Man Gave Names to All the Animals
|"Man Gave Names to All the Animals"|
"Trouble in Mind" (France)|
"When He Returns" (Europe)
"When You Gonna Wake Up?"(US)
May 4, 1979|
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios
|Bob Dylan singles chronology|
"Man Gave Names to All the Animals" is a song written by Bob Dylan that appeared on Dylan's 1979 album Slow Train Coming and was also released as a single in some European countries. It was also released as a promo single in US. The single became a chart hit in France and Belgium. However, the song also has detractors who consider it the worst song Dylan ever wrote. A 2013 reader's poll conducted by Rolling Stone Magazine ranked "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" the 4th worst Bob Dylan song, although the hit single from Slow Train Coming, "Gotta Serve Somebody" placed second.
"Man Gave Names to All the Animals" has been covered by multiple artists, including Townes Van Zandt, who covered the song on his 1993 album Roadsongs. The lyrics were turned into a children's book published by Harcourt in 1999, with illustrations by Scott Menchin. The Wiggles covered this song on their "Furry Tales" CD in 2013.
Lyrics and music
The music to "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" is reggae-inspired. The lyrics were inspired by the biblical Book of Genesis, verses 2:19-20 in which Adam named the animals and birds. The lyrics have an appeal to children, rhyming the name of the animal with one of its characteristics. So after describing an animal's "muddy trail" and "curly tail," Dylan sings that "he wasn't too small and he wasn't too big" and so that animal was named a pig. Similarly, the cow got its name because Adam "saw milk comin' out but he didn't know how" and the bear got its name because it has a "great big furry back and furry hair."
In the last verse, the lyrics take a more sinister turn. In that verse the man
- Saw an animal as smooth as glass
- Slithering his way through the grass
- Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake
The verse ends there, with the music hanging and the lyrics avoiding naming the snake. In concert, Dylan sometimes elaborated on the meaning of the snake to him at the time. For example, in a concert in Pittsburgh in May 1980 Dylan confirmed that the animal in the final verse is the same snake that appeared to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In Dylan's description that day, Lucifer had put his spirit into that snake, and Jesus later died not only for forgiveness of sins but also to destroy the devil's work. Despite the obvious biblical source for the song, Dylan avoids any explicit mention of Adam and Eve, which to author Oliver Trager seems to pin the blame for the fall of man solely on the snake. Music critic Michael Gray finds it interesting that Dylan avoids blaming Eve for man's fall, appreciating that he stops "the song short on a beautifully hungover note at the arrival on the scene of the serpent.
According to backup singer Regina Havis Brown, originally Dylan wasn't sure if he wanted to include "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" on Slow Train Coming. But when Dylan heard Brown's three-year-old son laughing at the identification of the animals, he said that "I'm going to put that on the record."
Dylan regularly played "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" in concert between 1979 and 1981, and he played it in concert again during his 1987 European tour in light of the song's popularity there. In concert he often played with the lyrics switching animals and messing up the rhymes. For example, the line "he wasn't too small and he wasn't too big" might be followed by identifying the animal as a giraffe rather than a pig. Dylan's backup singers would often hiss to replace the missing line identifying the snake.
Rolling Stone Magazine described "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" as being "clever" but "not very profound" and that although it "went over pretty well live" it is "simplistic" and easy to see "why it has detractors." Author John Nogowski calls it "an embarrassment," "silly", "sophomoric" and "just awful," claiming that it could have been written by an eighth grader during a free study period. But music critic Michael Gray praises it as one of the standout tracks on Slow Train Coming, citing its humor, its quality as a children's song, and the self-mocking contrast to the more fundamentalist tone of the songs Dylan wrote during this period.