She Belongs To Me

The song seems to present an ambivalent picture of God. The indications that it is God the narrator has in mind are numerous. In the first verse the woman is self-sufficient – ‘She’s got everything she needs’ – just as God traditionally is held to be. She’s also a creator – a creative, or forward-looking, artist (‘She don’t look back’). Furthermore, since she ‘can take the dark out of the night-time/ And paint the daytime black’, she seems to be the creator of the universe, making the world revolve – and so continually turn from night to day and back to night again.

A further indication of divinity is her never stumbling because ‘She’s got no place to fall’. There are no human beings of whom that is true, but this would be true for a being outside of time and space. The concept of stumbling simply would not apply. It’s also the case that her quality of being ‘nobody’s child’ is an extra-human quality. ‘Law’ – printed with a capital ‘L’ in the official version of the lyrics – in ‘The Law can’t touch her’ – would seem to refer to the Law of Moses. This was given for human beings, the Israelites, to follow, but presumably would not represent a restriction on God who accordingly would remain untouched by it. Finally, bowing down to her on Sunday would seem to be behaviour appropriate if the woman is a representation of God.

It’s not at all clear that the picture we’re getting is entirely of the traditional Christian God, however. This God seems more detached. She seems no more associated with good than with evil, as is suggested by her dealing equally with night and day in the opening verse, and by her not needing the Law. And although references to Sunday and Christmas might suggest the traditional God, Halloween is associated with witches and evil spirits.

An ambivalent nature is also implied in that  she ‘wears an Egyptian ring’. This seems to associate her with the Egyptian enemies of the Israelites, rather than the Israelites God is normally credited with saving. The ring’s sparkling before she speaks would further suggest that she is on the side of the Israelites’ oppressors, as if her Egyptian loyalties were colouring her pronouncements. It’s perhaps because of this leaning towards the enemies of the Israelites that she’s a ‘hypnotist collector’ – she has to hypnotise Israelites into following her. (The person addressed as ‘you’ in ‘you are a walking antique’ is perhaps described as an ‘antique’ to imply that to follow her now is to behave like Israelites in antiquity – and therefore inappropriately.)

It seems significant that the song is written in each of the first, second and third persons. ‘She’ is very prominent. The title, however, uses the first person ‘me’ in order to claim that the narrator possesses the woman – ‘She belongs to me‘. And there is the second person ‘you’:

‘You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees’.

This seems to refer to someone else, maybe the listener, who it seems is possessed by the woman. ‘Me’ and ‘you’, then, seem to refer to different people. The tone of ‘You will start out standing’ seems to imply something like ‘You will start out standing just as I did’.

It might seem that the narrator could know how the listener will behave only from personal experience of his own prior behaviour – starting out standing. However, there is another alternative. This is that the narrator and the person addressed are one and the same. When he says ‘You’, the narrator is not so much talking to another person, but himself when going over in his mind what is going to happen. He’s telling himself he’ll be reduced from standing to kneeling.

This suggests a further possibility – that the narrator and the person he addresses are not just one and the same person, but are also the woman. This is indicated by the use of the future tense in the second verse – ‘You will start out…’ and You will wind up…’. Like the woman, who ‘don’t look back’, the narrator/addressee also focuses on the future rather than the past. Furthermore the unity of the three is indicated in the otherwise ungrammatical form of the phrase ‘she don’t look back’. If ‘she’ is to be read as ‘they’ because what applies to her applies to all three, the phrase ceases to be ungrammatical; ‘… she don’t look back’ becomes ‘… they don’t look back’. That the woman ‘never stumbles’ and the listener is a walking antique, also suggests their mutual identity. And again, if the narrator is taken as Dylan himself , then  the narrator might be identified with her in being  a forward looking ‘artist’, just as she is.

Despite this identity, the listener is presented as someone capable of making moral progress, whereas the woman is not subject to any such progression. The listener is initially presented as morally negative – a thief and participant in seedy, voyeuristic behaviour – but ends up reverentially ‘bowing down’. But there’s no hint that the woman will try to prevent the listener stealing for her. She just remains aloof. For her, human distinctions between good and evil just don’t apply.

The song, then, seems to describe  a God in human terms (she’s female, an artist, a wearer of jewellery, a collector, a recipient of gifts), and identifies her with human beings struggling to progress morally. At the same time, seen just as God, she is detached, and thus beyond characterisation in human terms, including moral terms.

