Bob Dylan’s best songs: Dignity

bob dylan dignity

Of the virtues, I suppose I think integrity is the most essential. Not dignity – a thief can have dignity.
~Bob Dylan (to Barbara Kerr, Feb 1978)

‘Dignity’, which describes so resourcefully the yearning for a more dignified world, would have been the album’s [Oh Mercy] ideal opening track. It scorches along musically, declaring its allegiance to the timeless appeal of the blues, while sounding, above all things, fresh. Its lyric, meanwhile, though ‘Dylanesque’ in that it sounds like no-one else’s work and sounds like a restrained, mature revisit to a mode of writing you might otherwise call mid-1960s Dylan, is fully alert and freshly itself, admits of no leaning on laurels, and has the great virtue that while not every line can claim the workaday clarity of instructional prose, the song is accessible to anyone who cares to listen, and offers a clear theme, beautifully explored, with which anyone can readily identify.
~Michael Gray (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)


@ #43 on my list of Dylan’s 200 best songs. It was originally recorded for “Oh Mercy” in 1989, but Dylan wasn’t satisfied with it… and left it. Michael Gray points out that it would have been a perfect opening track to the album… way better than “Political World”… only thing missing was an instrumental solo in the middle.

I will not mess with too many details around the songs recording history.. even Clinton Heylin calls Dignity’s recording history a bit… messy….

Officially we now have 5 different versions available:

# released Album
1 1994 Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3
Brendan O’Brien remixed version
2 1995 MTV Unplugged
Live version
3 2000 The Best of Bob Dylan, Vol. 2
Touched By An Angel version*
4 2008 The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Piano demo version
 5 2008 The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Tell Tale Signs version2

* First released on the album “Touched By An Angel: The Album” – TV Series soundtrack compilation (1998)

Brendan O’Brien remixed version

All he [Brendan O’Brien] did for ‘Dignity’ was ruin it.
~Michael Gray

album-bob-dylan-greatest-hits-vol-3-us

Bad version.

Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel
Thin man lookin’ at his last meal
Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield
For dignity

Grooveshark:
Dignity by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

unfortunately “Greatest Hits 3” is not available on Spotify… 

“Dignity” is a song by Bob Dylan, first released on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3 in 1994. It was recorded during the Oh Mercy studio sessions but didn’t make it on to the album. The version released on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3 was remixed and overdubbed by Brendan O’Brien (who also played organ on the song on MTV Unplugged the same year). A new rhythm track was recorded and electric guitar and organ were added to the mix. The slide guitar from the original mix was mixed out.
Wikipedia

What I particularly like about it is the consis- tency of its conceit: Bob Dylan as Sam Spade, or any one of those hard-bitten, cynical LA-based private dicks, conducting his B-movie, film noir search through the corrupt world in search of the missing character, Dignity. I like the array of characters – all those sons of darkness and sons of light – typical of the wonderful supporting actors who people those films…
~Nigel Hinton

MTV – Live version

Bob Dylan - album-mtv-unplugged

Good version.

Sony Music Studios
New York City, New York
16 November 1994

Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?

A rehearsal video (not officially released):

O’Brien, for his sins*, got to reprise his new-found role at the two Unplugged performances in November 1994, when Dylan tried to inject half the life the song had formerly had for the benefit of the TV cameras, but with only limited success.
~Clinton Heylin (Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2, . 1974-2008)

*[referring to his “destruction” of Dignity]

Sony Music Studios
New York City, New York
18 November 1994
Second MTV Unplugged taping session

Met Prince Phillip at the home of the blues
Said he’d give me information if his name wasn’t used
He wanted money up front, said he was abused
By dignity

Grooveshark:
Dignity by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

 —

Touched By An Angel version

GREAT version.

..the unadulterated version… the incomparably best version.
~Michael Gray (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

bob dylan best of volume 2

..mercifully remastered, with the disco drums from an earlier compilation [Greatest Hits Vol.3] gone into the dumper. This version sparkles.
~Brian Hinton (Bob Dylan: Album File and Complete Discography)

Sick man lookin’ for the doctor’s cure
Lookin’ at his hands for the lines that were
And into every masterpiece of literature
For dignity

Vimeo:

Spotify:

Tell Tale Signs – Piano demo

Bob Dylan Tell Tale Signs Cover

Fine demo.

