logo

Shakespeare in the Alley


Show five--Ballads, part ii

 

SHAKESPEARE IN THE ALLEY: BALLADS Part 2


Welcome back, gentle listeners, to the fifth show in this series.  This week’s show is the second part of my look at Bob Dylan’s ballads.  Last week we considered ballads from four albums released in the sixties, the last two from that wonderfully understated album John Wesley Harding, the album which makes the transition from the mid-sixties joker to the late sixties thief, from the outlaw to the moderate man.  Tonight we will focus on the contrast between two long ballads.  The first is from that same album.  “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is unlike all the others on that album; they each have only three verses, but it goes on for eleven verses.   The second ballad I’ll be looking at closely and comparing to “Frankie Lee” is the wonderful “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” on the 1975 album Blood on the Track.

But let me remind you where we stopped last week.  I closed with a plaintive ballad of a dream that is all too real, so when the dreamer awakens, he cannot shake free of its meaning.  The dream presents the dreamer (and us) with a figure who calls us to arise, a prophet-like figure.


“I DREAMED I SAW ST. AUGUSTINE” (FIRST TWO VERSE)
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,
Alive as you or me,
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery,
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold,
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold.

               "Arise, arise," he cried so loud,
In a voice without restraint,
"Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint.
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own,
So go on your way accordingly
But know you're not alone."

 

We have here the archetypal prophet calling us to repent, to repent from the sin of demanding blood.  Dylan’s St. Augustine calls us to transcend our need for martyrs, our need to have a sacrificial lamb.  But the dreamer in his dream does not heed the call.  Instead, he finds himself  “among the ones who put [St. Augustine] out to death.”  

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,
Alive with fiery breath,
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death.
Oh, I awoke in anger,
So alone and terrified,
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried.

 

Yes, the speaker’s dream protrays him as the embodiment of our tendency to put to death the prophet who calls us to arise from our mundane existence to the fulfillment of life’s potential.  It is  not a tendency restricted to Americans, but it is one clearly present in the American tradition.  From Abraham Lincoln to JFK, from Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” to Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop”—not to mention those in the public eye as Dylan grew up such as James Dean and Buddy Holly, there is an American propensity to create martyrs.   There were many who thought that perhaps Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966 would end in his becoming a martyr figure.  No wonder the idea was on his mind as he mediated in seclusion for over year.  While Americans were watching live coverage of Vietnam on TV every night, Dylan was looking at the American situation as part of the eternal rather than the transitory.   Having withdrawn from the world of sex, drugs and rock'n’roll after his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan had been doing some soul-searching.  Not that he hadn’t been before, but in this album we see him turn from the joker into the thief, from the mocking bird into the moderate man.  But for now, let’s keep our focus on Dylan’s use of the ballad form and turn our attention to the longest ballad on the John Wesley Harding album, the strange tale which Dylan calls "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest." 

~THE BALLAD OF FRANKIE LEE AND JUDAS PRIEST
With its twenty-two ballad stanzas—since each verse is actually made up of two standard ballad stanzas—this song is quite different than anything else on the album.  It’s actually a spoken poem with a simple harmonic progression played behind it.  It’s about Frankie Lee's relationship to Judas Priest.

OPENING VERSE OF “FRANKIE LEE”
Well, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,
They were the best of friends.
So when Frankie Lee needed money one day,
Judas quickly pulled out a roll of tens
And placed them on a footstool
Just above the plotted plain,
Sayin', "Take your pick, Frankie Boy,
My loss will be your gain."

 

This is a ballad with some strange images, although anyone who has looked out the window while flying over the America plains probably knows about the “plotted plain.”  A footstool above such a place would indeed be mythic in scope.  The ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest is, like many traditional ballads, mythic, but more self-consciously so.


Well, Frankie Lee, he sat right down
And put his fingers to his chin,
But with the cold eyes of Judas on him,
His head began to spin.
"Would ya please not stare at me like that," he said,
"It's just my foolish pride,
But sometimes a man must be alone
And this is no place to hide."

