Bob Dylan Countdown #116: “Forever Young”Posted: February 15, 2012
I’m a single Dad of a nine-year-old little girl, and nobody is more of a sap when it comes to discussing their kids than me. So I get why some people might be confused about Bob Dylan’s assertion that he didn’t want “Forever Young,” a song for his own children, to be sentimental. I mean, if you can’t get sentimental about your kids, then what can you get sentimental about?
More on that in a second. First let’s talk about this song, which stands as one of Dylan’s most popular, likely because of the subject matter and the accessible lyrics. You can keep the weird country rock version that crops up on Planet Waves. I do like the Biograph demo take, if only because of the vulnerability of the performance. But it is the first appearance of the song on Planet Waves that is the definitive version for me and, I suspect, for most fans.
This is the version where the alchemy created by Dylan and The Band is most evident on that album. That intangible relationship between singer and band is different here than it was on The Basement Tapes. Then it was a ramshackle, improvisational magic that arose, almost mystically, from those sessions. By ’74, it was more polished and professional, but, at least on this track, the soul was intact.
The Band could cajole more emotion out of Dylan’s lyrics than anybody else could. The instrumental passage that closes out the song, marked by Levon Helm’s fluttering mandolin, Garth Hudson’s watery organ, and Dylan’s impassioned harmonica is one of the most moving in the entire Dylan oeuvre. (Speaking of The Band and lullabies, you should check out “All La Glory” off Stage Fright, one of their underrated classics. I know, I digress, but you really should.)
Which leads us to the lyrics, and Dylan’s hard stance on sentimentality. Those of you with children know that the worst thing about having kids is the fear about the parts of their lives you cannot control. At times, it keeps me awake at night to the point where I have to forcefully think about trivial subjects before I can nod off. All I, or anyone else, can do, of course, is prepare my little girl for the hardness of the world. Ultimately, she has to experience it herself.
That’s where Dylan is coming from. He’s not so much making pie-in-the-sky wishes as he is giving prudent advice on how an innocent child can navigate the obstacles of the future. My child, not only do you have to respect the truth (“May you grow up to be righteous/May you grow up to be true”) but you also have to recognize it (May you always know the truth/And see the lights surrounding you.”) Not only must you persist against life’s many indignities (“May you always be courageous/Stand upright and be strong”) but you must make sure to never give those indignities the satisfaction of claiming your happiness (“May your heart always be joyful.”)
The simplicity of the wording belies the difficulties of these things actually coming to pass. When Dylan sings the chorus, there is desperation in the way he howls, evidence of a father’s helplessness coming to the surface. The sadness inherent in the realization that bad things will likely befall children at some point and time is palpable.
Knowing all of this, all parents can do is plead to a higher power (“May God bless and keep you always”) and hope those entreaties are heard. This song understands that parents need as much courage as their kids. It may not be sentimental, but it ultimately might be the most honest lullaby ever recorded.
My daughter’s too old for her Dad’s lullabies anymore, but back in the day, I use to sing her to sleep all the time. When I would look into those big, brown eyes and sing “Forever Young” to her in my best basally Dylan as she nodded off, I always appreciated the song’s honesty, even as the sentimentalist in me wanted to lie and tell her everything will always be all right.