Bob Dylan recorded all 11 songs on his fourth album — Another Side of Bob Dylan — on a single night, June 9, 1964. As demonstrated in the title, the songs reflected a shift in Dylan’s writing style. The writer Nat Hentoff was present for the recording of the album on that night in June and interviewed Dylan as part of a profile for the New Yorker. Dylan spoke to Hentoff about his songwriting approach for the album:
“There aren’t any finger-pointing songs in here, either. Those records I’ve already made, I’ll stand behind them, but some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard and a lot of it was because I didn’t see anybody else doing that kind of thing. Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know—pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know—be a spokesman. Like I once wrote about Emmett Till in the first person, pretending I was him. From now on, I want to write from inside me, and to do that I’m going to have to get back to writing like I used to when I was ten—having everything come out naturally. The way I like to write is for it to come out the way I walk or talk.”
One song that Dylan recorded on that night was “To Ramona”:
It’s a gorgeous and sweet song and a departure for Dylan, who had certainly written and performed love songs on his previous albums, but “To Ramona” is an experiment for Dylan. He was asked about the song for the liner notes of 1985’s Biograph:
“Well, that’s pretty literal. That was just somebody I knew. I think I’d played this for the first time at the Gaslight, probably after hours. There was a time when all the singers used to go there after their regular gigs and try out new songs and stuff.”
Commenting on the song more than 20 years after its composition, Dylan recalls the environment in which it was first performed as a showcase for new writing by songwriters. Knowing that, it’s easy to hear “To Ramona” as the product of a challenge a young songwriter might set for himself. In fact, the song includes a reference to the act of songwriting in the first verse as Dylan addresses the hardship in capturing a certain feeling:
The flowers of the city
Get deathlike at times
And there’s no use in tryin’
T’ deal with the dyin’
Though I cannot explain that in lines.
Dylan plays with the language of the song, trying out a different kind of imagery that he had previously used. As Dylan told Hentoff in the quotation above, he is attempting to use language in his songwriting that will “come out the way I walk or talk.” In addition to writing in first-person, certain expressions in the song reflect this goal such as these lines from the second verse:
But it grieves my heart, love
To see you tryin’ to be a part of
A world that just don’t exist
It’s all just a dream, babe
A vacuum, a scheme, babe
That sucks you into feelin’ like this.
There is a mixture of lines that one could imagine being spoken during a conversation — “It’s all just a dream, babe” — while at the same time sharing a more formal poetic expression: “But it grieves my heart, love.” Within these different modes, Dylan can’t resist a pun when utilizing the word “vacuum” and immediately saying that the situation “sucks you into feelin’ like this.”
Sometimes the language of “To Ramona” can be clunky. For example, the lines “Your magnetic movements / Still capture the minutes I’m in” seem like a forced alliteration with unclear imagery. Yet despite those awkward moments, Dylan shows beautiful compositional skills throughout the song. Immediately preceding the “magnetic movement” lines,” Dylan writes the following couplet: “Your cracked country lips / I still wish to kiss.” It’s a perfect representation of the “walk and talk” approach that Dylan is striving for while also having a poetic directness straight out of the best of country music. That couplet could be found in any of Hank Williams best songs. Another example of this mode can been seen in the third verse:
I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
By worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin’ and returnin’
On back to the South.
The rhyme of “mouth” and “South” is satisfying, precise, and demonstrates Dylan’s expertise in applying appropriate vowel sounds for his songwriting. The usage of “back to the South” as well as “cracked country lips,” in addition to being charming images, are also signifiers to the country music framework that Dylan is working within for “To Ramona.” Dylan recognized the experimentation he was pushing for within his songwriting at this time in the same Hentoff interview:
“It’s hard being free in a song—getting it all in. Songs are so confining. Woody Guthrie told me once that songs don’t have to rhyme—that they don’t have to do anything like that. But it’s not true. A song has to have some kind of form to fit into the music. You can bend the words and the meter, but it still has to fit somehow. I’ve been getting freer in the songs I write, but I still feel confined.”
Dylan has chosen a country waltz form for “To Ramona,” a first in his songwriting to that point. Tony Attwood recognized that the source of the melody for “To Ramona” is most likely “The Last Letter,” a song written and recorded by Rex Griffin in 1937:
“The Last Letter” is composed as a suicide note to a loved one who has left the narrator behind. Griffin sings, “I will be gone when you read this last letter from me.” It’s a heartbreaking song, filled with pathos in both the words and Griffin’s singing. Comparing “The Last Letter” with “To Ramona,” we can see how Dylan challenged himself as a songwriter to work within the form presented by Griffin’s song. The melody and the country waltz timing of the song are both in “To Ramona.” Though “The Last Letter” is a much more dramatic song with higher stakes than “To Ramona,” Dylan also borrows the device of addressing a specific person for his song. It’s beautifully rendered by Dylan in the song as he closes with the lines:
Just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.
Instead of lamenting a woman’s departure as in “The Last Letter,” the narrator of “To Ramona” is gently letting her go, recognizing that this may not be the right time for their relationship. However, the narrator of “To Ramona” knows that in the future, he may see it another way and return to Ramona. Dylan twists the form of “The Last Letter” and presents a mood of curious regret that could reappear and morph into a much deeper emotion in the future.
It’s interesting to compare “To Ramona” to another song that Dylan recorded in a later phase of his career, 1971’s “Wallflower”:
It’s another country waltz, sung lovingly by Dylan and impeccably accompanied by Neil Young running mate Ben Keith on steel guitar. This beautiful composition and recording shows Dylan creating a narrator similar to the one in “To Ramona,” addressing the song to a specific woman. The language in “Wallflower” is not elevated as in “To Ramona”; the latter song sees him pushing the country waltz form as a songwriter, whereas the former sees him writing to the form. In the previous Recliner Notes post, we explored how Dylan attempted to retreat from public life and how that desire is reflected in his songwriting. Dylan composed “Wallflower” during this same time period. It is an exquisite and pleasing song, but as Dylan is trying to escape from his own life, we can see from “Wallflower” that within his songwriting, he is also trying to escape within the form. This is in contrast to the earlier “To Ramona” in which he is still trying to challenge himself and stretch as an artist.
“To Ramona” never left Dylan’s repertoire as he returned to it in concert through all phases of his career. One notable performance is from Dylan’s big return to the stage, the 1969 Isle of Wight concert:
He performs the song solo and utilizes his Nashville Skyline voice, which is the ideal delivery for the song. He is in total command of the melody, treating it with tenderness and grace.
A performance of “To Ramona” was included on 2021’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York 1980–1985. This version was from a rehearsal on October 10, 1980 as a warm up for his fall tour that year. The addition of a mandolin for the song is a suitable touch. Dylan sings the song with the backup singers, though sometimes Dylan bows out and lets the other singers carry the song. When he does sing, Dylan delivers the melody and the words of “To Ramona” as if greeting an old friend. In this performance, it’s fair to wonder if Dylan is singing not to Ramona or another woman as a stand-in for Ramona, but if he is directing the sentiments of the song to the song itself. In every performance of “To Ramona,” it is obvious that Dylan loves the song.
Image: Anonymous, Fayum mummy portrait, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.