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Friday, 23 May 2008

Birthday Bob Taught Boomers How To Grow Old Gracefully, Not To Remain Forever Young

So another Dylan anniversary comes around, and no doubt Dylan fans everywhere will be playing his classic song Forever Young in his honour. Here then, are a few reflections on that timeless song and how its original message is often mangled, and even turned on its head.

Although Dylan successively negotiated the thin line between sincerity and sentimentality, the song was almost immediately turned by those who heard it from a father's pious wishes (or prayer) for his son into a mawkish expression of insincere sentiment on the part of young people for those of advancing years; like one of those horrible Hallmark Cards that say something like: "Happy Birthday, Dad! Seventy Years Young!"

This ghastly perversion of the song's original meaning reached a ne plus ultra level of well-meaning but mawkish sentimentality when the reformed Band (who, of course, with Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel in their fold took part in the original recording of the song for Planet Waves) recorded the song for their High on the Hog album, dedicating it to…the late Jerry Garcia!

So I'd like to take another look at the song and explain why it is the very opposite of sentimental, and shouldn't be used as an excuse to wallow in flabby, mawkish Peter Pan-ism.

Here first are the lyrics, reproduced here from for the purposes of study:

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young

Copyright © 1973 Ram's Horn Music

There we have it: just three short verses and a simple refrain. However, this simplicity should not lead us to suspect simplemindedness. Allen Ginsberg considered it one of Dylan's finest songs, recognizing in it the apparently artless but pure expression of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Dylan was quite clear of the dangers of expressing conventionally pious sentiment in popular song. In his interview with Cameron Crowe for the Biograph booklet he is quite explicit: "I wrote it thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental. The lines came to me, they were done in a minute. Sometimes that's what you're given."

The writing of the song may have been done with Dylan's habitual swiftness, but the recording process was very different. From Wikipedia:

After several false starts, Dylan and The Band executed what would ultimately be one of two master takes for "Forever Young." However, Dylan nearly rejected the performance after hearing some disparaging criticism from one particular visitor.

"We only did one [complete] take of the slow version of 'Forever Young','" recalls [Planet Waves producer Rob] Fraboni. "This take was so riveting, it was so powerful, so immediate, I couldn't get over it. When everyone came in nobody really said anything. I rewound the tape and played it back and everybody listened to it from beginning to end and then when it was over everybody sort of just wandered out of the room. There was no outward discussion. Everybody just left. There was just [a friend] and I sitting there. I was so overwhelmed I said, 'Let's go for a walk.' We went for a walk and came back and I said, 'Let's go listen to that again.' We were like one minute or two into it, I was so mesmerized by it again I didn't even notice that Bob had come into the room...So when we were assembling the master reel I was getting ready to put that [take] on the master reel. I didn't even ask. And Bob said, 'What're you doing with that? We're not gonna use that.' And I jumped up and said, 'What do you mean you're not gonna use that? You're crazy! Why?' Well, during the recording...[Dylan's childhood friend] Lou Kemp and this girl came by and she had made a crack to him, 'C'mon, Bob, what! Are you getting mushy in your old age?' It was based on her comment that he wanted to leave [that version] off the record."

Fraboni would defend the recording, and when he refused to relent, Dylan reconsidered and allowed him to include it on the album. On November 9th, Dylan held what he intended to be the final session for the album. From Fraboni's perspective, Dylan already had a perfect take of "Forever Young" from the previous day, but Dylan still attempted a different, acoustic arrangement, which was ultimately rejected. Dylan would tell Fraboni that afternoon, "I've been carrying this song around in my head for five years and I never wrote it down and now I come to record it I just can't decide how to do it."

Bob Dylan became a father for the first time in January 1966, when Jesse was born. Anna Lea followed in July 1967, Samuel July 1968, and Jakob in December 1969, which would postdate Forever Young's composition if Bob's claim to have been carrying the song in his head for "five years" before the Planet Waves sessions (November 1973) was literally true. This does seem a long time to put off recording a song that came to him so swiftly it felt like the gift of a higher power.

Perhaps in reality only the germ of an idea of the song had come to Dylan as early as that, and it was not completed until just before he made a demo of the song for Ram's Horn Music in June 1973. Otherwise it is difficult to believe that Dylan would not have attempted to record the song for so long, and would have included several inferior songs on New Morning instead. The latter album includes several songs that touch on the theme of fatherhood, so it can't be said that Bob was reluctant to think of himself in those terms or that the song would have been out of place on that album. New Morning even includes a prayer, which is what Forever Young ultimately is. Father of Night, however, with its evocation of oppositeis more of a Zen Buddhist prayers. (It could easily be a children's song, except there is a palpable moment when it turns from a song of innocence into a song of experience; namely the line "Father of loneliness and pain", at which point the song stops and there is a pause, not long enough to be agonizing ,but noticeable enough to be troublesome, before the final line of the verse brings the expected reassuring rhyme.)

