"Lay Down Your Weary Tune" is a song written by Bob Dylan in 1963. It was originally recorded for his album The Times They Are a-Changin', but it was ultimately excluded from that record. Dylan's studio recording of the song was eventually released on his 1985 box set Biograph. In the liner notes to Biograph, Dylan claims that in the song he was trying to capture the feeling of a Scottish ballad he had just heard on a 78 rpm record. The specific ballad Dylan was referring to has not been identified, but speculation includes "The Water is Wide", "O Waly, Waly" and "I Wish, I Wish". "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" was covered by The Byrds on their 1965 album Turn! Turn! Turn!.
Dylan wrote the song at Joan Baez's house in Carmel, California in the autumn of 1963. During the same visit, he also wrote the song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll". Dylan had originally wanted to sing "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" with Baez at her October 12, 1963 concert at the Hollywood Bowl, but Baez was not yet comfortable with the song. Dylan recorded the song in a single take on October 24, 1963, during the sessions for The Times They Are a-Changin. However, he decided to replace it on the album with the song "Restless Farewell", a song he wrote as an angry response to a Newsweek reporter who in late October 1963 published a story about Dylan that Dylan did not approve of. In the interim, Dylan played "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" at a concert at Carnegie Hall on October 26, a performance that was eventually released on the album Live at Carnegie Hall 1963.
Music critic Robert Shelton has described "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" as Dylan's "first withdrawal song", while journalist Paul Williams interpreted it as Dylan describing an auditory "vision" of a message from the universe or deity personified in music. Williams has also noted that throughout the song we hear Dylan struggling to put into words the melody that haunts him. Like Williams, author Seth Rogovoy similarly interpreted it as a song devoted to Dylan's musical muse, like the later "Mr. Tambourine Man". In his controversial 1970 article "Bob Dylan and the Poetry of Salvation", sociologist Steven Goldberg identified it as a song with which Dylan's focus changed from politics to mysticism. Music critic Michael Gray interprets the song as "a vision of the world, that is, in which nature appears not as a manifestation of God but as containing God in every aspect." Christian theologian Stephen H. Webb has linked many of the images of the song to the Bible and calls it "one of the greatest theological songs since King David composed his psalms."
The song is in the key of A major, and begins with the chorus:Lay down your weary tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself 'neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum.
The text alternates between lines of four and three feet, which is a metric pattern shared by ballad stanzas and many hymns, referred to generally as common measure.
The song's chorus and five verses share a similar fourteen bar melody, although the melody is varied slightly each time. The version of the melody used for the chorus has greater guitar accompaniment than the verses, based on the chords of A major, D major and E major, providing a literal "strength of strings" to the chorus.
The verses do not attempt to tell a story, but provide a series of images of nature. The chorus is in the second person, and apparently is someone—possibly a deified personification of music—offering Dylan rest and freedom from his burdens. In the verses, sounds from nature are contrasted with man-made sounds, particularly in lines such as "The morning breeze like a bugle blew," "The crashin' waves like cymbals clashed," "The cryin' rain like a trumpet sang," "The branches bare like a banjo moaned" and "The water smooth ran like a hymn." But the chorus continually reminds us of the divide between natural and man-made sounds with the line "No voice can hope to hum," carrying the implicit meaning "No human voice can hope to hum."
"Lay Down Your Weary Tune" echoes some of the Elvish songs in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The tune precisely fits the words to the song Legolas sings about the maiden Nimrodel. The themes are similar as well, particularly in the fourth verse of Legolas' song:Beside the falls of Nimrodel
By water clear and cool
Her voice as falling silver fell
Into the shining pool.
"Lay Down Your Weary Tune" also echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem "Each and All" and Rev. J. M. Gates' folk song "Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting?".
Although Dylan's recording of the song went unreleased during the 1960s, the Los Angeles folk rock band The Byrds acquired "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" through Dylan's publisher and included a rendition of it on their second album Turn! Turn! Turn!, released in December 1965. Upon hearing The Byrds' version, Dylan told the band's frontman Roger McGuinn "Up until I heard this I thought you were just another imitator...but this has got real feeling to it." Dylan's enthusiasm for the group's recording of the song was not shared by The Byrds' manager Jim Dickson, as he explained to author Johnny Rogan in 1989: "They didn't do it as well as they could have done ... it was too monotonous and didn't bring its message across. The lyrics didn't come across in the music." Dickson's dissatisfaction with the group’s interpretation of the song was echoed by The Byrds' producer Terry Melcher, who noted during an interview that "the production was lousy" and that the recording was "sloppy from start to finish." The Byrds' version of "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" features the band's bassist Chris Hillman contributing to the song's harmony vocals and as such, marks his vocal debut on a Byrds' recording.
Besides Bob Dylan and The Byrds, artists who have recorded the song in the 1960s include Bill Henderson, who released the song on When My Dreamboat Comes Home in 1965 and Jim and Jean, who released it on Changes in 1966. Other artists who subsequently covered the song include McGuinness Flint, Ashley Hutchings, Fairport Convention, Tim O'Brien and The 13th Floor Elevators and Mary Black.
The Amnesty International 2012 compilation of Bob Dylan covers, Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan includes a version of "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" by Billy Bragg.