 

Like the joker in “All Along the Watchtower,” Frankie Lee is confused.  He has lost his orientation, his sense of direction, his sense of values, his sense of identity.  Like Chaplin's little tramp or Schultz's Charlie Brown, Frankie Lee is an everymodernman, plagued by feelings of insignificance and inadequacy, but this story, unlike Chaplin’s, is not a comedy.  Frankie Lee, as the tragic hero always must, pays for his mistakes.  He thinks the solution to his problems is money.  But when Judas “pulls out a roll of tens,” Frankie Lee feels guilty:  "Would you please not stare at me. . ." he says .  He is tempted by the money, but he doesn’t want anyone watching.  It’s fine to be obsessed with money in America, but we don’t anyone to notice.

Well, Judas, he just winked and said,
"All right, I'll leave you here,
But you'd better hurry up and choose
Which of those bills you want,
Before they all disappear."
"I'm gonna start my pickin' right now,
Just tell me where you'll be."

               Judas pointed down the road
And said, "Eternity!"
"Eternity?" said Frankie Lee,
With a voice as cold as ice.
"That's right," said Judas Priest, "Eternity,
Though you might call it 'Paradise.'"

               "I don't call it anything,"
Said Frankie Lee with a smile.
"All right," said Judas Priest,
"I'll see you after a while."

 

“I don’t’ call it anything,” says Frankie Lee.  Of course not.  Modern America has moved away from the eternal and the spiritual to focus on the immediate and the monetary.  Frankie Lee is a material man who lives in a material land.  So, exit Judas Priest, leaving good ole Frankie Lee to ponder the roll of tens.

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat back down,
Feelin' low and mean,
When just then a passing stranger
Burst upon the scene,
Saying, "Are you Frankie Lee, the gambler,
Whose father is deceased?
Well, if you are,
There's a fellow callin' you down the road
And they say his name is Priest."

 

Frankie Lee’s father is deceased: for him God the father is dead and eternity something he does not even name.  He is a gambler, but he is betting on the wrong side of Pascal’s wager.   Judas Priest, unlike the thief in "All Along the Watchtower," offers not spiritual but material comfort: he pulls out a roll of tens.  He proves to be a seducer, like the fair damsel in chains from “As I Walked Out One Morning,” though better disguised than she.  He reminds me of  a character in “Desolation Row”:  "The phantom of the opera/ In the perfect image of a priest.”  He offers Frankie Lee money, but is it because of friendship?

               "Oh, yes, he is my friend,"
Said Frankie Lee in fright,
"I do recall him very well,
In fact, he just left my sight."
"Yes, that's the one," said the stranger,
As quiet as a mouse,
"Well, my message is, he's down the road,
Stranded in a house."

               Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked,
He dropped ev'rything and ran
Until he came up to the spot
Where Judas Priest did stand.
"What kind of house is this," he said,
"Where I have come to roam?"
"It's not a house," said Judas Priest,
"It's not a house . . . it's a home."

               Well, Frankie Lee, he trembled,
He soon lost all control
Over ev'rything which he had made
While the mission bells did toll.
He just stood there staring
At that big house as bright as any sun,
With four and twenty windows
And a woman's face in ev'ry one.

               Well, up the stairs ran Frankie Lee
With a soulful, bounding leap,
And, foaming at the mouth,
He began to make his midnight creep.
For sixteen nights and days he raved,
But on the seventeenth he burst
Into the arms of Judas Priest,
Which is where he died of thirst.