Forever Young is more explicitly a Jewish or Christian prayer of the type known as a Benediction, pronounced by a priest on special occasions. By far the best known is the Priestly Blessing, which is based on Numbers 6:23-27:

The Lord bless thee, and keep thee
The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee
The Lord lift His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

In Orthodox Jewish tradition, only the kohanim (priests, direct male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses) can pronounce the Blessing, stretching his hands forth over the people. However, this blessing is also used by some parents to bless their children on Friday night before the beginning of the Shabbat meal. Some rabbis will say the blessing to a boy at his barmitzvah ceremony. Therefore in adapting the blessing for his sons (and daughter? the sentiments are strongly patriarchal), Bob was merely continuing the partial secularization of the priestly blessing that was already established in many non-Orthodox Jewish communities.

(On the other hand, a music concert is like a synagogue, or rather a cathedral, and the singer or star is the "kohen" or priest, extending his blessing to the audience/congregation. This is why the song is so effective in live performance, since for the duration of the show we all become Bob's children.)

"May your wishes all come true" isn't a bland statement, but a pious wish that every father makes for his children, even though he knows that nobody's wishes all come true (and therefore the father's wish is itself one that will not come true).

"May you always do for others and let others do for you." Ginsberg suggested (interview with Peter Barry Chowka in New Age, 1976) that this is "Dylan's hip, American-ese paraphrase of Christ's 'Do unto others . . .' But although the cadence is similar, the sentiment is quite different: Dylan wishes his sons to be helpful to others, but not too proud to accept help from others too.

The next line reminds us of the ladder Jacob dreamed of in Genesis whose top reaches to heaven. Dylan wishes his sons a ladder that reaches "to the stars"; but they will have to build it themselves, and climb on every rung. In other words, he does not want them to have any shortcuts to the top (riding on the coattails of their father's fame, for instance). But also he wants them to enjoy every stage of their ascent of the ladder, rather than just focusing on reaching the top.

The second verse is about the abstract qualities Dylan hopes his sons will have when they grow up. Note the deft shift from "being true" to "knowing the truth." Being true means being loyal (to one's family, friends, country, ideals etc.), while knowing the truth means not only being able to detect a falsehood, but (in a religious or philosophical sense) following the true path to enlightenment. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to see in this contrast between the ontological (being) and epistemological (knowing) Plato's contrast between right action and knowledge of the truth. The man who knows what is right, according to Plato's Socrates, will always do what is right. He who does what is right, however, without clear knowledge is in danger any moment of going wrong, and Socrates compares him to a blind man going along the right path.

"...see the lights surrounding you" is vaguer, but probably complements "…and let others do for you." Don't think you're all alone in this world, surrounded by darkness. Look around and see the light of others that will help you see your way along the true path. Courage, uprightness, and strength are traditional male virtues, which Dylan unabashedly recommends.

"May your hands always be busy"; because, as we know, "the Devil makes work for idle hands to do." This is example of Dylan deftly recasting a traditional piece of wisdom or an aphorism that has become a cliché in a new mold in order to make us think about it afresh. He does this elsewhere on Planet Waves: in Going, Going, Gone, "all that glisters is not gold" becomes "all that’s gold wasn't made to shine.

Hands lead naturally to feet, busy leads almost as logically to swift, with the same implication: don't be idle, don't waste your life doing nothing. But also there is the implication that if you do linger along the way, looking behind you instead of pressing on, you will find yourself left behind as time wreaks its inevitable changes ("He who gets hurt will be he who has stalled"). This thought is typical of Dylan, for whom the artist never looks back, and leads naturally to the song's most arresting image and a line that deliberately reminds us of at least two of the "young Dylan's" classic songs:

May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift

This reminds us not only of Blowin' in the Wind, but even more strongly of The Times, They Are A-Changin', when Dylan had been on the other side of the generational divide, warning the older generation to get out of the way of the new and to take care lest they sink like a stone as the waters rose around them. Now on the cusp of middle age and having learned that he too must make way for a younger generation, he reminds his sons that they too will need to be very swift and very strong to avoid being swept away in the changes they too will inevitably face. This is extremely important, because at first sight the Dylan who wrote "Forever Young" seems very different from the younger man who wrote "The Times, They Are A-Changin'." The latter song was embraced as a clarion call for radical social change, while the former apparently espouses very traditional sentiments. But the message of the two songs is really the same: accept change, but don't be swept away by it.

