Don’t think twice, it’s alright…except it isn’t. Especially to a Brit. We’re just putting a brave face on things.
We Brits spend a lot of time apologising for things that aren’t our fault. If you deliberately bump into a British person on the street, odds are they’ll apologise to you, not the other way around.
Social convention also dictates that if someone commits the most heinous wrong you can possibly imagine against you, the appropriate response is to give a half-smile to your nemesis and say “don’t worry, old chap, it’s absolutely fine”.
The “stiff upper lip” is one of those slightly old-fashioned cultural traits which is still highly prized amongst us Brits.
To be fair, we’ve had plenty of reason to call on that oh-so British stiff upper lip lately as our political leaders have comprehensively demonstrated to the world that none of them could even be trusted to run a corner sweet shop without a responsible adult present.
So I know Bob Dylan wasn’t channelling British culture when he wrote “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”…but he could easily have been.
Now, Bob Dylan wrote dozens of much more famous songs than “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. His 10 Grammys and his Nobel Prize for Literature tell you pretty much all you need to know about the impact of his life’s work.
Songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” deserve a Nobel Prize all of their own, in my view, even if he’d never written another song.
But out of all the great songs Bob Dylan has written and recorded over the last 60 years or so, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is by far my favourite…and not just because it reminds me so much of something a British person might say…
Once people become famous, and win awards like Nobel Prizes, it’s hard to remember there was a time before the whole world knew their name.
It can even be something of a surprise to discover that some of the greatest works of a now-internationally renowned individual were largely ignored when they were first offered to the public.
But…and this might astonish you…back in 1963 when the youthful Bob Dylan released “Blowin’ In The Wind”, nobody cared. It didn’t make the charts, in the UK or the US.
I’m not old enough to remember 1963, but I always fondly imagined Bob Dylan was straight out the starting gate with a raft of Number One hit singles…especially with songs of the calibre of “Blowin’ In The Wind”. But that’s not what happened at all.
Tumbleweed was blowing through his record company’s offices when they discussed the sales figures for what would become one of the most iconic songs of the 1960s.
In time, “Blowin’ In The Wind” became popular, of course, otherwise you wouldn’t know the song today. The Civil Rights Movement picked it up. The hippies and the counter-culture latched on to it. It acquired a momentum that led directly to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize fifty-odd years later. But 1963 wasn’t a great year for Bob Dylan in the singles charts.
Which is probably one of the reasons why “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” isn’t as well known as I think it deserves to be. That’s because it first saw the light of day as the B-side to “Blowin’ In The Wind” — both were tracks on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album.
Back then there wasn’t unlimited streaming for 10 bucks a month.
If you bought a single, you played the B-side as well as the A-side. Mostly B-sides were dreadful, but now and again you could find real gems there. Record companies were even known to flip the record over and make a great B-side into a fresh A-side if there was enough of a reaction from the public.
Had “Blowin’ In The Wind” been the mega-seller it deserved to be right out the starting blocks, more people would have latched onto the beauty of its B-side…“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”.
Rather than being half-remembered, at best, as a 60 year old album track, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” would be as famous as it deserves to be…one of the best songs Bob Dylan ever wrote and by extension, therefore, one of the best songs ever written.
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” drew directly on Bob Dylan’s own experience of his then-girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, suddenly decamping to Italy with no intention of returning to Dylan in New York any time soon. This led to some great lyrics, including…
And it ain’t no use in turning on your light, babe
The light I never knowed
And it ain’t no use in turning on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road
I’ve spent enough time on the dark side of the road myself to connect with a song about why there’s no point in saying sorry and being all lovey-dovey now that it’s over between us…maybe if you’d said all those things when I was desperate to hear them, things might have worked out differently, but you left it too late.
Thankfully for us all, despite the singles charts’ indifference to Bob Dylan, his manager, Albert Grossman, had other plans.
Albert Grossman also happened to manage Peter, Paul and Mary — one of the most pivotal groups, in chart terms at least, of the 1960’s folk revival.
Peter, Paul and Mary’s smoother, more commercial sound…with some of the most wonderful harmonies you’ll ever find in popular music…was responsible for “Blowin’ In The Wind” getting to a wider audience than Bob Dylan on his own could have hoped for.
One of the most popular groups of that pre-Beatles time, it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s performance of “Blowin’ In The Wind” during 1963’s March on Washington…the march that would go down in history as the event at which Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech…which propelled “Blowin’ In The Wind” up the charts. Their single version was a US Number Two and a UK Number 13.
So, how do you follow up taking a great Bob Dylan A-side to the upper reaches of the pop charts? Well, if you were Albert Grossman, you convince Peter, Paul and Mary to flip Bob Dylan’s original single over and release the B-side as a single of their own.
Which is exactly what they did. Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard chart, although it missed out on the UK charts.
Peter, Paul and Mary’s treatment is exquisite…(you can find their version here… https://youtu.be/9oSsvXaVa2U) and they brought a different dimension to a great song. They made “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” somehow more reflective, a bit gentler around the edges…a song of quiet regret, rather than anger or disappointment.
If you listen to Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, you’ll hear what Bob Dylan’s biographer, Howard Sounes was talking about when he observed…
“The greatness of the song was in the cleverness of the language. The phrase “don’t think twice, it’s all right” could be snarled, sung with resignation, or delivered with an ambiguous mixture of bitterness and regret. Seldom have the contradictory emotions of a thwarted lover been so well expressed, and the song transcended the autobiographical origins of Dylan’s pain.”
Whether you prefer Bob Dylan’s version or Peter, Paul and Mary’s, you can hear a very different part of the emotional spectrum at work in their respective performances.
And that, for me, is the hallmark of a truly great song. If you can take the same song, word for word, note for note, and do something very different with it, while still sounding great either way, then you know you’ve got a truly great song on your hands.
Bob Dylan’s lyrics for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” conclude with this great put down…
I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
Bob Dylan was from Minneapolis, not Manchester, Mansfield or Maidstone…but with one of songwriting’s best examples of how a British person might offer up a non-apology they didn’t really mean in the first place, you don’t need to look much further than “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
And as you do, let’s say our thanks to one of the finest groups of the early 1960s, Peter, Paul and Mary, without whom the world might never have heard of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan…
The video below is a little strange, and weirdly British in its theme, but it’s the only one I could find with decent sound quality…spend very little of your time trying to work out what the video is about though, as that might be a task beyond even the best of us. Just close your eyes and listen to the wonderful words of the master himself.
Here’s the great Bob Dylan with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/2WOjLF83vqjit2Zh4B69V3