(Interestingly relevant quote: ‘Well, first of all, God is a woman, we all know that. Well, you take it from there.’ Dylan, Austin Press Conference 1965.)

Thunder On The Mountain – a verse by verse commentary

The song would seem to span the period from Jesus’ birth to just before the last judgment. At the same time it charts the attempts and failures of one person, perhaps representative of mankind, to do what is required to achieve salvation. It is both despondent and hopeful. It dwells on human weakness, but the hope of ultimate salvation is never completely lost. These two ideas, weakness and hope, are presented through the enormously rich imagery which can nearly always be taken to simultaneously represent either idea. A considerable amount of the imagery in this song occurs in the other songs on the album. While the interpretations offered here are, I think, consistent with those later occurrences, they are – in the light of those other occurrences – far from exhaustive. For that reason what follows, while indicative of the huge complexity of the song, will fall far short of a comprehensive interpretation.

Thunder on the mountain, and there’s fires on the moon
A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go

Four places figure in the first two lines – the mountain, the moon, the alley and ‘here’. Although the mountain has connotations of Calvary, Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount and, possibly, Parnassus, it can more readily be taken as the mountain upon which the Norse god Thor beats with his hammer – the hammer mentioned in the final verse. The fires perhaps represent the destruction wrought by Thor’s thunder. That they are on the moon suggests that for the most part they are, like the mountain, distant, presenting no more than a threat.

The expression ‘the alley’, on the other hand, suggests closeness and familiarity. The phrase ‘a ruckus in the alley’ presents a rich picture of seediness and small-time violence, but there is no further detail to be had; nor is it required. Here the effects of Thor’s thundering are seen as much less remote, but still not yet actually ‘here’, where the sun is expected.

The word ‘sun’, in ‘and the sun will be here soon’, is ambiguous. On the one hand, because it is introduced by ‘and’ rather than ‘but’, it suggests a source of continuing misery and destruction, presumably through its intense heat. On the other, as the propagator of new life, it suggests a respite from that. As with Donne, ‘sun’ can also be read as ‘Son’- Son of God. In this way it is Jesus, and as such  represents the way to a new moral life. ‘Soon’ tells us Jesus’s coming is fairly imminent and therefore an antidote to the moral destruction associated with Thor. Again there is ambiguity. It could be his first coming by which he provides the means for salvation, or the second, the last judgment — when he will punish those who ignored him first time. The sun, then, represents both love for mankind and justice – hellfire – for the wicked. It will become apparent that it is this latter interpretation which is uppermost in the narrator’s mind.

Just as the sun is capable of dual interpretation, so is the moon. The moon is associated with destruction through its fires, and is thus a symbol of evil. But normally it is not fires we see, but the reflected light of the sun – the Son/Jesus. Thus the moon can be seen to  reinforce the ambivalent attitudes of the narrator in being a symbol both of evil, and of potential salvation.

The third line tells us of the narrator’s decision to act, and to do so in a way that comes naturally to him. He needs to act fast – ‘today’, ‘grab’- or it will be too late because Jesus will already have returned. Notice that he expresses himself in the future tense – ‘gonna’ – rather than the present; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That this action involves playing music, indicates that the narrator has something in common with Dylan himself. The reason he gives for his action is ‘there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go’. ‘Hot stuff’ seems to take up the idea represented by ‘fires on the moon’, namely moral destruction.  ‘Everywhere’ suggests the omnipresence of evil. (The line is reminiscent of Mephistopheles’s wishfully thought ‘Why this is hell, nor am I out of it’.) ‘Hot stuff’ also suggests sexual temptation and so looks forward to the Alicia Keys reference in the next verse.

I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying
When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

There is ambiguity in the Keys reference. The ‘hot stuff’ is supposed to be everywhere the narrator goes. However he cannot find Keys, which may indicate that she represents something other than, and in addition to, omnipresent moral degredation. She was once associated with it – she was born in Hell’s Kitchen – but subsequently took up a career in music. Perhaps this has been her saving grace in the way that the narrator hopes the trombone will be his.