This became fully apparent when on his 1978 tour Dylan sung "Forever Young" and "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" back to back at the close of the concert. The two songs illuminated one another. It became clear that "Forever Young" wasn't a collection of patronizing pieties, while "Times" wasn't so much about social change and the sixties generation gap as the inevitable cycle of history, the whirligig of time that brings in its revenges, in Shakespeare's phrase. After all, the song seems to draw on Tennyson's beautiful lines from Idylls of the King on the inevitability of change and decay:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

The line it is drawn and the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'...

The phrase "winds of changes" is very beautiful in itself. The phrase originated in a speech by British prime minister Harold Macmillan in South Africa in 1960 that heralded a new era of decolonization. Macmillan's actual words were "The wind of change is blowing through this continent", but the phrase entered the popular language as "winds of change." Simply by making the second noun plural as well as the first, Dylan produces a wonderful piece of assonance and alliteration (since ds sounds very similar to the soft g in 'change', unlike the hard d in 'wind'), reinforced by the alliteration of w in "when the winds", so that the line first of all blows and then ripples as the vowels shift from e to i to a and then back to i again. In the Planet Waves recording (the slow version), Dylan further matches sound to sense by dragging out the vowel in "shift", so that it really feels as though the ground is moving under our feet. Has anyone else who has recorded this song been so alive to these nuances? Only Dylan, and perhaps only in that great recording Fabrioni so rightly cherished and championed.

It may be objected that "shift" is an awkward choice of verb, because winds don't shift: foundations do if they are not sufficiently strong, and sands shift in the desert winds. But somehow the line, perhaps because of the way Dylan stretches it out and animates it with his singing, seems to encompass all these meanings without conflict.

Finally we come to the line that fully encapsulates what the real meaning of the wish "may you stay forever young" encompasses. Dylan is not talking about being trapped in a Peter Pan type warp like those ageing baby boomers whose tastes and behaviour have remained perpetually adolescent, but about being "young at heart", a cliché that he, thankfully, deftly avoids, singing instead "May your heart always be joyful." Thus youth and joy are associated; and only with joy in our hearts can we still be youthful despite our ageing bodies.

Thus it is joyfulness, not retarded adolescence that the song celebrates. Dylan knows, like St. Paul, that when one becomes a man, it is time to put away childish things. In his albums from Nashville Skyline through Blood on the Tracks, he was the first of the rock generation to embrace middle age rather than resist it; something Mick Jagger has yet to do. He was arguably the first to sing about old age too, with grace and humour as well as regret and bitterness. Time Out of Mind seemed preoccupied with the latter, along with the physical decay attendant upon old age. Highlands paints a grim picture of an ageing, disconnected Dylan, shuffling his way along the street, talking to himself, and envying the young people drinking and dancing in the park, while for himself "the party's over and there's less and less to say."

Since that dark night of the soul, however, he seems to have rediscovered some of the joyfulness he wished that his sons would carry in their hearts all those years ago. So if you're celebrating Bob's birthday today, play one of these songs instead of "Forever Young", which is his song to us. For instance, play Floater (Too Much To Ask)

Young, old, age don't carry no weight

Or Mississippi:

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

Or perhaps inevitably, Spirit on the Water:

You think I'm over the hill?
You think I'm passed my prime?
Let me see what you got!
We could have a whoppin' good time!

Best of all though, play Summer Days, a song which evokes the spirit of the best known poem of the other Dylan (Thomas) urging his father to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light",

Well I'm drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say, "You're a worn out star"
My pockets are loaded and I'm spending every dime...

Now excuse me while I stand on the table and propose a toast: "To the King!"


Meg said...

On the subject of winds shifting: I've never thought of it as awkward because it's something we say all the time. Sometimes in regard to politics, it's true, but also frequently in regard to actual wind (e.g. the wind is shifting to the northeast at 20 mph). It's something we hear on weather reports all the time. Is that not the case in the UK?

LostChords said...

Thank you for the interesting article.

I must admit that I think "Forever Young" has more to do with song written by Meredith Wilson in 1940,
"May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You" (later recorded by Eddy Arnold et al.), although this one is obviously directed to a departing lover:

May the good Lord bless and keep you
Whether near or far away
May you find that long awaited golden day today
May your troubles all be small ones
And your fortune ten times ten
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

May you walk with sunlight shining
And a bluebird in every tree
May there be a silver lining
Back of every cloud you see
Fill your dreams with sweet tomorrows
Never mind what might have been
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

(Fill your dreams with sweet tomorrows)
(Never mind what might have been)
May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet again.

May the good Lord bless and keep you
Till we meet, till we meet again...

About Meredith Wilson:

raggedclown said...


I'm not sure I've heard it used 'absolutely' (i.e. without a predicate), perhaps only as 'shift direction.' I could be wrong there. But as I said, regardless of grammar, I think the way Bob uses it in that line leaves nothing to be desired.

Thanks for your comment!

raggedclown said...


You know I'm a great admirer of your writing on the Pool, but I can't agree with you in this case. If the Meredith Wilson song influenced Bob at all, it was probably only as an example of exactly what he was so concerned to avoid. Bob's sentiments are more Biblical, with one or two neat 'updates' (such as 'let others do for you' and 'may your hands always be busy' and the great line about the winds of changes) rather than mawkish pop cliché.

redkim said...


Thank you for this wonderful piece. Of course the first time I heard the song, Aaron's blessing came immediately to mind. I am also glad you addressed the "winds of change" line, which has become my favorite in the whole song. Sometimes we can listen to a song for ages and not really hear it until one day it hits us. This happened to me recently with that line. I suddenly realized that Dylan is telling us both in words and in singing that things change suddenly and the full impact of that line can only be experienced upon the playing of it.

As you rightly pointed out, only the sentimental will see the song as a plea to not grow old. Over the years I also have come to appreciate it and love it as a song that tells us to remain hopeful and full of wonder. This s why it is a masterpiece.
Thanks for "getting it."

Anonymous said...

[b]jackobob[/b] (who can't seem to sign in) said ...
great stuff r_c. but if you check i think you'll find rod stewart wrote the song.

redkim said...

No, Rod Stewart wrote a different song entitled "Forever Young". It seems it was also based on Aaron's Blessing

raggedclown said...

Thanks for your kind remarks, redkim!

You too, jackobob. By the way, you have to use html tags on here, not bbcode. Try angled instead of square brackets.

raggedclown said...

redkim wrote:

"Rod Stewart wrote a different song entitled 'Forever Young'. It seems it was also based on Aaron's Blessing"

jackobob is just pulling our legs, redkim. He knows very well that Rod Stewart's song is a different one. But not different enough for Dylan's lawyers. Bob and Rod settled out of court, as a result of which Dylan gets a co-writing credit on "Rod's" "Forever Young."

Burns said...

A most excellent and illuminating article..however,and it's only a small thing..Winds do shift.direction.....and I am sure that Dylan was very aware of the plight of the lone sailor on the sea,thus his injuction/hope/prayer that (y)our feet always be swift..a great song given a great treatment.

redkim said...


I'm glad jackobob was only kidding since I was worried for a while.

Oscar Montes said...

raggedclown: Now I understand why you use this nickname. You can't think on behalf of Bob Dylan, he's the only one who knows what this wonderful song is all about. He only catches the songs and lyrics and give them to the people who are the ones who can enjoy and identify themselves with it. I think you write a lot and say very little. I think you only reflect a kind of anger because you can't identify yourself with this great song. English is not my mother tongue but I have enjoyed this song twice live and there is one thing I'm sure of: Bob loves to perform this song and does it in very special ocasions like last one in my country last March 25th, 2008 in the City of Zacatecas.

Burns said...

Oscar,I really do not get your point. It is surely self evident to any and everyone who is in Thrall to Dylan that he and he only 'knows' what his songs mean. Yet one of the reasons that Dylan IS a Bona Fide Genius is that he seems to be able to touch on all human perception by just sketching circumstance with few words.
This is why there are so many interpretators,commentators and 'Bobcats' who, with grat pleasure.and some times angst.will sit all around the world discussing what 'precisely' he meant when he said 'climb' a ladder.not 'ascend' a ladder...................when people are brave enough, and I might add, good enough to post their interpretaions of Dyland songs.I think at the very least they deserve our thanks and tolerance.they certainly do not deserve your rather obscure and akward criticisms......and trust me, if you knew who I really was,you would appreciate how deeply I mean this. Ragged-Clown and I have bristeled against each other on more than one occaision.........but I can still see what worthwhile and what is plain negative.

Oscar Montes said...

burns, you're right. I was a little disturbed when I wrote what I wrote. Ragged Clown deserves my apologies. It's great that every person has a different perception of what Bob Dylan means with any of his songs. But there's something that frightens me: If I know who you really were? Jesus Christ! That is really awkward and obscure!

Burns said...

Worry not Oscar.nothing was,nor will be ,revealed. I think R-C will appreciate your post.mbbzz