 

Frankie Lee loses control of that which he had made to the sound of the mission bells.  In his weakness and loss of control, Frankie turns easily from making money to making women, from, as it were, the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to the Playboy Ethic and the Sensualism of flesh.   Like Oscar Wilde, Frankie can resist anything except temptation.  In this he is the opposite of Christ, of course, but there are strange parallels which suggest this comparison.  Most obviously the name of his betrayer suggests a comparison to Jesus, but there are other details.  First, his father is "deceased": Nietzsche declared that God is dead in the late 19th century, but it wasn’t a fully integrated part of the American popular culture until 1966 when Time magazine’s covered shouted, Is God dead?   Second,  he "died of thirst,"  alluding not only to Christ’s thirst on the cross but to the need for that water which Christ offered to the woman at the well, the eternal water after which we never thirst again.  And third, as we see in the next verse, his death is accompanied by jest.

No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest,
Except, of course, the little neighbor boy
Who carried him to rest.
And he just walked along, alone,
With his guilt so well concealed,
And muttered underneath his breath,
"Nothing is revealed."

 

Frankie Lee is not the usual literary Christ-figure whose death is redemptive for others.  His death does not produce a martyr.  He stands in contrast to Christ.  As we were told in "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,"  "no martyr is among us now."  We are not made to despise but to pity Frankie Lee because he lacks the inner resources to cope with "the modern situation." And perhaps that other tragic emotion which Aristotle said is evoked when we watch the tragic hero pay for his mistake: fear that we are perhaps a little like him.  Frankie Lee dies of thirst in Judas's arms because Judas Priest does not have that eternal water to offer: he is a false priest.  Likewise, Frankie Lee is not a martyr but a victim.  The hour is late; we are in the latter days when there is no martyr among us and no revelation.
To end the song with the little neighbor boy saying, "Nothing is revealed" would have been dramatic, perhaps even melodramatic.  Dylan chose not to do this, and it is worth asking why.  The final verse follows a convention in balladry, especially in American balladry, which tends to be moralistic.  This is especially true of the American version of English ballads which often tack on verses which make sure the bad guys go to hell. At the end of "House Carpenter" the demon lover tells the unfaithful wife, “Those are the hills of hell, my love, where you and I must go.”  And  “Barbara Allen” ends with the rose growing round the briar.  Dylan, following the tradition, adds a moral:

Well, the moral of the story,
The moral of this song,
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong.
So when you see your neighbor carryin' somethin',
Help him with his load,
And don't go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road.

 

Even the finest literary ballad written in English, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," ends with an overt statement of moral.  After telling his long tale of death at sea caused by his killing an albatross, the ancient mariner closes with this moral: "He prayeth best who loveth best,/Both man and bird and beast. . . ."  It is not this simplistic moral, however, which causes the Wedding Guest to awaken the next day "a sadder and a wiser man."  Rather I would suggest that the presence of an overtly stated moral has freed his intellect from questions about meaning so that during the night his subconscious could ingest the mythic narrative itself of the Mariner "Alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide wide sea."  Coleridge gives us (and the wedding guest) the moral in order to provide a surface meaning which satisfies the conscious mind; this frees the unconscious to work in the depths, to look directly at the images.  “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” works like this.  I have often quoted the moral that’s tacked on here: “One should never be where one does not belong.”  But the power of this mythic ballad is more to be found in the narrative of the everymodernman figure whose quest for money and women ends in the arms of Judas Priest which is where he dies—of thirst.

~AMERICAN IN THE 70’S:  “LILY, ROSEMARY AND THE JACK OF HEARTS
But while fascinating in many ways, and while provide an important part of the JWH album, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee” is not as powerful and rich a ballad as the one we turn to now.   Its narrative remains flimsy and its images a bit forced when compared to that mythic western story told in  “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”  This song appears on Blood on the Tracks, the next great album after the quiet country album John Wesley Harding.  Released in 1975, Blood on the Tracks marks the return of the joker, and just as Satan is more interesting than God in Milton’s Paradise Lost, so the outlaw’s voice grabs us more powerfully than the thief’s. 

