The Meaning of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”

Many fans of Bob Dylan will tell you that “Tangled Up in Blue” is one of his finest compositions. As the opening song to his famous 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, it tells a heartwarming story of lost love and unlikely reunions over the course of a lifetime.

“Tangled Up in Blue” is fairly complex both in the story behind the song and the lyrics themselves. In this article we will give our best effort at presenting this in an easily digestible format that still gives justice to the immense power of this song.

“Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)

“Tangled Up in Blue” Origins

To understand the backstory to “Tangled Up in Blue,” we must look at Bob Dylan’s life during the time that the song was written. In 1974, Dylan released Planet Waves and went on his first tour in seven years, backed by the Band.

Following the extensive tour, Dylan’s first marriage to Sara Lownds, to whom he had been married since 1965, began to disintegrate. During this period, he apparently filled three notebooks with songs about relationships and heartbreak, and those songs became the album Blood on the Tracks.

Dylan recorded Blood on the Tracks on two separate occasions, including multiple takes of “Tangled Up in Blue,” some even featuring variations in the lyrics. Dylan has been known to change up the lyrics over time, and this song became as much a piece of fabric from the songwriter’s life as much as it was a verifiable American classic.

He has often said that “Tangled Up in Blue” took ten years to live, and two years to write.

“Tangled Up in Blue” Lyrics Meaning

Lyrically, “Tangled Up in Blue” employs a narrative style that tells the tale of two lovers who were together at a young age and then separated due to life circumstances, only to unexpectedly find their way back to one another years down the line.

Here we will dive deep into Dylan’s seven verses and analyze the story being told, with relevant historical anecdotes along the way.

Verse One

Early one morning the sun was shining
I was laying in bed
Wondering if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was going to be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standing on the side of the road
Rain falling on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues
Getting through
Tangled up in blue

First verse to “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

Dylan wakes up in the morning, and remembers his love from years past. He wonders how she’s doing, and recalls the reasons why they broke up. It was a clash of families, with Dylan referencing homemade clothes and his father not having enough money.

Then he gives us the image of himself on the street in the rain. He’s going traveling, presumably to play music and make a name for himself. Looking back, he knows he’s been through a lot to reach this point, but he’s getting by.

The title phrase itself, “Tangled Up in Blue,” which is repeated at the end of each verse, means being surrounded in a sadness that is difficult to free yourself from. It’s like going through life with a dark cloud hanging over your head.

Verse Two

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out west
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walking away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday
On the avenue”
Tangled up in blue

Second verse to “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

This verse is based in real events from Dylan’s life. When he first met Sara Dylan, she was married to the NYC-based photographer Hans Lownds, although the marriage was not going well. Hans’ son, Peter Lownds, was cited saying that she left Hans for Dylan.

Dylan hints at using too much force, suggesting that while their relationship did commence, it may have started on shaky ground. Their relationship was intense, as signified by the image of driving fast, and it failed.

While their breakup was mutual, she looked back as he walked away to say that they would meet again. Hearing this, her memory and chances of reconciliation remained engrained in his mind as he went through life, thus why he was always “Tangled Up in Blue.”

Verse Three

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I lucky was to be employed
Working for a while on a fishing boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind
And I just grew
Tangled up in blue

Third verse to “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

Dylan headed up north, to the Northern Forest region of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York and got a job as a cook. He didn’t like it, and one day he got fired and headed south to New Orleans and got a job on a fishing boat.

The main point here is that Dylan is drifting through life without a purpose. He meets plenty of women, but none of them could get his lost lover out of his head. He simply became more and more “Tangled Up in Blue.”

Verse Four

She was working in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept looking at the side of her face
In the spotlight, so clear
And later on, when the crowd thinned out
I was just about to do the same
She was standing there, in back of my chair
Said, “Tell me, don’t I know your name?”
I muttered something underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit, I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces
Of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

Fourth verse to “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

One day, he stopped at a strip club to have a beer, and encountered his ex lover. She was a dancer, and in the spotlight she looked oddly familiar, but he doesn’t recognize it at first.