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you’re trying to run me away
The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say

The beginning of verse three can again be taken in two ways. The narrator’s soul is ‘expanding’, we are told. On the one hand this has connotations of expansiveness in the sense of generosity. However things expand when they get hot, so we can gather from this implicit reference to hell fire, that the narrator has not totally freed himself from evil ways. The ‘you’ may well be God (or Jesus). If so God will ‘sort of understand’ – understand the narrator’s attempts to be generous, perhaps, but not his failure to commit himself wholeheartedly to good. It is God who the narrator then accuses of inconsistent behaviour in bringing him here and running him away. ‘You brought me here’ can be taken as meaning God was responsible for his birth, or his being in the ‘here’ of the alley and the ruckus. What the narrator seems perplexed about is that God, in the narrator’s view, is ‘trying to run me away’ – bring about his death.

On the surface, then, this seems to be an expression of bewilderment about the human condition (cf ‘We live and we die / we know not why’ in When the Deal Goes Down). But it can also be seen as the narrator disingenuously blaming God for his moral death in the sense of his own moral failings. The narrator blames God, rather than himself, for the writing being on the wall – that is, for the inevitability of his demise. ‘The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say’ – throughout Modern Times things which are said, rather than seen, are not to be trusted or believed. Here, the poet hints, we should not believe – as the narrator does – in the inevitability of human moral failure. The narrator is seeing God/Jesus as the cause of his evil propensities and not as a means of overcoming them – the sun as burning heat, rather than as the propagator of life; as punisher rather than as saviour.

Thunder on the mountain, rollin’ like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music coming from
I don’t need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day

The fourth verse has the thunder of the song’s opening line ‘rollin’ like a drum’. The drum can be taken as a symbol of base, savage instincts – the association is with war and, closer at hand, the impetus to get involved in a ‘ruckus’.  ‘Rollin’’, an image which recurs in the song and constantly throughout the album, suggests movement or the attempt of Thor to reach the narrator. It succeeds too well; the narrator is seduced and decides to go to Thor – ‘sleep over there’. Sleep – another constantly recurring image – suggests lifelessness, inactivity, being one step away from death. (cf. ‘Sleep is like a temporary death’ in Workingman’s Blues.) The narrator has opted for Thor, or moral death, rather than Jesus. The trombone has been replaced by the drum.

The claim that he doesn’t need a guide is on one level ironic since he has chosen the wrong path. He doesn’t ‘know the way’, if this is taken as the Way (as in ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Life’). The ‘I’m your servant both night and day’ of the verse’s final line seems to be a declaration of allegiance to Thor. However, it too contains irony. Earlier, day was associated with the sun – Jesus. This indicates an ambivalence in the narrator’s disposition, with more potential for following Jesus than he thinks.

The pistols are poppin’ and the power is down
I’d like to try somethin’ but I’m so far from town
The sun keeps shinin’ and the North Wind keeps picking up speed
Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need

The context is still local violence (the lighthearted ‘poppin’’ of the pistols reminiscent of the lighthearted ‘root-a-toot-toot’ in the traditional, but tragic, Frankie and Albert). The ‘power is down’, indicates on one level a power cut resulting from the violence, and on another the presence of a god (cf. ‘prayin’ to the powers above’ in Spirit on the Water)  – though it is ambiguous whether this is Thor or Jesus. It is up to the narrator to decide which he wants to it to be.

Time has moved on because the sun, which was expected, is now present. We have perhaps moved from the time between the Fall and the birth of Jesus to the present day. The dual influence of Jesus and Thor is reasserted by ‘the sun keeps shinin’’ and ‘the North Wind keeps pickin’ up speed’. The reference to the North Wind reminds us of the narrator’s earlier decision to ‘grab my trombone and blow’. This indicates that he has decided to give his allegiance to Thor. However, that the narrator is not beyond hope is indicated by the fourth line’s self-abnegation and concern for others.

I’ve been sittin’ down studyin’ the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today

Clearly then, the battle for the narrator’s soul has yet to be won. Nevertheless, his commitment to ‘the art of love’ – Christian love – rings hollow, as is indicated by the awkward scansion of his mindless cliché ‘I think it will fit me like a glove’. He is more concerned with loving women than loving his neighbour. Just as Alicia Keys represents both moral worth and degradation, so love can be both Christian and hedonistic. His attitude to women seems chauvinistic. It is selfishness, or chauvinism, which, ironically, is what is actually ‘the matter with this cruel world today’, if only the narrator realised it. In these lines we are getting an impression of a flawed character – of someone prepared to act according to the dictates of Christianity, but failing to see what that involves.

