She Belongs to Me

In March 1965, Bob Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home, the first of his albums to showcase electric instruments, unlike the solo acoustic work of his earlier albums. With a few exceptions, Bringing It All Back Home features electric songs on the first side and mainly acoustic songs on the second side. The second song of the first side of on the album is “She Belongs to Me”:

Sandwiched between two raucous rock ‘n roll numbers such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm,” “She Belongs to Me” does indeed have a full electric band accompanying Dylan, but it’s far from the loud and rowdy feel of those songs. It’s a gentle, almost country song, much like its sister song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” also on the electric side of Bringing It All Back Home. There’s a light touch to the rhythm section on “She Belongs to Me” along with the quiet, yet gorgeous lead electric guitar part by Bruce Langhorne. Langhorne’s contribution to Dylan’s work as well as his other musical endeavors were covered in a previous Recliner Notes post. Listening to “She Belongs to Me,” it’s easy to imagine what another of the love songs from Dylan’s earlier folk albums such as “Boots of Spanish Leather” would have sounded like with this accommodating, country-tinged band. Conversely, a demo of “She Belongs to Me” from the early sessions of Bringing it All Back Home has Dylan playing the song by himself with only an acoustic guitar. That solo version would fit seamlessly into 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan:

Back to the official released version, Dylan writes the song in a second-person point of view; there aren’t any “I statements” in the composition. This is despite the song’s title, “She Belongs to Me.” The song repeatedly refers to “you,” but the title suggests to read the song as having a specific narrator, “me.” In addition to that contradiction, it is an ironic title as evidenced immediately in the first line: “She’s got everything she needs.” This line indicates that the song’s subject is self-sufficient; she is not reliant on anyone in any way. The second verse continues in this vein:

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees.

Even though the song’s subject belongs to the narrator according to the song’s title, the narrator is enthralled by her to such an extent that he is willing to commit a crime at her command. The verse ends with the following lines:

But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees.

The sexual metaphor of these lines is unmistakable, demonstrating a servicing act on the part of the narrator. This position, in addition to the sexual overtones, is the same posture as one of worship. The narrator is down on his knees as an act of responsibility, but also demonstrating a method of devotion. This is clear when Dylan sings in the last verse: “Bow down to her on Sunday / Salute her when her birthday comes.” The possessive element of the song is exhibited again in the fourth verse as the song’s subject is described as “a hypnotist collector” turning the narrator into “a walking antique.” This woman hardly belongs to the narrator; in fact, the lyrics tell us that he is controlled to such an extent as to be hypnotized and owned as if a part of this woman’s collection of rare objects in complete fealty to her.

Many theories have been presented as to the inspiration of the song. Who enthralled Dylan to such an extent to necessitate such an ode? Speculations have included candidates such as ex-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, folk singer Joan Baez, Dylan’s future wife Sara Lownds as she was known at the time of the composition of the song, model and singer Nico, and others. That there were so many possibilities show that Dylan was involved with many women in that time period. Also, “She Belongs to Me” could be dedicated to a composite of some or all of these women. Dylan expert Clinton Heylin theorized that the song could be addressed to Dylan’s muse. The final lines of the song provide support for that argument: “For Halloween buy her a trumpet / And for Christmas, give her a drum.” Dylan is shifting the nature of his music from folky, acoustic protest songs to something new. Dylan acknowledges this change through the different gifts he offers from one holiday to the next. Regardless of the true nature of the song’s subject, Dylan’s felicity and exaltation is evident in the way he sings the song. His vocal delivery is quietly tender and the awe he has for her is revealed through the performance as well as the songwriting.

The 1967 film Dont Look Back directed by D. A. Pennebaker is a documentary following Dylan during his spring 1965 tour of England. Pennebaker was asked about the title of the film on the commentary track to the DVD release, and he said that it came from a quote from famed pitcher Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Pennebaker went on to say that “Dylan shared this view.” This is a possibility as Dylan is baseball lover, but it’s laughable to suggest that the film’s title came from any other source besides the line from “She Belongs to Me”:

She’s got everything she needs
She’s an artist, she don’t look back.

In addition to playing the song consistently during the tour being filmed, Dylan’s attitude throughout the movie reflects an artist who is looking forward just as the woman depicted in “She Belongs to Me.” He has just released Bringing It All Back Home, and, in the film, British fans and journalists ask him about playing electric music, and Dylan is, at times, both amused and frustrated by these queries. These emotions eventually turned to defiance on Dylan’s part as many in the folk music community accused him of turning his back on protest songs and being a traitor to the political cause. Pennebaker’s film depicted Dylan at a pivotal moment in his development as an artist, refusing to accept conventional wisdom and any sentimental viewpoints; he truly “don’t look back.”

