Chapter 9
In the Garden

IN THE CONTEST ‘Dylan’s strangest song’, there are few that can challenge In the Garden. Dylan himself has expressed some bewilderment as to how it all came about, and upon first hearing, one can only agree: The chord changes seem to go randomly in any direction, but strangely, it doesn’t fall apart, and somehow it even seems to make sense. What’s going on here?

The whole ‘mystery’ of the song hinges on the chord at the end of the first phrase. For the sake of simplicity, in the following explanation I have transposed the song up a semitone, to C.

When they [C] came for Him in the [G] garden, did they [Am] know? [?]

To begin with, it is all plain and easy chords, well within the C tonality. The last chord, however, is the pivot. When it first enters, if one judges it according to what comes before it, it should either be seen as a Ammaj7 (i.e. Gmmaj7 465444 in the song). The logical continuation would then be Am7 – D, which could eventually lead back to C again, either directly or by way of G7 – something like this (the next few examples are of course constructions, just to provide possible, working continuations):

When they [C] came for Him in the [G] garden, did they [Am] know? [Ammaj7]

When they [Am7] came for Him in the garden, did they [D7] know? (etc.)

Or it could be regarded as a variant of E, which would work as the dominant of Am, with possible continuations to F or back to Am again:

When they [C] came for Him in the [G] garden, did they [Am] know? [E]

When they [F] came for Him in the [D/f] garden, did they [G7] know?

It could even be seen as a variant of C itself, which might have continued like this:

When they [C] came for Him in the [G] garden, did they [Am] know? [C/g]

When they [F] came for Him in the [C/e] garden, did they [D7] know? [G7]

The reason for this wide array of possible interpretations is that the chord I’ve called [?] is an augmented chord, i.e. a chord where the fifth step – G in this case – is raised a semitone (one fret). This gives a chord which consists of three equal intervals – major thirds or four semitones – and they may in principle be stacked whichever way you want. The tones in the chord are c, e, and g, and depending on which tone is given priority and is interpreted as the key note, it can either be heard as a C (c-e-g) , an E (e-g-b) or a G(or A) (g-b-d, or A-c-e). In each of the alternatives, the fifth is altered, for extra flavour. The Ammaj7 option is basically a variant of the C interpretation.

Now, the C and E interpretations are both well within the limits of the main tonality, as the examples above will show: they don’t really stand out, and they don’t cause major disturbances in the tonal fundaments of the song. This is because they are both united to C through their common ‘relative’, Am.

What Dylan does in In The Garden, however, is to choose the third alternative, G, which is a much bigger step. True, it is ‘just’ a matter of going in the opposite direction of E, and, true, it is used, occasionally (the James Bond theme comes to mind), but the effect is much more spectacular than the turn to E.

Once the augmented chord has been interpreted as a G, the whole trick is done: we are now in the key of G– for a little while. But first the chord is reinterpreted again. In the following line:

[Gaug]

When they [Cm] came for Him in the [Gaug] garden, did they [E] know? [F]

both of the Gaug chords could be played as plain G, but as an augmented chord, it is already almost an E, which is where it immediately goes to. So one might say that Dylan repeats the trick: he has shifted the whole key of the song down in two leaps, first from C to A/G, then further down to E – both times in the unexpected direction. The rest of the song is laboriously working its way up again, step by step, whole tone by whole tone: E, F, G, A, and finally back to C again.

The E doesn’t live long enough to take on the role of ‘tonal centre’ on its own – it appears as an episode within the larger Gepisode. But one might call it, slightly figuratively speaking, the collecting of the energy necessary for the ascent through the keys back to C again.

If we stay with the ‘energy to run up the stairs’ metaphor, this will account for the end as well: the melody has reached the top, but needs an extra step in order to gain balance and to really be able to come to a halt – it is not enough just to rush up through the keys – an ending ‘needs’ something more to be felt like an ending, and the final flourish, after the singing is over, is what accomplishes that.

Thank you for your attention, will the last one to leave please wipe the blackboard.