The word ‘today’ which closes the verse adds to the irony. It reminds us that it was on an earlier today (‘today’s the day’) that the narrator had decided to take a more positive approach. The word ‘say’, in ‘do just what I say’, is also important in that it again indicates that the narrator’s view is not to be trusted – as is borne out by his complacency about love, his chauvinism, and his inability to understand his own responsibility for the world’s problems.

Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king
I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing

We are now told that the thunder is ‘rollin’ to the ground’ – meaning perhaps that it, or Thor, is getting near. In fact, if he has carried out his decision to ‘sleep over there’, the narrator has approached it. Nevertheless, the narrator will ‘get up in the morning’; he is determined now to be active and no longer morally and spiritually asleep. The ‘hard road’ is the morally good life, and the king, to whom it leads, is the king of heaven. He is going to walk the ‘hard road down. The ‘down’ is ambiguous, suggesting an ambivalent outlook. It associates his action with both Jesus and Thor by way of ‘the power’ which is also ‘down’. It could refer to Jesus having come down from heaven, or to the thunder ‘rolling to the ground’. It is apparent, then, that the narrator’s new outlook remains fragile. This is further emphasised when he says ‘I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing’, thus indicating his failure to recognise that all betrayal is a betrayal of Jesus’ love.

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman’s church, said my religious vows
I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows

By the eighth verse the positive outlook has been all but destroyed. The narrator throws in his lot with the ideal of war. And he intends not just to raise an army, but ‘raise me an army’, the egotistic ‘me’ showing he has drawn back from the Christian selflessness of the sixth verse. This egotism is further made apparent in the ‘my’ of ‘my army’. His earlier chauvinistic attitude to women is reinforced by his reference to them as ‘bitches’, this callousness being made all the more apparent by the fact that, from the reference to orphanages, we can tell they must be dead. The economy of the writing does not allow us to be told the manner of their deaths, but it seems unsurprising in the context of the war-like goings on that the narrator now espouses.

The use of ‘sons’ – reminding us of the Son – for the orphan soldiers is, however, a further reminder that spiritually all may not be lost. Indeed in the next line the narrator claims to be behaving as a Christian by attending church. Nevertheless, we are told that he ‘said’ his religious vows, not ‘made’ them as normal English requires; the choice of ‘said’ indicating untrustworthiness or insincerity. The milk of the final line may well symbolise wholesomeness, physical and moral, but the exaggerated claim to have ‘sucked the milk out of a thousand cows’ again shows that he cannot be trusted. The narrator’s choice of the phrase ‘sucked the milk out of’ is telling in that it carries decidedly unwholesome overtones of violence reminiscent of the structurally similar ‘beat the cr*p out of’.

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain’t no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams

The ninth verse seems to begin with the aftermath of a dispute. Time has moved on again for the ‘good woman’ has been acquired. However she has apparently, in the face of the narrator’s chauvinism, achieved a measure of equality. The narrator admits ‘I got the porkchops, she got the pie’. That equality extends to the narrator’s judgement of himself and her – ‘She ain’t no angel and neither am I’. However this acceptance of male/female equality lasts no further than the end of the line. Now the woman is accused of greed, hypocritically in the circumstances. The narrator’s mind then apparently transforms this greed into ‘wicked schemes’, which he presumably sees as directed against himself. In making this unaccountable transformation, the narrator reconfirms himself in his chauvinistic ways.

Further unintentional self-condemnation on the narrator’s part comes with his dismissive attitude towards the woman’s dreams. That ‘dreams’ is the word used for her aspirations is significant since it has positive connotations (as opposed to, say, ‘nightmares’), and in that it therefore represents a bridging of the day/night divide. By dreaming, she is turning the wrongdoing represented by night, when dreams occur, into a desire for good. It is this desire for good that the narrator admits to not caring about.

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down

We then see a change of attitude to the thunder. The thunder is no longer an attraction but ‘a mean old twister’. The narrator claims to feel betrayed because punishment (at the last judgement perhaps) is about to be inflicted on him.  Women are now respectfully called ‘ladies’, showing an abatement of his chauvinism, and that he is not beyond redemption. However, true to his egoistic outlook, the narrator initially sees the wrath of the god as bearing down on him alone. Then, true to his chauvinistic outlook, he sees only women – not men – fleeing the god’s fury.