Blood on the Tracks followed a period of seven years in which there were no albums which had the power of those released in the mid-sixties, so it was quickly hailed as a sign that the creative genius had returned, just as happened again in 1997 when Time Out of Mind appeared.  Of course part of the reason for this elation from his audience is the fact that the outlaw fits our image of the artist as rebel, as outsider, as joker much better than the moderate family man.  The Romantic image of the artist dominates our imagination.  Alexander Pope, that neo-classical poet of the eighteenth century, described the role of the poet as expressing “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”  That role, however, was replaced by the image of the wild-eyed Romantic which Coleridge describes in “Kubla Khan,” the artist who “has drunk the milk of paradise” and fed on honey dew.  This is what allows him to see visions and dream dreams.  And in Blood on the Tracks Dylan has turned away from the moderate, classical mode back to that mode we tend to expect of the artist.
The family man gives way to the outlaw again, albeit spurred on by the agony of separation from his wife, Sara.  In this album we see Dylan move from those short condensed ballads such as “As I Walked Out” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” from JWH to a form which is longer yet tightly written, narrative yet rich in mythic power.  W. H. Auden, one of the finest poets of the mid-twentieth century, wrote a  fine ballad imitation he called "As I Walked Out One Morning," but Blood on the Tracks contains three ballads which are superior to it: "Tangled Up in Blue," "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." They demonstrate Dylan's ability to write mythic narrative, ballads which make you think and feel.

All three share certain key features:  they use a repeated line to end every verse, what ballad scholars call an “incremental refrain.”   As the story progresses, each repetition of the phrase increases and multiplies the meaning of what, to begin with, seems a simple enough phrase, almost a cliché: “simple twist of fate” or “tangled up in blue” or, most inigmatically, “the jack of hearts.”  A second feature shared by all three of these ballads is tight structure.  Despite their length, Dylan’s use of intricate rhyme schemes and narrative elements which double as symbolic imagery makes every detail tightly woven into the narrative.    Finally, all three ballads relate to the album's central theme of human separation and “radical solitude,” that concept from the Spanish philosopher Ortega which I used in the first two shows.  Indeed, every song on the album examines this theme to a painful degree.  Its title, Blood on the Tracks, is not without significance, though today with CDs the meaning of “tracks” may be different, since the tracks on records, the grooves, don’t exist on CDs.  But they do have “tracks” for each song.  And of course Dylan is playing off the old western song “Blood on the Saddle” –and, of course, on railroad tracks, for trains are everywhere in Dylan’s songs.

Two of these ballads present contemporary scenes.   Both “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” disguise their mythic quality by a veneer of contemporary realism.  The third, however, draws upon America's greatest contribution to world mythology:  the western.

LILY, ROSEMARY AND THE JACK OF HEARTS
The festival was over, the boys were all plannin' for a fall,
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin' in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin' wheel shut down,
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standin' in the doorway lookin' like the Jack of Hearts.

 

The long ballads on Blood on the Tracks demonstrate that the ballad, when produced by a master artist, is still a vital artistic form.  On John Wesley Harding Dylan creates highly condensed and evocative ballads which work as symbolic poetry, compressed ballads which lack, as Dylan says, a "traditional sense of time."  Songs like “John Wesley Harding” and “As I Went Out One Morning” do not tell a story so much as evoke a myth already known:  the myth of the good outlaw, the myth of the naive young man seduced by a femme fatale disguised as a fair damsel, the story of the wronged drifter miraculously saved from the mob's malevolence.  In 1968 Dylan seems to have been skeptical about the ballad's potential to compete with movies in telling stories, but on Blood on the Tracks seven years later he has learned to evoke that sense of mystery which makes the old ballads outstanding while at the same time telling a story.  He attempted this twice on the earlier album, in the liner notes story of the three kings and in "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," but neither of those achieves the quality of these three ballads. 
Each of these ballads on Blood on the Tracks tells a story with its own narrative interest as a traditional ballad does, but none of them suffer from competition from other media because they evoke that sense of mystery that Dylan praises in traditional music—and because they involve the audience in the creative process.  All three cause us to visualize the story almost as a movie, but why sit through a two hour film when the entire show can be projected onto and through the listener's imagination by six or eight minutes of song?  By far the easiest to imagine scene by scene as a movie is the western; there was even talk of making it into a movie.  But the song is better.  In it we see cliché transformed into myth.