According to Clinton Heylin (Still On The Road) this demo was recorded late February 1989 @ producer Daniel Lanois mobile studio.

This version was also included on the promo cd for Dylan’s Chronicles:

youtube:

Spotify:

Tell Tale Signs Version 2

Annoying version.

Englishman stranded in the blackheart wind
Combin’ his hair back, his future looks thin
Bites the bullet and he looks within
For dignity

Grooveshark:
Dignity (unreleased, Oh Mercy) by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

Spotify:

 Lyrics

Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel
Thin man lookin’ at his last meal
Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield
For dignity

Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass
Young man lookin’ in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin’ through painted glass
For dignity

Somebody got murdered on New Year’s Eve
Somebody said dignity was the first to leave
I went into the city, went into the town
Went into the land of the midnight sun

Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?

Blind man breakin’ out of a trance
Puts both his hands in the pockets of chance
Hopin’ to find one circumstance
Of dignity

I went to the wedding of Mary Lou
She said, “I don’t want nobody see me talkin’ to you”
Said she could get killed if she told me what she knew
About dignity

I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me

Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
Have you seen dignity?

Drinkin’ man listens to the voice he hears
In a crowded room full of covered-up mirrors
Lookin’ into the lost forgotten years
For dignity

Met Prince Phillip at the home of the blues
Said he’d give me information if his name wasn’t used
He wanted money up front, said he was abused
By dignity

Footprints runnin’ ’cross the silver sand
Steps goin’ down into tattoo land
I met the sons of darkness and the sons of light
In the bordertowns of despair

Got no place to fade, got no coat
I’m on the rollin’ river in a jerkin’ boat
Tryin’ to read a note somebody wrote
About dignity

Sick man lookin’ for the doctor’s cure
Lookin’ at his hands for the lines that were
And into every masterpiece of literature
For dignity

Englishman stranded in the blackheart wind
Combin’ his hair back, his future looks thin
Bites the bullet and he looks within
For dignity

Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed
I went into the red, went into the black
Into the valley of dry bone dreams

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Some live versions are due…

Brussels 1995-03-23
Dignity by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

Brixton (London) 1995-03-29 – BEST version 🙂

….a “Dignity” that was one of my favourite performances of the year; … This visceral live version trashes all the officially released takes.
~Andrew Muir (in Razor’s Edge – about “Dignity” played in Brixton Academy 1995-03-29)

…Yet when he performs it feeling fully alive and happy with it as a vehicle of wide-ranging expressiveness, as he did in London in 1995, then it comes into its own again, leaving Brendan O’Brien light-years behind and re-attaining accessible eloquence, excitement and, yes, dignity.
~Michael Gray (BD Encyclopedia)

Verizon Theatre At Grand Prairie
Grand Prairie, Texas
1 November 2012

Check out:

-Egil

13 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s best songs: Dignity”

  1. Awesome post. For some ungodly reason I’d never heard the stripped down Touched by an Angel version. I remember when this song came out it was early infancy of the internet and I wasn’t yet aware of it and heard Brendan Obrien’s version on the radio driving one night and thought “Holy crap, Dylan has a new album coming out! This rocks!” I called the station and was informed it was for the forthcoming GHV3…

    I like the Brendan Obrien version, it still rocks after all these years. I’ve been lucky to see this played a number of times live. There was a great version he played from 03-06 that the band just tore into, long instrumental breaks, great peaks and valleys.

