bard to release the original version of his masterpiece. I listened to it yesterday, and was beside myself with happiness! All the tracks, plus Up To Me, previously unreleased, are in the original, acoustic version they were originally written in. Oh the joy, the tears! (the tears were mine). You can hear every emotion. It's called Bob Dylan More Blood, More Tracks The Bootleg Series Vol. 14. You must hear this!

This writer heard the story like this. When Dylan originally wrote BOTT, the first person he played it for was David Crosby, who was totally blown away. The album was all set for release. They Bob's brother heard it, and told him it needed to be redone. So they went back to Hibbing, and the rest is history.

It's a beautiful thing to hear all these songs in their unplugged purity. Bob can actually play the guitar! He sounds so sad and vulnerable, but the beauty and sincerity of his words is great. If you are a Dylan fan, don't miss this one.

© 2011 Jean Bakula


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    • Jean Bakula profile imageAUTHOR

      Jean Bakula 

      9 years ago from New Jersey

      You are very welcome. I loved it since the first time I heard it, and it stayed with me for all these years. Nobody can use words or say things in the way Bob Dylan does it, he reinvents language.

    • profile image


      9 years ago from Minneapolis, Minnesota

      Terrific hub. I would be a huge Dylan fan even if I weren't from Minnesota. Seen him live six times, and "Blood On The Tracks" remains my all time favorite. By the way, my favorite song on it, right from the first time I played it until now, is "Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts". I just love those story songs... "ballads" in the original meaning of the word. Thanks for this one.


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