During Dylan’s 1966 world tour in which he played a solo acoustic set followed by a wild, rock ‘n roll set with The Hawks, “She Belongs to Me” was the opener of the show and the first acoustic song as seen in this version recorded on May 17, 1966 and included as part of The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert:

The crowd applauds warmly as Dylan takes the stage, not knowing the shitstorm that is coming later in the show. This performance of the song features Dylan’s specific vocal delivery that can be heard during other solo performances of the 1966 tour. This can be seen in the way he sings the last line of the first verse: “Paint the daytime,” slight pause, “black,” adding a slight additional syllable to the last word. Similarly with the line, “Bow down to her on Sunday / Salute her when her birthday comes,” Dylan pronounces the last word as “cah-ums.” Both harmonica solos are stand-outs as Dylan takes us soaring through space and time during each instrumental break.

When Dylan returned to the stage again for the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival after his motorcycle accident and break from touring, “She Belongs to Me” once again served as the opening song:

Dylan was backed by The Band throughout the entire show, and in this opener — like the rest of the set — they sound like a good-time country band. Dylan’s vocal delivery fits the music as he utilizes his Nashville Skyline voice. The tempo of this performance is slightly faster than the studio version, and Dylan adds a word here and there to provide a different cadence to certain lines. For example, he inserts the word “just” to this line: “She wears an Egyptian ring just before she speaks.” These changes from the studio version provide a distinct feel to the poetry in this line and the rest of the song. Dylan’s reading is slightly more casual, but at the same time, celebratory. The merrymaking can be heard in Robbie Robertson’s almost honky-tonk guitar solo and especially in the rah-rah conclusion of the song. With the ending, Dylan sings the line, “For Halloween give her a trumpet / And for Christmas, buy her a drum” and repeats it again with Rick Danko chiming in with his always-perfect harmony vocal. Then Dylan yells off-mic, “One more time!” and he and Danko sing the line a last time as a grand finale. After the song is done, Dylan talks to the crowd, saying “Great to be here!” If he is nervous playing in front of approximately 150,000 fans, it’s not evident. In fact, the song, like the rest of the set, sounds like a big ol’ sing-along among friends.

In 1975, Dylan assembled a new band and touring company for the Rolling Thunder Revue. As a warm up to the tour, Dylan and company ran through an assortment of songs at S.I.R. Rehearsals in New York on October 19 and 21, 1975. These rehearsals were released as part of 2019’s Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings. During these rehearsals, Dylan and the band performed “She Belongs to Me” twice (neither of which are available online or on Spotify). The first features Dylan on piano, mutating the song into a slow, Chicago-style blues. Someone spits out classic blues licks on electric guitar during the extended musical intro. Dylan finally starts singing the first verse and provides a rewrite: 

She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist
She don’t look back
She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist
She don’t look back
She’ll take your body and take your Cadillac.

That last line perfectly suits the song’s new form as the song’s subject is sexually using up the narrator and, even worse, taking his car, a Cadillac as required by blues tradition. For the final verse, Dylan changes “Salute her when her birthday comes” to “Salute her when she comes.” Dylan finishes the verse with the following: “For Halloween, buy her a trumpet / And don’t forget to give me some.” With these adjustments, Dylan shifts the song squarely into the politics of the bedroom, making the hints of sexuality in the recorded version much more explicit. The narrator feels sexually bereft, drained, and desperate. The song breaks down before its conclusion, but there’s a lot of promise in this transformation of “She Belongs to Me” into a Muddy Waters-like lament on the nature of this particular woman.

The second performance of “She Belongs to Me” from S.I.R. Rehearsals in October 1975 sees Dylan back on guitar. He is singing the song in such a way to crack up the band as he starts off in a whispered, almost evil voice. He resumes his regular singing voice and rewrites the line “And paint the daytime black” into “Make the daylight crack,” a suitable and even apocalyptic alteration. A faint chorus is heard in the background, joining in with Dylan for some lines. There’s a musical break in which someone — maybe Dylan — says, “Here’s the harmonica solo.” Then someone — probably not Dylan — plays a harmonica solo causing everyone to crack up. The joy in the room is evident as it is throughout most of the performances at S.I.R Rehearsals. If Dylan is a walking antique, he is reveling in it with his band.

Dylan has an affinity for “She Belongs to Me,” especially during the so-called Never Ending Tour. Dylan has hardly left the road starting with the beginning of that tour in 1988, and, since that time, “She Belongs to Me” has stayed in regular rotation during his concerts. Perhaps Dylan has found the portrayal of the song’s subject is one that remains universal for him, no matter his relationship status. Or, maybe he finds resonance in the enduring lines of being an artist who “don’t look back” even at this late stage in his career.

Image: Juan Gris, Français : Portrait (Etude pour le Portrait de Germaine Raynal), 1912. Pencil and charcoal on paper. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “She Belongs to Me

  1. I tend toward the view that this song is about Joan, because of this stanza:

    She’s got an Egyptian ring
    That sparkles before she speaks
    She’s got an Egyptian ring
    That sparkles before she speaks
    She is a hypnotist collector
    You are a walking antique

    Bob actually did give Joan an Egyptian riing. She mentions it in her memoir, “And a Voice to Sing With,” and she can be seen wearing it in some photos from 1964-1965 and also, if memory serves, in the scene in “Dont Look Back” where Bob Nieuwirth shreds her verbally while Dylan watches and says nothing, and then she walks out of the room.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: