Bob Dylan's ''Highlands" - lyric analysis - Part 1
Dylan’s ‘Highlands’ – Lyric analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 1
‘Highlands’ is one of Dylan’s masterpieces, recorded in 1997 for the album ‘Time out of Mind’. The main theme of the album ‘Time Out of Mind’’ is movement. On the album the poet is constantly on the move to some destination. A destination which is sometimes undefined: ’I’m walking through the summer nights, the jukebox playing low’; ‘I’m walking through the middle of nowhere’. Sometimes this destination is more defined: ‘I’m trying to get to heaven’ or ‘’My heart’s in the Highlands’. It is all about movement. The album starts with ‘Love Sick’’:’’ I’m walking though streets that are dead’. The album ends when the poet has finally reaches his destination in the Highlands: I’m already there in my mind’. Physically he is still on his way, he is still in the flesh, but his mind is already in the Highlands, the place where he belongs, the only place left to go.
The song is in some sort of a way related to ‘Trying to get to Heaven’. There can be no doubt that ‘Highlands’ is a metaphor for heaven. Whereas in ‘Trying to get to heaven’ the poet is trying to deal with the troubles and woes of his wretched existence on earth – walking that lonesome valley, feeling bad – and only tries to reach heaven as an ultimate consolation, in ‘Highlands’ however, there is a much more positive notion. In ‘Highlands’ the poet is equally dissatisfied with his earthly existence but the prospect of his forthcoming life in the Highlands makes the song much more joyful and complacent.
‘Highlands’ may be regarded as Dylan’s final testimony. Dylan’s final testimony, not only of the album ‘Time out of Mind’ but of his entire works. When ‘Time out of Mind’ was released in 1997, seven years had passed since his last release of original material in 1990 when the album ‘Under the Red Sky was released. At the time in 1997 there was a strong sense that ‘this was it’ – it might be Dylan’s last album. ‘Highlands’ itself contributes to this feeling when Dylan states: ‘The party is over and there’s less and less to say’, apparently not taking it for granted that at least 3 albums would follow.
Although there is an outtake of the song which is even much longer than the final version which ended up on the album, the song is the longest Dylan ever recorded (16:31). The song’s title is borrowed from the poem ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’ by the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
The song is based on a simple blues riff. The riff is played the whole way through the song, creating a sort of hypnotic effect. It has no traditional chorus or a bridge. The song has 20 verses, five of which – including the first and the final verse – start with: ‘Well my heart’s in the Highlands’.
As said the Highlands is a metaphor for Heaven. Each of the five verses verse starting with ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’ first draws a picture of what sort of a serene beauty you may find in the Highlands and ends with the personal attitude of the poet towards the Highlands (Heaven) . As the songs progresses the poet gets closer and closer to the Highlands (Heaven) both physically and mentally. Below we will delve deeper into this.
The other 15 verses shoved in between deal with a lonesome, ragged, cynical, pessimistic, sometimes even whimsical pilgrim on his way to the Promised Land. He is a worried man with a worried mind. He is a man of constant sorrow, who is sick and tired of this life on earth and is longing for the end to come. His sense of humanity has really gone down the drain. Within these 15 verses there is a sort of intermezzo of seven verses. In these seven verses the poet finds himself in some Boston restaurant. These verses constitute a separate category within the song. We will talk about this later.
2. ‘The Highlands’ in more detail.
Let’s first discuss the Highland verses in more detail. The Scottish Highlands are famous for their beautiful, unspoiled, natural scenery. The Highlands offer a pristine flora and fauna, beautiful hills and mountains, canyons which are formed through a mixture of waterfalls. There is an abundance of wildlife: Otters, eagles, rabbits, swans deer etc. You are treated to breathtaking views of ancient pine forests, lochs, rivers and moorlands. This is reflected in the song: ‘Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air, bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow. The wind, it whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme, by the beautiful lake of the Black Swan. Big white clouds like chariots swing down low’.
In the Highlands the natural scenery is untouched by the hand of man. Way up in the border country, far from the industrial towns and cities, there is no pollution and smog caused by heavy industries. The twang of the arrow and the snap of the bow are reminiscent of ancient times, when there were no shotguns, and life was much less complicated and spontaneous.
