This record was something of a comeback record for Dylan, who had released two rather unexpected albums previous to its release. The first was Nashville Skyline, which was a collection of short country songs sung in a voice that very few immediately recognized as Dylan the singer. And then he released Self Portrait, an album that few would recognize as coming from Dylan the songwriter.
But all the while, Dylan had other things on his mind. One was trying to figure out how to stop being Bob Dylan as other people understood him. And this song would be one his most revealing to date on this score.
Dylan had spent a good deal of his career avoiding his responsibilities as a spokesman for his generation. He avoided accepting the mantle for folk music messiash, and had the nerve to change stylistic tacks as well by trading coffeehouses and hootenannies for amplifiers and backing bands. A 1966 motorcycle accident sidelined him. And he used this event both to recover, and to retreat into family life. He’d married Sara Lowndes the year before. And by the time he recorded New Morning, he had four kids.
For me, the key line in this song is this:
The man in me will hide sometimes/To keep from being seen/That’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine.
That line answers a million music journalists’ questions about why Dylan plays things so close to his chest even today. And it’s also one of the lines that makes this yet another example of Dylan’s skill at writing love songs. It’s an intimate line that captures the complexity of love when the emotionally constipated are involved, or when circumstances are against their chances of success. Unfortunately, those circumstances were the ones pushing Dylan away from a normal life at home with those who really know him as a man, and toward the burden of being Bob Dylan the icon, the spokesman, the saviour.
It’s significant that this period in his life was one of the ones he decided to document his autobiography Chronicles, Volume One. It was during this time that Dylan fought for his own identity more than he had ever before, fighting against the expectations of fans, of his record company, and even his peers.
New Morning was a welcome return for Dylan who had come back on his own terms. This song, and many of the other songs on the album was a document of where his head was at, walking his kids to the school bus everyday, and trying to work as a professional musician like a dad going to work everyday, instead like the cultural avatar everyone wanted him to be. It would also be significant that his creative high point during the decade would not be in a family context, but rather in the context of a marital breakdown as embodied in Blood On The Tracks, a smash hit record which would eclipse the modest success of New Morning.
By then, Dylan was the lone troubadour yet again and the man in him remains well hidden to this day.
You can read the original Rolling Stone review of New Morning published in November 1970.
And of course, you can check out the new boxset Another Self-Portrait which is the new bootleg release of material Dylan recorded around the same time.