Wandering and wondering in Don’t think twice, it’s alright

Few symbols are closer to American hearts and desires than the highway. Without the highway, those lines crisscrossing the continent, there would be no modern cities, no suburbs, and no American dream. Travelling is a poetic common denominator which draws its power as an image from the way we have imbibed from an early age its uses in stories, songs and poems. Which is why the highway is so important to the songs of an American writer like Dylan.

The road is a potent myth in American literature, from Whitman’s “Song of the Road”, to Kerouac’s “On the Road”, to Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory”, to thousands of folk and blues songs. It’s the most common theme in Dylan’s songs, so to understand Dylan we need to understand how he uses the myth, the musical and literary traditions on which he draws for inspiration, and how he has taken that symbol onto new…paths. The idea of freedom has been associated with America, and many American writers have dealt with this theme and its opposite. As Robert Butler writes: “A central quest in American life is for pure motion, movement either for its own sake or as a means of freeing oneself from a prior mode of existence…America has always set an unusually high premium on mobility. It is not surprising, therefore, that American literature is densely populated with …. fundamentally restless people in search of settings which are fluid enough to accommodate their passion for radical forms of freedom and independence. Cooper’s West, Melville’s ocean, Whitman’s open road, and Twain’s river are the mythic spaces that our classic heroes yearn for.”[1] Steinbeck wrote about Americans in his road story “Travels with Charlie”:

I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited.[2]

Pete Hamill wrote this about “Buckets of Rain” in the liner notes to the 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks”:

But a song which conjures up the American road, all the busted dreams of open places, boxcars, the Big Dipper pricking the velvet night. And it made me think of Ginsberg and Corso and Ferlinghetti, and most of all, Kerouac, racing Dean Moriarty across the country in the Fifties, embracing wind and night, passing Huck Finn on the riverbanks, bouncing against the Coast, and heading back again, with Kerouac dreaming his songs of the railroad earth.

The importance of the highway in Dylan’s work has been recognized by several writers. As Louis Masur wrote:

By linking Dylan to Ellison, Melville, and Ginsberg, among many others, [Greil] Marcus reminds us that Dylan’s work must be seen as part of a larger project to grapple with the tensions and ambiguities in American culture. Key to that enterprise is exploring the dream of escape that is at the center of the American experience. “Unmapped country,” Marcus calls the contours of “Like a Rolling Stone,” “hanging in the air as a territory of danger and flight, abandonment and discovery, truth and lie”…[3]

But the way in which Dylan explores and expands the highway theme, how roads become lines, lines become different kinds of boundaries, how boundaries trap the traveler, and the tension between movement and being still has never been analysed in depth, and our understanding of Dylan’s powerful lyrics is the lesser for this. It’s also an image that binds his writing, from the early vagabond traveler, to the outsider, to the religious seeker on the ultimate road trip – trying to get to heaven before they close the door. And we’ll take a look as well at who “they” are who want to close the door to keep the traveler out. Let’s start with a review of the road in American literature, and then pick up on Dylan’s brilliant adaptation of this, and look at: how he uses the image of the hard road; the wandering outsider; the link between wandering and wondering and hard thinking on the road; the road as boundary; and other boundaries and traps which the writer has such difficulty going beyond in his quest to be still and moving – such as doors and windows.

American culture has many uses for the road, the highway and train tracks. American movies and literature obsess about exploring that “dream of escape that is at the center of American experience.” There is the road which ends nowhere – think the movie “Thelma and Louise”, where the two road characters disappear into space, or Huck Finn, which ends: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” At the end of the great American novel, the main character vanishes at the end of the road. In “On the Road” Dean Moriarty disappears across America again on the book’s last page. In Steinbeck’s the “Grapes of Wrath”, another road story where the Joad family travel from Oklahoma to California, we lose sight of the hero Tom Joad towards the end of the book.

Bruce Springsteen’s album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, a ‘90s remake of “The Grapes of Wrath”, depicts the ‘90s Okies who have lost their place in American society. Like Steinbeck, Springsteen writes about people who have nowhere to go. The title song starts:

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back

That grim picture of men on the railroad tracks – not even on a train for them to ride on – is complemented by the “goin’ someplace”, or nowhere to go. The rhyme on “back” takes us back to the railroad tracks, suggesting the railroad tracks aren’t going anywhere either. At the end of another song on “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, “Highway 29”, the central character goes the way of many an American hero or anti-hero and disappears:

The road was filled with broken glass and gasoline
She wasn’t sayin’ nothin”, it was just a dream….
I closed my eyes and I was runnin’,
I was runnin’ then I was flyin’

Going into the unknown is common in Dylan’s lyrics – “I’m heading down that long lonesome road babe, where I’m bound, I can’t tell.” from “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”. We’ll come back to that track.

