Bob Dylan: 50 Proverbs for Our Time

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When I explained what a proverb was to one of my honor’s English classes a few years ago, I reminded them that such adages were verbal warning shots, sighs, clarion calls, or expressions of wisdom, which generally have a prolonged shelf-life, often lasting for more than a millennium.

Within each passage, I explained, one could find examples of values, moral behavior, the meaning of human life, and righteous conduct. After we studied both the Book of Proverbs and Poor Richard’s Almanac plus a medley of William Shakespeare maxims, the kids asked me if there was an artist in contemporary times who had generated a wellspring of modern proverbs.

“Oh, yes,” I replied, “Bob Dylan.”

Over the next week, my ninth-grade class perused through Dylan’s works and located 50 such classic axioms. Given where we are as a society in 2020, the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature’s takes on life in 2020 is “like a corkscrew through the heart.” Like all great parables, Bob Dylan’s are both timely and timeless. Here then, are those Golden 50 as selected by my class. 

  • There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.
  • Money doesn’t talk – it swears.
  • You can’t be wise, and in love at the same time.
  • With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow.
  • But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.
  • Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown.
  • Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?
  • Well, the moral of the story; the moral of this song: Is simply that one should never be – where one does not belong. So when you see your neighbor carrying something – help him with his load. And don’t go mistaking paradise – for that home across the road. 
  • I’m sick of love, but I’m in the thick of it.
  • All the money you made will never buy back your soul.
  • In the dime stores and bus stations, people talk of situations, read books, repeat quotations, draw conclusions on the wall.
  • You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
  • So many things that we never will undo. I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too.
  • Look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did. God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again!
  • Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.
  • But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
  • Yesterday’s just a memory; tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be. 
  • Steal a little and they’ll put you in jail. Steal a lot, and they’ll make you king.
  • How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
  • Time is a jet plane — it moves too fast. Oh but what a shame that all we’ve shared can’t last.
  • Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.
  • I hate myself for loving you.
  • I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.
  • It frightens me the awful truth of how sweet life can be.
  • All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now.
  • Beauty walks a razor’s edge; someday I’ll make it mine.
  • I paid the price of solitude, but at least I’m out of debt.
  • The guilty undertaker sighs. The lonesome organ grinder cries. The silver saxophones say I should refuse you. The cracked bells and washed-out horns blow into my face with scorn. But it’s not that way, I wasn’t born to lose you.
  • I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.
  • We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.
  • Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay; You can always come back – but you can’t come back all the way.
  • But if the arrow is straight, and the point is slick, it can pierce through dust no matter how thick.
  • Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.
  • In ceremonies of the horsemen, even the pawn must hold a grudge.
  • I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.
  • To live outside the law, you must be honest.
  • I see my light come shining, from the west down to the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.
  • Oh, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free!
  • When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing left to lose.
  • When your rooster crows at the break of dawn. Look out your window, ‘cause I’ll be gone. You’re the reason I’m travelin’ on.  
  • We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view.
  • In the fury of the moment, I can see the master’s hand in every leaf that trembles – in every grain of sand.
  • Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide – the chance won’t come again.
  • You put your eyes in your pockets, and your nose on the ground.
  • She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist – she don’t look back.
  • He who’s not busy being born, is busy dying. 
  • The future for me is already a thing of the past.
  • So many things that we never will undo. I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too.
  • When you cease to exist, then who will you blame? 
  • Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must.
  • I’ll always thank the Lord when my working day is through, I get my sweet reward to be alone with you.
  • Father of night, Father of day
    Father, who taketh the darkness away
    Father, who teacheth the bird to fly
    Builder of rainbows up in the sky
    Father of loneliness and pain
    Father of love and Father of rain
  • Father of day, Father of night
    Father of black, Father of white
    Father, who build the mountain so high,
    Who shapeth the cloud up in the sky
    Father of time, Father of dreams
    Father, who turneth the rivers and streams
  • Father of grain, Father of wheat
    Father of cold, and Father of heat
    Father of air, and Father of trees
    Who dwells in our hearts and our memories
    Father of minutes, Father of days
    Father of whom we most solemnly praise!
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One thought on “Bob Dylan: 50 Proverbs for Our Time

  1. “Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be. ” is one of my favorite quotes! I knew it was Bob Dylan’s, but these others are new to me. I’ve honestly never been a Dylan fan, but he’s certainly philosophical. What a fantastic assignment for your class!

    Like

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