As the evening grows late, Dylan prepares to leave, and she stops him to ask if they know each other. He was nervous, and she bent down to tie his shoes. This line is vaguely suggestive, but either way it makes sense that he would be nervous when a topless woman dropped down below his waist to “tie his shoes.”

Verse Five

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue

Fifth verse to “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

Now, they’re at home, reminiscing on their encounter. She says how she noticed him and thought he would never gather the courage to speak with her.

The poet referenced here is likely to be Dante Alighieri, the most famous Italian poet of the 13th century. Reading the poems, he feels that their lives have been entangled for a reason. Almost as if fate has decided things for them in advance, and even a poet from long ago tells a similar tale.

Love and its complexities, the lyrics suggest, is a tale as old as time.

Verse Six

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafes at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when it finally, the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on
Like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue

Sixth verse to “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

This verse is the most confusing and abstract of the whole song, and many different interpretations have been suggested over the years.

The basis, however, is that more time has passed, and they find themselves on Montague Street in Brooklyn. This could be an autobiographical reference as Dylan did indeed live in the area during the 60s, when there was an air of revolution taking over the country.

Note that he says “them” and not her, suggesting that Dylan has moved into a sort of communal living space, perhaps with the woman from his past that was now a topless dancer and his girlfriend again. There may have been a pimp involved, who treated the women like slaves while running a prostitution ring.

Some interpret this lyric as a reference to Dylan’s neighbor who was reportedly a Southern Nationalist and Civil War fanatic, but it is more likely a continuation of the same narrative thread from earlier.

The pimp they live with makes things crazy and she has to sell everything and get out of there, perhaps because of outstanding debts or perhaps for safety. The experience is traumatic and causes her heart to turn cold.

This puts a strain on their rekindled relationship, and eventually things fall apart, and Dylan gets out of there once again, returning to his former nomadic lifestyle.

Verse Seven

So now I’m going back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
A-heading for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point
Of view
Tangled up in blue

Seventh verse to “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan.

After all that, Dylan still can’t get her out of his head. Somehow, he must find his way back to this woman. Much more time has passed, and the people they knew have moved on.

He doesn’t understand any of it, but he seems to have reached a point of acceptance, that he doesn’t have the answers nor can he get them.

Dylan is still living the same way he always has, touring and playing music all over the country. He knows that the feelings between him and his lover were mutual, but they had different perspectives on the world that caused things to not work out.

Thus, Dylan is always and forever resigned to being “Tangled Up in Blue.”

Bob Dylan Live Versions

While the studio version is exceptional, “Tangled Up in Blue” is also one of Dylan’s most performed songs, and hearing different live interpretations adds even more depth to the song. Especially considering the length of Dylan’s career.

“Tangled Up in Blue” (11/21/75)

This version was included on Bob Dylan’s 1975 live album, The Rolling Thunder Revue. Live at the Boston Music Hall.

“Tangled Up in Blue” (5/26/76)

“Tangled Up in Blue” (6/7/78)

“Tangled Up in Blue” (7/7/84)

“Tangled Up in Blue” (10/23/98)

“Tangled Up in Blue” (9/20/00)

“Tangled Up in Blue” (11/10/14)

Jerry Garcia Band Versions

While not quite a standard, “Tangled Up in Blue” has certainly taken on a life of its own over the years. Not only has Dylan himself performed and recorded multiple versions of the track, other artists have also covered the song, including a Mr. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who offered a number of different renditions of the track throughout his long career.

I’ve included a few of Jerry’s renditions below. In my opinion, these are much more pleasing on the ears than many of Dylan’s own live versions of the song. There is just something about Garcia’s guitar…

Jerry Garcia Band – “Tangled Up in Blue” (7/9/77)

Jerry Garcia Band – “Tangled Up in Blue” (7/26/80)

As mentioned elsewhere on this site, I believe this version right here, from the summer of 1980, is Jerry’s best performance of “Tangled Up in Blue.”

Jerry Garcia Band – “Tangled Up in Blue” (9/1/90)

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