In the mind of the poet, it is not far from the crystal clear fountains and rivers in the Highlands to the heavenly river as pointed out in Revelation 22:1,2: ‘Then He showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruits, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations’. The reason why the poet uses the notion of the Highlands as a metaphor for Heaven is that in Heaven, he is sure to find the same peace, serenity and purity, you may find in the Highlands.
Next time we will take a closer look at a number of verses portraying the poet’s estrangement and alienation on his way to the Highlands. Please leave your response to this article by pushing the button ‘reacties’ below and write your response.
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I'm with Kate, "There can be no doubt." Really? I have doubts. I don't think it matters at all what the poet intended to say, all we have is the music and lyrics. As a novelist, I pretty much agree with every interpretation of my work that is true to the text, because once it's out there it's not up to me any more.
All texts are subject to interpretation, but not all interpretations are faithful to the text.
That's the most an honest critic can say. Your interpretation seems faithful to the lyrics, but there's a vast number of possible interpretations that may be different from yours and equally faithful to the words.
Are you by any chance a professor?
— ccb29-12-2013 05:02
INMHO: "Highlands" is even less tolerable than "Ballad in Plain D", which I think I read is the one song Dylan regrets.
If it had to be made to bring about: "Ain't Talkin'" then it's awesome.
— brian29-06-2011 01:38
Whenever, in reference to Dylan, someone states "There can be no doubt that..." regarding the meaning of some lyric, it makes me cringe. This isn't Shakespeare. These are the words and images of a living person. If he isn't saying something literally it is for each of us to interpret. I find it the ultimate arrogance, to say what is in the mind of another. I have read so many pretty interpretations of Dylan's songs, and seen his own explanations are nothing like the learned scholar. At least wait till he's in the ground 50 years before putting ideas in his head! To me, One More Cup of Coffee evokes his relationship with Joan Baez. But I know it was written about a visit to a gypsy king!
— kate26-06-2011 09:12
every time i listen to 'Highlands' it reminds of what it must belike to be sitting near Bob Dylan, as if he were in a diner, orderingsomething to eat, chatting with the waitress. There is much humorin the lyrics, pure genius...he only lets us see what he wants usto see...and his music is the key to at least a part of the man.
— Todd Holden26-06-2011 03:14
the verse , the gardener is gone seems to go well well with this , As Mary thinking it was the gardener in John 20:15 Dylan say the gardener is gone . Yes He is gone and now this world is set for judgement. He will come back to judge all that reject His grace.
— kim hill25-06-2011 23:09
I spent a year attending school abroad in Oxford, England in 1971 - 72. Before leaving in the spring, I bought a train pass and traveled up the west side of Great Britain to Glasgow and Inverness, then to the western coast to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and then the night train into London. I had appreciated the beauty I had found in the English landscape, seeing what order generations of manicuring hands could bring, but the father north I went, the more my heart soared as I watched the wild, beautiful landscape appear through the train window. I have forgotten how thankful and at home I felt. People showed me great kindness in that week I explored Scotland on my own. Your analysis is tapping into that joy a 20 year old girl felt 40 years ago.
— Linda Whiteside25-06-2011 21:35
I hope you are well! I have always loved reading your material and have missed it for many years. I am so glad to have found this web page!
best, Peter Hyatt Maine, USA
— Peter Hyatt25-06-2011 16:19
I always viewed "ain't talkin'" as the answer to "highlands" in that the writer / protagonist comes down from the mountain top back to earth (or vice versa if you prefer). I've connected better with "ain't talkin'" ointhe past but will revist "highllands" again to follow along this discussion.:-D:-D- little neighbor boy
— little neoghbor boy25-06-2011 14:09
Hi. Interesting comments. I never liked the song that much. Or all of it. As for the Highlands I know Dylan had bought a home/castle in Scotland. So he must like it there. As for the diner he ends up in, it's just Dylan's experience cruising around on his own. He does that. He even records that in this song. It's the only song on the record I don't REALLY enjoy. I'm glad you also mentioned under the red sky. I like that record. Born in Time is one of his finer songs. Between those two records I'm sure there are many good songs written. But I think he went through a period where he was not appreciated and a period in which he'd lost confidence in who he was. Thanks for the essay. I'll reread it. John
— david desmond25-06-2011 13:38