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The Story Behind The Song: Bob Dylan’s legendary ‘Lay Lady Lay’

It seems a little excessive to try and provide you with a sincere and concise introduction to the legendary talent of Bob Dylan. Having released his first songs at the beginning of the 1960s, perhaps the fact that his confessional songwriting and spellbinding vision of art requires such little introduction in 2022 is the highest praise we could afford him. The Nobel prize winner has become a permanent figure of artistic endeavour and creative freedom; looking back at his discography, it is easy to see how he remains such a pillar of hopeful artistry.

The truth is, despite being routinely thought of as an archetypal singer-songwriter—it’s hard not to imagine Dylan without his acoustic slung around his neck and a harmonic perched just inches from his lips— the truth is that he always put his artistic evolution first. Whether that was ditching the aforementioned acoustic narrative of folk and protest music for the rollicking sounds of rock and roll or, later, when he moved towards a more evangelical sound, Dylan has always moved forward with his music.

One such moment we can witness this push for a purer expression came on his record Nashville Skyline. The album was a huge departure for Dylan. True, he had ditched folk a long time ago, but now it seemed he was also ditching the voice of a generation too, as he removed the scratchiest moment of his former vocal delivery for something a little smoother. The singer puts on his best croon to bring the album to life, and there is perhaps no better showing of this than on ‘Lay Lady Lay’.

Detractors may call this song out for being a little on the cheesy side. After all, what’s rock and roll about pledging to be a dutiful husband? But, in a catalogue of songs that preached about the absurd beauty of love and the heroic nature of war among countless other themes, it feels fitting that at least one of his songs should be about devotion.

The track was originally scheduled to be a part of the Hollywood cult classic Midnight Cowboy. Dylan had been meandering with the track and, despite its somewhat saccharine sentiment, had been highlighted as a perfect fit for producer John Schlesinger’s gritty movie about two street hustlers played by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. However, Dylan took a little too long to complete the track, and Schlesinger went for Harry Nilsson’s magnanimous ‘Everybody’s Talkin” instead.

The naturally guarded Bob Dylan has rarely given his definition to his songs. Instead, he prefers his music to become whole pieces on their own, being offered inferences by the listener instead of the creator. However, in this instance, he did offer one crucial piece of information, telling a 1971 interview that the song “was written for Barbra Streisand.” Providing no other statement on the track that one could call context, it’s hard to know whether he intended the iconic show singer to take the lead on vocals or if it was penned in homage to her talent.

‘Lay Lady Lay’ has a legacy that few Dylan songs do. It not only acts as one of the only truly romantic songs he ever wrote — perhaps the most schmaltzy — it has also been covered by a plethora of impressive acts. As well as the Everly Brothers finally picking it up in 1984 (they were offered the song directly by Dylan in the late 1960s but had not realised), the track has also been covered by The Byrds and Cher, each providing stunning takes on the original song.

Whichever way you cut it, ‘Lay Lady Lay’ remains a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career. The song saw Dylan explore two new ventures in his life. Firstly, adopting a crooning vocal, which was apparently emphasised by his decision to quit drinking around this time, and secondly, his ability to no longer write directly from or for his own expression but to provide a universal moment of blissful slow-dance brilliance. It may not be his most visceral, voracious or violent piece, but it certainly is one of his most lovely.