He moved across the mirrored room, "Set it up for everyone," he said,
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin' before he turned their heads.
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin,
"Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?"
Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts.

 

Although the longest song on the album, almost eight minutes, "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is exceptionally compact.  Its superiority to "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" indicates another major stage in Dylan's artistic development.  It has no strained symbols like the one where Judas Priest places his roll of tens "on a footstool/ Just above the plotted plain"; it has no wasted lines like "'Alright,' said Judas Priest,/ I'll see you after a while.'"  There are no "fill in" lines with only narrative function; every word, every image conveys the emotional setting and relates to the central theme while advancing the plot.  Nothing can be omitted from the 15 nine-line verses without loss, although if you are interested in seeing Dylan cutting out what is not needed, you can look at the omitted verse, printed in the song book for the album and available on the companion web site, dylanalley dot org.

From the opening stanza Dylan captures and freezes into timelessness the mood of the seventies in America.  The festival of revolution and change of the sixties, the mood of gaiety and easy comradeship has changed and there is only the quiet and threatening "drilling in the wall" which may, in the final end, bring about a "fall" more effective than the festival itself.  The evocative quality of the word "fall" begins the process of turning ballad into myth.  A number of meanings are appropriate:  loss of greatness, capture of a besieged place, departure from innocence, loss of chastity, decrease in degree.  The most famous fall in our culture, Adam and Eve's fall from paradise and innocence, is central to Judeo-Christian mythology.  The world pictured in the ballad is a fallen world filled with illusions and threats, a world in which the father-creator is "very rarely" seen. But that’s in the last verse.  We’ll get to that.  Listen again to those evocative opening verses:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin' for a fall,
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin' in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin' wheel shut down,
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standin' in the doorway lookin' like the Jack of Hearts.

He moved across the mirrored room, "Set it up for everyone," he said,
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin' before he turned their heads.
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin,
"Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?"
Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts.

 

What is seen and what is not seen is important in this ballad.  The central character is himself a rather illusive figure.  He has no name, but he looks like the Jack of Hearts.  We might compare him to the character Dylan plays in the Sam Peckinpah film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid who, when asked his name replies, “Alias, just Alias.”  This poem was probably started while Dylan was working on that film.  But let’s get to the other main characters in this mythic drama.  We have the jack; we have yet to meet the two queens and the king:
Backstage the girls were playin' five-card stud by the stairs,
Lily had two queens, she was hopin' for a third to match her pair.
Outside the streets were fillin' up, the window was open wide,
A gentle breeze was blowin', you could feel it from inside.
Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts.

Big Jim was no one's fool, he owned the town's only diamond mine,
He made his usual entrance lookin' so dandy and so fine.
With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place,
He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste.
But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts.

Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town,
She slipped in through the side door lookin' like a queen without a crown.
She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear,
"Sorry, darlin', that I'm late," but he didn't seem to hear.
He was starin' into space over at the Jack of Hearts.