The advice to ‘roll your airplane down’ would seem to be self-directed. Previously the thunder had rolled –  ‘like a drum’ and ‘to the ground’. And the ‘power’ was ‘down’, so in rolling the plane down the narrator is throwing in his lot with the god. The ambiguity about whether the god is Thor or Jesus is resolved here. Since he has dismissed Thor as a ‘mean old twister’, we can assume that it is Jesus whom he is now espousing, in an attempt to escape his wrath.

Everybody going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could, I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

The penultimate verse begins with an admittance that the fleeing is not just confined to the women – ‘Everybody going’. The narrator’s selfishness reappears in the ‘I want’ and ‘Don’t wanna’, of the first two lines. Fear of retribution has caused the narrator to follow the crowd and adopt a Christian outlook. He does it because it is expedient. To do otherwise would be taking an unnecessary ‘chance’. His insincerity, or self-delusion, comes out when he says ‘I did all I could, I did it right there and then’ – a ludicrous claim to righteousness. A Christian life requires more than a one-off good act. Equally absurd is his ‘no need to confess again’, a futile attempt to convince himself that he is morally upright.

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer’s on the table, the pitchfork’s on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself

The song ends, on one level, with the narrator seeming to commit himself to Thor (or Mammon) rather than Jesus. In going ‘up north’ – origin of the wind associated with Thor – he turns his back on Christianity. He has no intention of doing the harvesting he announces he is going to do – ‘harvest’ having associations with bringing souls to Jesus. This is clear from the pitchfork being ‘on the shelf’ – out of reach. What is in reach is the hammer, Thor’s hammer. Nevertheless the hammer, symbol of Thor, and perhaps (via gavel) of judgment, is ‘on the table’. There is still a chance the narrator will decide to reject the opportunity to take it up. As such, it need not represent the narrator’s final rejection of a Christian life.

Overall, then, the song is in part a representation of the complexity of human nature. The only character, the narrator, is realistically three dimensional. He is neither all-good, nor all evil. He tries to do what he considers right, but does so for the wrong reason. He deceives himself into believing that his motives are the right ones, and he has no appreciation of his own failings or their impact on others. He gives in to temptation, he is chauvinistic and hypocritical. However, the song is also about the possibility of salvation for the human race, as represented by the narrator. No matter how much he seems to have rejected a morally good life, the hope of salvation is never completely lost.

Welcome

I’m glad you’ve found the site and hope you find at least some things in it worthwhile. Please do comment. There’s a post on each song from New Morning, and I’ve begun to add posts on other albums.

I should say that the overall aim of the site is to present literary interpretations of Dylan’s lyrics. Close, literary analysis is something which doesn’t appear much on the internet or in books on Dylan, yet I can’t imagine I’m alone in regretting this. I can think of just a handful of sites and books I’ve found at all useful. This, then, is an attempt to at least begin to plug what I see as a gaping hole. The focus is on meaning rather than style but I’m not claiming special insight into ‘the meaning’ of the songs. I’m sure there will be other, often better, interpretations. And of course meaning will often be personal for each listener, or perhaps arise from a transcendent beauty, or subtlety, created by the writing, making hopeless any attempt to pin it down.

Nevertheless I think it’s important to get away from those interpretations which assume each song is only about some trivial aspect of Dylan’s life – drugs or meeting Elvis, say. The topics are of much greater import. I’ve tried to show that in many songs the speaker is not Dylan himself, and indeed may be somebody he wouldn’t want to be. These narrators are not to be taken at face value. Like the speakers in most so-called dramatic monologues, they are duplicitous but in a way that the careful listener can see straight through.

An example from outside Dylan’s work which may serve as a model is the narrator in Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Up At A Villa, Down In The City’. Here the narrator, in attempting to show his appreciation for the beauties of nature, unintentionally informs us that his primary concern is with monetary value:

‘The wild tulip, at the end of its tube, blows out its great red bell
Like a thin clear bubble of blood, for the children to pick and sell’

What a shame he included the final clause! In a similar way Dylan often gets his narrators to give things away about themselves. In ‘The Wicked Messenger’, for example, the narrator is clearly untrustworthy when he characterises the messenger as wicked. The narrator comes across as someone with a contemptuous attitude towards the messenger, and fearful of him. How do we know? Because Dylan tells us the messenger came from Eli (God). It’s very unlikely that God’s representative would make a meal out of insignificant things (‘the smallest matter’), or ‘flatter’ his hosts. Far more likely the narrator is trying to turn us against the messenger so that he can continue in his own disreputable ways.

