Dylan Often Sings About the Darkness He Sees: Insights on “Trouble”

“Trouble, trouble, trouble, nothin’ but trouble.”

Photo by the author

On The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan it was A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and it’s detailed one line descriptions of the troubles everywhere and all around, a branch that kept dripping, people whose tongues were broken, a clown crying in the alley, the sound of many people crying.

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Public domain

“All Along the Watchtower” opens with “There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief. “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”

His album Oh Mercy opens with “Everything’s Broken.”

And just as he’s sung frequently of things changing, so he also frequently sings this refrain as well, that sorrows are many and they are a recurring part of this life, in part because of injustice, in part because of man’s stupidity and inhumanity.

This song came to mind this morning when I read this story about the impact our current quarantine situation is having on Wisconsin dairy farmers . Restaurants are closed which means the cheese makers have, for now (and how long), lost a big part of their revenue stream.

“Trouble” may never be cited as Dylan’s greatest achievement, appearing as it does on Shot of Love, the last of his trilogy of albums during his “Christian period.” (I put that in quotes because the album is not the end of his writing songs expressing a Christian worldview or with spiritual underpinnings.) The song was performed only seven times in concert, and that was in 1989, two years before Shot of Love was released in the summer of 1981.

It’s fairly straightforward, opening with a sidewinding, scratchy guitar lick. There are five stanzas, each followed by the chorus, “Trouble // Trouble, trouble, trouble // Nothin’ but trouble.”

The first two verses focus on where the trouble is. City, country, in the water, in the air and on the other side of the world as well. Neither lucky charms nor revolutions are going to solve it, either.

Trouble in the city, trouble in the farm
You got your rabbit’s foot, you got your good-luck charm
But they can’t help you none when there’s trouble

Trouble in the water, trouble in the air
Go all the way to the other side of the world, you’ll find trouble there
Revolution even ain’t no solution for trouble

Verse three identifies some of the causes of these troubles. We could sum it up as “the world system.” I’m curious if the writing on the wall is a reference to the hand writing on the wall, interrupting King Belshazzar’s great banquet in Daniel 5. This is no doubt the source for the expression which people use to this day, but probably have no clue of its origin.

5 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking. — Daniel 5

Drought and starvation, packaging of the soul
Persecution, execution, governments out of control
You can see the writing on the wall inviting trouble

The next verse is a summing up of our existential reality. Looking backward in time our human situation has been with us from the beginning.

Put your ear to the train tracks, put your ear to the ground
You ever feel like you’re never alone even when there’s nobody else around?
Since the beginning of the universe man’s been cursed by trouble

In the end we look around and see masses of people just like us, and looking forward this doom-sense remains bleak looking forward as well.

Nightclubs of the broken-hearted, stadiums of the damned
Legislature, perverted nature, doors that are rudely slammed
Look into infinity, all you see is trouble

Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin’ but trouble

Copyright © 1981 by Special Rider Music

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Illustration by the author.

To avoid placing the absolute worst configuration on this song, one needs to remember its context. It was written in the period where he was writing “Gonna have to serve somebody.” What he is doing is laying an essential foundation of how bleakness the bleakness really is. This is what Sartre does with Nausea and No Exit. This is what Camus does with The Plague.

It is the starting point in man’s search for meaning. How do we respond? How do we find a basis for hope in this world where it feels like we’ve been abandoned?

The placement of this song on the album is interesting, the second last track on side two. The final track is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful songs from his catalog, “Every Grain of Sand.” In a sense it begins where this song leaves off, wrestling with despair. But he’s now in a different place, and it’s a song he went on to perform 185 times in concert, the last being Rome, Italy in 2013.

Related Links

Ode to Job
Fifty-One Years of Hard Rain
Dylan and 50 Years of Change

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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