By Daniel Tarade
One of the first songs that Bob Dylan wrote and recorded was “Song to Woody.” It was released on his debut album, Bob Dylan, in 1962 when Dylan was only 20 years of age. In some ways, the song was akin to the proverbial changing of guards, written after Dylan visited Woody Guthrie in a New Jersey psychiatric hospital, where Guthrie (aged 48) was dying from Huntington’s Disease. Dylan himself would become the most famous folk musician in the United States and an immense inspiration to musicians of all sorts. As one of only two original compositions on his debut album, “Song to Woody” provides an early indication of Dylan’s control over the English language and his ability to construct a compelling narrative. The song appears quite simple in its construction but his careful use of language conveys both a sense of reverence towards Guthrie and an appreciation for the uncertainty of life. Before delving into the lyrics proper, a quick note to point out that the title itself connotes a certain reverence. Rather than being titled "Song for Woody," which would suggest that Dylan's song was handed down to Guthrie from a position of privilege (whether it be privilege in knowledge or influence from which one could provide 'for' another), the actual title meekly suggests that Dylan is lifting the song up to Guthrie from a position of bended knee. More figuratively, the title hints that this, Dylan's first recorded composition, which borrows its melody from Guthrie's song "1913 massacre," is a step towards to the pinnacle of what Dylan could ever hope to become, which is someone somewhat reminiscent of Guthrie.
I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings
The first stanza provides a background of Dylan and his experience. His description of himself and his journey is passive. “I’m out here” suggests a lack of agency on his part, as if he was unwittingly marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean. “Other men have gone down” is an early introduction to the deference with which he will treat Guthrie, who is explicitly introduced in the second stanza. Dylan is not claiming to be breaking new ground but that he is merely and passively following in the footsteps of others. Dylan’s role as a passenger is enforced in the following two lines; “your world of people and things” and “your paupers and peasants…” Your is referring to Guthrie. Dylan is not claiming to be the first to observe inequality in the world but is instead acknowledging the role of Guthrie in opening his eyes to the world at large.
Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along
Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn
It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born
In the second stanza, Dylan’s guide is confirmed to be Woody Guthrie, his indebtedness to whom is being highlighted and delivered via song. In writing “seems sick an…” and “looks like it’s..” Dylan is emphasizing that he is inexperienced in matters and facts of the world but by his best estimate, the world is hurting.
Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things that I’m a-sayin’ an’ a-many times more
I’m a-singin’ you the song, but I can’t sing enough
’Cause there’s not many men that done the things that you’ve done
In the middle stanza, Dylan is at his most self-deprecating and his most reverent. A few of his observations are mentioned in the first two stanzas, albeit with qualified language. But here, Dylan makes clear that he is but a mere child in comparison to Guthrie, to whom he “can’t sing enough.” Dylan’s reverence is highlighted by his use of “know.” Guthrie not only “know[s]…a-many times more” but the only time in this song that Dylan acknowledges his own wisdom is with respect to the topic of Guthrie’s immense pool of knowledge. An allusion to Socratic thought; “I know that I know nothing.” For Dylan, he only knows that Guthrie knows.
Here’s to Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly too
An’ to all the good people that traveled with you
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind
To Dylan, an extension of his deference towards Guthrie also applies to his contemporaries; Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, and Lead Belly.
I’m a-leavin’ tomorrow, but I could leave today
Somewhere down the road someday
The very last thing that I’d want to do
Is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too
In the last stanza, Dylan is at his most cognizant, with respect to the uncertainties of life. His uncertainty extends to the time of his departure and his destination. The first two lines of the last stanza also ask to be interpreted figuratively, in that nobody truly knows when they are leaving this world and to where they are leaving.
The final lines of this composition are also, again, quite deferential, in its claim that “the very last thing” that Dylan would want is to for his song to be interpreted as an attempt to conflate his own journey with Guthrie, who has clearly done “some hard travelin…” The last lines nicely bookends the song, as his first lines mention the nature of his journey. For Dylan, “being a thousand miles from my home” is negligible in comparison to the journey undertaken by Guthrie and any construing of Dylan’s burgeoning career with Guthrie’s, now in its twilight, is akin to blasphemy.
The song becomes quite remarkable with the benefit of hindsight. Of course, Dylan has arguably become the most famous and influential individual in the American music tradition. Over the years, his compositions have become exceedingly ambitious, as he developed both as a describer of the “funny ol’ world” that surrounds us and also as a purveyor of normative claims. For an example of how quickly his songwriting advances, consider "It's alright, ma (I'm only bleeding)," written only two and half years later. A songwriting career with the most humble of beginnings.