I started with the songs from New Morning, an album of quite amazing lyrical complexity. Ever since I bought it forty-five years ago, I’ve suffered under the illusion that it’s thin both musically and lyrically. Going back to it, I’ve realised how wrong I’ve been. Some of the lyrics seem now to be masterpieces of precision, the thematic richness being disguised by a sometimes extreme simplicity of language. I hope I’ve managed to get across something of Dylan’s skill here.

It’s worth pointing out that the New Morning album – like a number of Dylan’s albums – works as a unified whole (thus exemplifying one of its themes). The same themes are treated in different songs, and very often the exact same words will be used again and again from song to song. Nevertheless the treatment, and the contexts, are so different that it’s quite possible to overlook the thematic connections. I think these connections would be worth a study in their own right. Unfortunately, constraints of time have necessitated my ignoring such inter-connectedness here and instead treating each song as an individual work.

I should say in passing that I hope I don’t come across as some sort of apologist for Christianity, let alone as a religious nutter!  I’m certainly not trying to impose religious interpretations on the songs, and it was surprising to me when some seemed open to such interpretation – especially where an album precedes Dylan’s ‘born again’ period. If anything I’ve said seems way off, please do say!

David Weir

The Wicked Messenger

Eli is apparently a variant on the name of God as spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic. It can also refer to the high priest of Shiloh. Either way this suggests the messenger is not wicked since he comes from God, or God’s representative. It would appear, then that we’d be wrong to trust the narrator when he refers to the messenger as wicked.

The question who had sent for him is irrelevant; what matters (and what the narrator has recognized, but is ignoring) is who he was sent by – God. Only the most ego-inflated would think God’s messengers should not be welcome unless ‘sent for’. The narrator proceeds to willfully misrepresent what the messenger says. He claims that the messenger is ‘multiplying’ (exaggerating) small matters, whereas it’s much more likely that he was characterizing important matters accurately – perhaps like how to behave morally. In the light of this, his so-called ‘flattery’ could perhaps have been a genuine attempt at diplomatic politeness, which is being deliberately misrepresented.

That the messenger is unwelcome is apparent from his having to make his bed behind the assembly hall – something the narrator mentions without further comment as if to cover his own guilt for being unwelcoming. ‘Oftentimes he could be seen returning’ associates him with Christ and the awaited ‘second coming’. The implication is that those who don’t pay attention to the messenger’s message are likely to suffer at the last judgment. That his feet are burning suggests the place to which he is delivering his message has hellish qualities – it’s full of evil. Since the messenger is from God, he notices it more than the intended recipients of his message. That the message is written takes up the idea that his ‘tongue it could not speak, but only flatter’. Having failed to get the message across in speech, due to being dismissed as a flatterer, he resorts to written words – perhaps symbolizing scripture.

In the third verse the reference to leaves beginning to fall is to an image from Isaiah of fallen angels going into hell. It suggests what the consequences are of the message not having been heeded. The seas parting would seem to be an image of God’s goodness – in saving Israelites after their escape from Egypt. That these things begin happening, i.e. at the time the narrator is speaking, and outside their original biblical context, suggests that both evil and God’s love are  timeless. The narrator appears unaware of the significance of what he’s saying, though, since he merely reports that the messenger was confronted, without any hint that confrontation is inappropriate. This man from God should have been welcomed, not ‘confronted’. The exhortation not to bring any news that isn’t palatable is also presented uncritically by the narrator, and is obviously absurd. These people  need to know the bitter truth. The comment that it opened up his heart would be both patronizing and untrue – wishful thinking on the part of the disingenuous narrator. That he is castigated for not bringing good news is also ironic in that what he is bringing almost certainly is ‘good news’ – i.e. the gospel; the word ‘gospel’ literally meaning good news.

Visions Of Johanna

Although the song’s title seems to have been adapted from Jack Kerouac’s thematically related novel ‘Visions of Gerard’, there is also much in common between the song and T.S.Eliot’s poem ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’.

