Bob Dylan - Desolation Row - 1965


Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" from 1965: A Musical and Lyrical Exploration

"Desolation Row" is a song written and performed by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. It was released as the closing track on his 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited". This song is renowned for its vivid imagery, complex lyrics, and lengthy running time. Dylan's unique blend of folk, storytelling, and surrealism in "Desolation Row" has fascinated listeners and scholars alike. This aiMOOC will delve into the various aspects of "Desolation Row", including its musical composition, lyrical content, and the cultural context of the mid-1960s.

Historical and Cultural Context

In 1965, America was experiencing significant social and political changes. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and the Vietnam War was beginning to escalate. This period was marked by a sense of unrest and transformation, which influenced many artists, including Bob Dylan. Understanding this context is crucial in interpreting the themes and imagery in "Desolation Row".

Musical Composition

"Desolation Row" stands out for its acoustic simplicity and lack of a chorus. The song's melody is repetitive, allowing the focus to shift to Dylan's vocal performance and the lyrics. The guitar accompaniment in the song is primarily composed of simple chords, creating a folk-like, narrative-driven sound.

Lyrical Analysis

The lyrics of "Desolation Row" are rich with allegory and allusion, drawing references from a wide range of sources, including literature, history, and popular culture. The song's verses paint vivid pictures of various characters and scenarios, each contributing to the song's tapestry of social commentary.

Reception and Influence

Upon its release, "Desolation Row" was both acclaimed and criticized for its abstract lyrics and length. Over time, it has become a staple of Dylan's discography and a subject of academic study. The song's influence extends beyond music, impacting literature, film, and popular culture.

Further Reading and Listening

For a deeper understanding, it is recommended to explore other works by Bob Dylan, particularly from his mid-1960s period. Additionally, studying the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s can provide more context to the song's themes.

External links to learn more: MOOCit Wikipedia: Desolation Row

Interactive Tasks

Quiz: Questions on the song

What album features "Desolation Row" as its closing track? (Highway 61 Revisited) (!Blonde on Blonde) (!Blood on the Tracks) (!The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)

How long is the song "Desolation Row"? (Around 11 minutes) (!Around 5 minutes) (!Around 8 minutes) (!Around 15 minutes)

What is the primary instrument used in "Desolation Row"? (Acoustic guitar) (!Piano) (!Harmonica) (!Electric guitar)

Which of the following themes is NOT prominently featured in "Desolation Row"? (Romantic love) (!Social commentary) (!Surreal imagery) (!Historical allusions)

In what year was "Desolation Row" released? (1965) (!1963) (!1967) (!1970)

Quiz: Questions on the Performer

What is Bob Dylan's birth name? (Robert Allen Zimmerman) (!Robert Dylan) (!Bob Smith) (!Allen Ginsberg)

In which state was Bob Dylan born? (Minnesota) (!New York) (!California) (!Texas)

Bob Dylan is known for being a pioneer in which musical genre? (Folk and rock) (!Classical) (!Jazz) (!Rap)

Which famous music festival in 1965 was marked by Dylan's controversial shift from acoustic to electric guitar? (Newport Folk Festival) (!Woodstock) (!Monterey Pop Festival) (!Isle of Wight Festival)

Which Nobel Prize did Bob Dylan receive in 2016? (Nobel Prize in Literature) (!Nobel Peace Prize) (!Nobel Prize in Physics) (!Nobel Prize in Economics)

Quiz: Questions on the lyrics

Which literary figure is referenced in "Desolation Row"? (Cinderella) (!Hamlet) (!Odysseus) (!Hercules)

The line "The Titanic sails at dawn" in "Desolation Row" is an example of what literary device? (Allusion) (!Metaphor) (!Hyperbole) (!Simile)

Which of these lines is from "Desolation Row"? ("The circus is in town") (!"The times they are a-changin'") (!"How many roads must a man walk down?") (!"There must be some way out of here")

What does the recurring imagery of a carnival or circus in "Desolation Row" symbolize? (Social chaos and absurdity) (!Joy and entertainment) (!Childhood memories) (!Economic prosperity)

What theme is central to "Desolation Row"? (Social critique and surrealism) (!Optimism and hope) (!Romantic relationships) (!Travel and adventure)


Cinderella Literary allusion in lyrics
11 minutes Length of the song
Acoustic guitar Primary instrument
Newport Folk Festival Dylan's controversial electric performance
Nobel Prize in Literature Award received by Bob Dylan

Open Tasks


  1. Create a Playlist: Create a playlist of songs that capture the spirit of the 1960s, including "Desolation Row".
  2. Draw a Scene: Illustrate one of the vivid scenes described in the lyrics of "Desolation Row".
  3. Explore Folk Music: Research other folk songs from the 1960s and compare them to "Desolation Row".


  1. Write a Poem: Write a poem inspired by the surreal imagery in "Desolation Row".
  2. Analyze Lyrics: Analyze the use of literary devices in "Desolation Row".
  3. Study Historical Context: Research the political and cultural climate of America in 1965 and relate it to the themes in "Desolation Row".


  1. Compose a Song: Compose a song that reflects the musical style of Bob Dylan, particularly his work in "Desolation Row".
  2. Create a Short Film: Make a short film interpreting one of the verses from "Desolation Row".
  3. Debate the Influence: Host a debate on the influence of Bob Dylan's shift to electric guitar on contemporary music.

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Oral Exam

  1. Discuss Symbolism: Discuss the symbolism of the characters in "Desolation Row" and their relevance to 1960s America.
  2. Compare and Contrast: Compare "Desolation Row" with another Bob Dylan song from a different era.
  3. Explore Influence: Explore how "Desolation Row" has influenced modern songwriting and poetry.
  4. Interpret Lyrics: Provide your interpretation of the line "The Titanic sails at dawn" from "Desolation Row".
  5. Analyze Music Shifts: Analyze the impact of Dylan's shift from acoustic to electric guitar on his music and public image.

OERs on the Topic


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