Here we present an entirely new verse to “If Not For You,” with nothing similar appearing in the original New Morning album version from 1970. If Not For You entered Dylan’s live repertoire many years later in 1992 and made an appearance every year afterwards through 2004.
We listened to the other five performances from 2004, where the song moved from early in the set all the way to the encores, and found the lyrics of the others kept close to the original. That is, except for in Asheville, NC on 9 April 2004, when he sang: “Ah, what would I, what would I do – I don’t know! – if not for you.”
At time of writing (January 2012), this 17 November 2004 performance remains the last public outing for the song. We will never know quite what prompted Dylan to create unique lyrics on this particular occasion but, as always, we are thankful he did.
In Dylan’s early to mid-career he sang stories about romanticized outlaws (Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd, Joey), about an innocent man in jail (Hurricane Carter), and about travesties of justice (Hattie Carroll). In recent years, however, the focus appears to have shifted to take on a more directly personal note. He sings from the perspective of a person who, in different circumstances, left to his own devices, if not for the help of others, would inevitably and deservedly end up in trouble with the law. We hear this in songs like Workingman’s Blues #2 in the words, “I got to be careful, I don’t want to be forced/ Into a life of continual crime.” We also hear it in live lyric variations like the above example, and in several others to be published here later.