Dylan picked up on road images from multiple sources, but perhaps originally from English ballads and blues songs.[5]  The road is so common in Dylan that there’s scarcely a song that doesn’t refer to the highway (“Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy”), the avenue (“We’ll meet again on the avenue”), crossroads (“From the crossroads of my doorstep”), the (railway) tracks, traveling or walking down the line (“I’m living in a foreign country, but I’m bound to cross the line’”), the path (“Though I’m travelin’ on a path beaten trail”), the train (“Some trains don’t pull no gamblers”, maybe because the highway is for gamblers[6]), the street, (nobody ever taught you how to live out on it), cars (“We drove that car as far as we could”), as well as other images of travelling (“I’m sailing away my own true love” and a “piece of an old ship that lies by the shore”), and maps (“you gimme a map and a key to your door”). As Scobie has written: “Images of travel are everywhere in Dylan’s songs, which are populated by roving gamblers, by young men on a train going west, by older men who have ‘been all around the world,’ by unknown riders approaching, and by singers bidding a ‘restless farewell’.”[7]

….“Wander” is a good word to describe the way Dylan writes about travel. It means to “move about without a fixed course” or to go idly about, like many of the characters in Dylan’s songs. But while those characters wander, they usually have something on their mind. Let’s look at Dylan’s use of wandering and wondering.

Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” is an early variant about the wandering creator. It starts:

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;

And ends:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood

Dylan’s 1974/5 song “Tangled up in Blue”, from “Blood on the Tracks”, neatly reverses Wordsworth’s order, starting with emotion recollected in turbulence, the narrator in pensive mood on his couch:

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’,
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all

And ending with wandering:

But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint

That tension between being still and wondering on one hand, and being on the road and wandering on the other, is a key one in Dylan just as it was in earlier Romantic poets.[8] It’s a theme I’ll come back to later in this chapter and what is, fittingly, the last chapter of this book, on time.

Dylan pulls off a sweet pun in his 1963 song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – “I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin‘ all the way down the road”. Is he wandering or wondering – Dylan’s wanderers do both? The song starts:

It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe.

She isn’t allowed to wonder, but he can wonder all the way down the road, while the narrator in “Tangled up in Blue” can not only sit, but lie and wonder:

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’,
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all

The English ballad  “Early One Morning”, another song about blame and lost love, and discussed later in this chapter in relation to “Tangled up in Blue”, includes the verse:

Here I now wander alone as I wonder
Why did you leave me to sigh and complain?
I ask of the roses, why should I be forsaken?
Why must I here in sorrow remain?

Henry Miller made a similar link in his musings about his trip to discover America: “It is only the wonderful traveler who sees a wonder.”[9]

Wandering, or moving about without a fixed course or going idly about defies social norms, which is what the outsider or traveler or stranger does. Outside of normal bounds, not following the rules, travelers and strangers are threatening. In Wordsworth’s “The Leech-Gatherer”, the leech gatherer’s continual wandering troubles the poet:

While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
The Old-man’s shape, and speech, all troubled me:
In my mind’s eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.

In Blake’s fragment: “Never Seek to Tell thy Love”, a poem I analyse throughout this book, the outsider is the traveler who steals love:

Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly.

I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart,
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears–
Ah, she doth depart.

Soon as she was gone from me
A traveller came by
Silently, invisibly–
He took her with a sigh.

Dylan’s also uses such outsiders, like the one in the long black coat:

Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town,
He looked into her eyes when she stopped to ask
If he wanted to dance, he had a face like a mask.

Off she goes with that traveler, and off she goes silently –

Not a word of goodbye, note even a note,
She gone with the man
In the long black coat.

Note he has been hanging around on the outskirts of town – and having a face like a mask can never be a good sign.


[1] (1998) Contemporary African American Fiction: The Open Journey. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson UP.

[2] Steinbeck, J. (1962) “Travels with Charley: In Search of America”. Penguin.

[3] “Famous long ago. Bob Dylan revisited.” American Quarterly 2007 vol. 59 (1), p. 176.

[4] Primeau, Ronald (1996) Romance of the Road. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, pp. ix-x, 1.

[5] For Dylan’s extensive debts to these sources, see Gray, chapter 9, and on the highway pp. 293-6. Dylan was also influenced by songs such as “Wandering” sung among others by Josh White Senior  – thanks to Gerry Beck for that last reference.

[6] Or because Woody Guthrie sang “This train is bound for glory”.

[7] Scobie, p. 32.

[8] For Wordsworth “couch” meant a place to sleep or bed. Ricks (2005) notes (p. 115): “But Dylan, as an heir of Romanticism (Blake’s and Keats’s, for a start), was sure to be drawn to imagine in depth those slothful-looking moods or modes that smilingly put it to us that we might put in a good word for them. Sloth is bad, but “wise passiveness” (Wordsworth) is the condition of many a good thing, including the contemplative arts in both their creation and reception.” Coleridge was apparently no slouch and could walk the 25 miles between his and the Wordsworths’ cottage in a few hours. But sick one time for three months he lay in bed, examining light as it passed through a glass prism. See Holmes, R. (1990) Coleridge. Early Visions. Viking Press. Whitman’s wandering is full of wondering, as is Van Morrison’s in “Sense of Wonder”. The Christmas song “I wonder as I wander”, was collected by John Jacob Niles in the 1930s in the Appalachian Mountains.

[9] From Henry Miller’s 1945 ‘The Air-Conditioned Nightmare’, quoted in Primeau, p. 36.

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2 responses to “Wandering and wondering in Don’t think twice, it’s alright

  1. Re William Blake Never Seek to Tell Thy Love
    Love Minus Zero would also suffice:
    My love speaks like silence/
    …She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful/
    Yet, she’s true like ice, like fire.
    with Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice thrown in.

  2. Thanks for your post, check out the book as there is a section called “Like ice, like fire” which traces the poetic use of the phrase, including by Frost.

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