So one queen is Lily, with a name that perhaps recalls the line from the Gospels:  "Consider the lilies of the field; they toil not, neither do they spin . . .."   A second queen, Rosemary, slips into the cabaret "looking like a queen without a crown."  No one is quite what they appear to be.  We have a hero figure who looks like the jack of hearts, and two queens neither of  whom are really queens. Rosemary only looks like a queen and "Lily was a princess."  Her claim to the throne is blocked by the other queen.  Jim, the apparent king, has a great deal to protect; weighed down with his silver cane and diamond mine, he is "no match for the Jack of Hearts," the Knave of hearts, the outlaw!
Dylan manipulates the motifs which run through the song like a skilled puppeteer working the strings.  We first see Lily playing poker backstage—all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare said.  With her pair of queens Lilly is looking for another queen but "draws up the Jack of Hearts."  On a sexual level, as Jim's mistress, Lily would expect him to leave her for another woman;  instead she herself "draws" (i.e., attracts) the Jack who "comes between Lily and the King."  This private plot intertwines with the more public plot of the bank robbery, a narrative device familiar to today’s film audiences. 
Both private and public plots are filled with images of illusion and deception:  in verse one the boys are "planning for a fall";  in verse two the Jack crosses a "mirrored room" and then says, "Set 'it up for everyone" suggesting, of course, a "set up,” as does the phrase "before he turned their heads."  Rosemary’s "false eyelashes" suggest deception while relating to the motif of seeing which runs throughout.  At the end of the last verse played Big Jim is “staring into space over at the Jack of Hearts.”  What’s he thinking?
"I know I've seen that face before," Big Jim was thinkin' to himself,
"Maybe down in Mexico or a picture up on somebody's shelf."
But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim
And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him,
Starin' at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts.

 Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child,
She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled.
She'd come away from a broken home, had lots of strange affairs
With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere.
But she'd never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts.

 The hangin' judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined,
The drillin' in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind.
It was known all around that Lily had Jim's ring
And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king.
No, nothin' ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts.

 

Reality and illusion, the eternal theme of great literature.  Is what we see real?  This ballad gives us  so many references to ways of seeing.  Jim is "staring into space" and both he and the Jack are "staring at the butterfly/Who just drew the Jack of Hearts" (7); and Rosemary, what is she doing?
Rosemary started drinkin' hard and seein' her reflection in the knife,
She was tired of the attention, tired of playing the role of Big Jim's wife.
She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide,
Was lookin' to do just one good deed before she died.
She was gazin' to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts.

Rosemary is “seeing her reflection in the knife” and "gazing to the future,/Riding on the Jack of Hearts."  We get many references to eyes or to what eyes do:  see, stare, look, gaze, blink.   This pattern of  imagery extends the theme of appearance vs. reality.  What is real and what is only appearance?   It’s the most basic theme in literature—and one that runs through song after song by Dylan.  It continues in Lily’s dressing room where she is stripping away the appearance she puts on when performing for the crowd:
Lily took her dress off and buried it away.
"Has your luck run out?" she laughed at him, "Well, I guess you must have known it would someday.
Be careful not to touch the wall, there's a brand-new coat of paint,
I'm glad to see you're still alive, you're lookin' like a saint."
Down the hallway footsteps were comin' for the Jack of Hearts.

               The backstage manager was pacing all around by his chair.
"There's something funny going on," he said, "I can just feel it in the air."
He went to get the hangin' judge, but the hangin' judge was drunk,
As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk.
There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts.

 

Yes, everyone is an actor.  All the world’s a stage and each of us….  But some of us are better than others, better actors I mean.  And the ultimate actor, the best of them all, disguises himself as a religious figure it seems.  Do we have another Christ-figure in the Jack of Hearts?  Does he separate the sheep from the goats?  Does he seek the lost sheep like a good shepherd?  Does he appear and disappear mysteriously? 

               No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick,
The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked.
And Big Jim was standin' there, ya couldn't say surprised,
Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes.
She was with Big Jim but she was leanin' to the Jack of Hearts.

               Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
And cleaned out the bank safe, it's said that they got off with quite a haul.
In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town.
But they couldn't go no further without the Jack of Hearts.