    Was it Paul Williams who describes this song as a murder mystery? I’m not sure but I recall reading some analysis that I thought was from him… The song opens up with a murder and the narrator spends the rest of the song hunting down this character Dignity that may or may not have committed or witnessed the murder…

    Thanks for putting this together. Finding

    1. Thanks for the great comment Daniel!

      You are quite right about Paul Williams…

      “…that the song could also be a murder mystery, with “dignity” the name of a person, the prime suspect, and thus the narrator a sort of detective tracking down the culprit (searching for Dignity as the fat man and wise man had been looking for his lower case, more abstract and less dastardly counterpart – another happy echo, again possibly quite spontaneous, in which case the craft of the author was primarily
      his agility at following the clues provided by his unconscious or Muse or intuition).”
      ~Paul Williams (BD Performing Artist 3)

  2. This is a song that eats itself alive like a dragon devouring its own tail: only dignity can find dignity. Dignity always looks in the mirror; that is where it finds itself. The song “opens up” by looking at itself, driving lyrics in which the “I” (eye) of the singer looks within and without lyrics up against lyrics in which various third persons look at themselves, within themselves and at others. In this context it is useful to recall that the the backdrops for Dylan concerts over the recent past depict an eye (an “I”) looking outward as well as inward. This particular song draws its dynamism from the observation that only dignity can know dignity, that discovering what outward experience offers us always involves reflecting these inputs against what is inside us, the I becoming the Other by looking at itself in the mirror.

  3. I believe that the Greatest Hits Volume 3 version is not only unquestionably the finest, but one of his all time great studio tracks. Powerful is an understatement to describe it, and Bob would not have put it out if it hadn’t been the way he’d wanted to alter it and..freshen it up.
    Thanks for your passion, cool page.

    1. Thanks for your view Luke!

      I disagree.. I think the GH3 version is a really bad version of a GREAT song. But I enjoy hearing other people’s opinions.. & thanks for your nice words about JV 🙂

      -Egil

  4. I love Bob and his music has been a great learning and life-long soul searching experience for me, and it pains me deeply to have to say I believe he stole this song. I’ve looked through the evidence and I can’t help but conclude that “messy” is a huge understatement regarding the song’s history. To write this entire blog without more than a vague, scant mention, it can’t help but make me think of “people who should know better, standing around like furniture.” Sorry, it had to be said.

    1. Hi Steve & thanks for commenting!

      Interesting input… I haven’t read anything supporting your theory.. We all know Dylan (as most/all other great artists) are into “Love & Theft”.. but using the word “stealing” is in my view a bit over the line…

      -Egil

    2. Bob Dylan is part of an old tradition that borrows heavily from those that have sung before them. Many of his songs are songs that consists of verses and melodies from “the folk canon”. Check out my posts on Scarlet Street, Pay in blood and Tin Angel from his latest album, Tempest.
      In my view it isn’t stealing it is folk music and the dynamic life of songs.

      If you know something about Dignity that goes beyond this, please feel free to use this space to elaborate. We are very interested in Dylan’s work and it would be nice if you would give us some sources.

      ..but thanks for your comments it was interesting

      Kind Regards
      Hallgeir

      1. Oh yes, I’m very familiar and respectful of the folk tradition. Again, I’m a huge Dylan fan and if he’s within a hundred miles or two, I head to the show. I’m looking forward to a couple of stops on the next leg of the tour.
        Okay, I must say I find myself a bit confused, but the guy’s name is James Damiano, and I spent a lot of time watching youtube videos and reading on the subject a couple of years ago. He claims to have copyrighted the lyrics in 1988, several years before Bob. He actually sued and it went to court and Bob won out. I’d have sworn I saw a youtube video of him playing the song in public well before Bob’s copyright, but I cannot find it now. He actually has a website now and in reviewing it for this writing, I found it to be more the ramblings of a frustrated and somewhat lost individual. All of the videos (at his site and on youtube) are very poorly produced and organized (some I’d describe as inane, but some of the depositions are compelling), and I now find myself leaning the other way on this issue. Honestly, it was a tiring process the first time I looked through it and I don’t have the energy to reinvestigate it. I’d invite you to google it and check out the youtube stuff and see what you think.
        Me? I can’t get enough of His Bobness, and I continue to feel blessed to live in his age and be able to appreciate his art in living color…Take care and thank you for your patience and open-mindedness.

        1. Hi again Steve,

          I did some googling & reading (not much).. and my gutfeeling is that this is rubbish..
          Anyways.. interesting read about it.

          -Egil

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