 

This song is being written as Berstein and Woodward are using hints from Deep Throat to write stories that ultimately force President Richard Nixon to resign.  “Even the president of the United States sometimes must stand naked,” Dylan had written a decade earlier, as LBJ began to send more troops to Vietnam.   I don’t mean to suggest that this 1975 ballad of Dylan’s, however, is a simple allegory with a one-to-one correlation; it is a richly symbolic ballad about deception and honesty.  It shows us the corruption of “the system” being undermined by the outlaw figure who looks like a saint.  Outlaws, precisely because they live outside the law, must be honest, honest with themselves.   They don’t have the luxury of hypocrisy so common among those who hide behind the protection of the rules.  It is those who lead protected lives who allow themselves to be dishonest even with themselves, such as those who preach that homosexuality is a sin while themselves secretly practicing “the love that dare not say its name.”  But Dylan’s mythic story transcends any specific contemporary example.  That’s what myth means.
Lily, for she too is an outlaw without the "security" of a wedding band, takes her dress off and speaks her feelings straightforwardly in contrast to Rosemary who "flutters her false eyelashes and whispers in his ear" an insincere apology.  She is trying to maintain the appearance of being Jim’s wife, of being the queen, but her eyelashes are false.  By contrast, the Jack, like his fellow outlaw John Wesley Harding, "was never known to make a foolish move."  Both he and Lily, despite their close relationship, accept their aloneness and their death.  The "establishment" figures, in contrast, are putting up deceptions and protections to defend their "security."  But as Dylan puts it in " It's Alright Ma,"  those that "think death's honesty/Won't fall upon them naturally/Life sometimes must get lonely."  Caught in their own nets of falseness, refusing to accept that their luck will run out someday, they seek to control, they pretend to be in control, and some are fooled by this appearance.  Their fate is directly related to this obsession with control.  Rosemary, we see, crosses the line and accepts her fate without blinking:

The next day was hangin' day, the sky was overcast and black,
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back.
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn't even blink,
The hangin' judge was sober, he hadn't had a drink.
The only person on the scene missin' was the Jack of Hearts.

              The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, "Closed for repair,"
Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair.
She was thinkin' 'bout her father, who she very rarely saw,
Thinkin' 'bout Rosemary and thinkin' about the law.
But, most of all she was thinkin' 'bout the Jack of Hearts.

 

The Jack of  Hearts, is, in Dylan’s paradoxical turn of phrase, “on the scene missing.”  He’s not there but, like Christ, very much present. That’s why Lily “most of all was thinkin’ ‘bout the Jack of Hearts.”  He is, ultimately, the cause.  Thanks to him Lily is stripping away her false appearance: she has restored her true hair color.  It’s a poetic line, the only line Dylan sings rather than delivering in his own version of  Sprechstimme:
The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, "Closed for repair,"
Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair.

Yes, this is a ballad alright, telling us a mythic story which can be told and retold, each time giving us new insights.  It leaves us, like Lily, thinkin’ ‘bout the Jack of Hearts.  And the Jack is the American outlaw, the rebel who comes to free us, and who, like Shane, rides off alone at the end.  Who, like Christ, is “on the scene missing.”

~CONCLUSION
But our time is up again, so I must end my look at Dylan’s ballads with many left untouched.  Many of Dylan’s songs are not narrative but, as Jacques Levy says, more of a series of abstract images which build up a theme.  Still, Dylan can write powerful mythic narrative.  The added interest which narrative provides makes these songs in some ways more powerful than the others.  As with Shakespeare’s plays, we begin by following the story and then gradually get deeper and deeper into the themes which underlie the story, the patterns which reveal meaning, the repeated images which show us what cannot be said in other ways.  This is one more reason that he is a Shakespeare in the alley.

Next week I turn to another form which Dylan uses so well and, as with the ballad, transforms into something larger, even mythic: the love song.   Yes, the love song.  As with ballads, its not what we think of first when we think Bob Dylan.  However, he wrote a lot love songs.  More than half of his songs are, in one way or another, love songs, though many of those are not just plain love songs, some are mythic explorations of the human condition, some are about his relationship with his audience, some …  But I’ll get to that next week, when I begin a two part series on love songs.  Until then, I’m Bill King saying I’m so glad you came around.

back to top
 

 
SHOWS  |   ABOUT  |   DYLAN  |   RESOURCES  |   CONTACT  |   SEARCH  |   SITEMAP  |   HOME
© Shakespeare in the Alley, 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Website by Juliana Harrisking