In the latter the narrator is walking home at midnight when he sees various things in a distorted, but apparently insightful,  way due to tricks of the light. The world appears dead or dying. For example, he sees a woman, perhaps a prostitute, who is poor and ageing, ‘the border of her dress … torn and stained with sand’. The unsightliness of her eye reminds him of a dead branch, ‘as if the world gave up the secret of its skeleton’.  Any hope of spiritual escape from this death turns out to be just ‘The last twist of the knife’.

Just as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, night-time is the  setting for ‘Visions of Johanna’. And here too  the light produces distortions which cause the world to be viewed in an insightful way. The narrator experiences certain visions and these seem to be of a world which is empty, miserable and without decent prospects. The emptiness is also represented by a radio programme  so devoid of value that  it’s not even worth switching off. The girl Louise, previously presented as a happy lover, is now represented as  bones inhabited by an unhappy spirit – reminding us of Eliot’s skeletal imagery used to present a world whose secret is that it is dead. Outside things appear to be no better. In a lot described as ’empty’,  ‘ladies’ resort to playing a mere children’s game, and prostitutes try to escape their miserable reality by indulging in escapist fantasy. To the night-watchman the world appears pointless  – mad.

The lack of hope for the future is represented by the museums which are empty  (‘voices echo)’ – presumably vast halls containing only long-dead things. The narrator sees no hope in heaven as an escape from this world’s emptiness  because heaven (‘salvation’) will be no better than a museum, a vast hall for dead people. Like a museum, existence in heaven would eventually just seem tedious. Hope for the future on earth is equally missing. Even the Mona Lisa seems to the narrator to represent the misery of our existence.  And an unsophisticated young girl, the ‘primitive wallflower’, freezes – presumably in horror – when the appearance of the jelly-faced women  makes her realise what the future has in store for her (like mirrors reflecting her future, in the way Louise seems to be a mirror for the narrator).

If Johanna is taken to represent the world as it is – reality – then the visions of Johanna are the world as it now appears to the narrator. It would seem it is the visions, rather perhaps than the reality itself, which are impressing themselves on the narrator because we are told  ‘Johanna’s not here’. The suggestion could be that the visions are, at least in part, a false representation of reality – literally a result of a trick of the light. In fact the narrator’s outlook is unduly pessimistic . We’re told ‘Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues / you can tell by the way she smiles’. One thing that’s usually said about the Mona Lisa is that the smile is ambiguous – it’s not obviously happy or sad. Yet the narrator sees only a representation of sadness.

It’s not just the narrator who opts for seeing the world in a negative way. So too does the listener. We’re told that the ‘primitive wallflower’ freezes, but it’s the reader rather than the narrator who decides that this is so. It’s because she too, like Mona Lisa, has the ‘highway blues’ – meaning a miserable journey through life. Part of the songwriter’s skill is to force our decisions.

Louise crops up in a number of places and is presented in various ways. Overall she can be taken to represent good sense, love, understanding and kindness. For the first of these she is a source of sensible encouragement to  the narrator to  refuse to resort to (‘defy’) drugs (‘a handful of rain’) as a means of overcoming the horror of being ‘stranded’ – unable to escape our lot.   Then she’s a lover, then the narrator himself (‘she seems like the mirror’), perhaps in that that he recognises his lot in hers. Later she shows understanding when she criticises the cynical peddler – the drug supplier, representing  a false escape from reality. And she represents generosity in that she ‘prepares’ for him, rather than indulging in a pretence of care like the countess. Only when she forms one of the narrator’s possibly misleading visions is she presented in a negative way (‘bones’, ‘ghost’, ‘howling’) – a way which perhaps, in keeping with the visions generally, does not represent reality at least at its worst.

Just as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ there’s a suggestion of hope, so too there may be some hope here. The Mona Lisa’s smile might just as well represent contentment as the ‘highway blues’. The ‘little boy lost’ not only ‘brags’ of his misery, suggesting it might not really be genuine misery, but will (according to Blake from whom the phrase ‘little boy lost’ is taken) be a ‘little boy found’  – by God. Madonna, if taken as a representation of Christ rather than Mary, can also be taken to represent hope. Her cape which once ‘flowed’ is Christ’s blood which once flowed to save the world. Christ’s second coming is still awaited despite his (Madonna’s) not having yet ‘showed’. As in ‘Rhapsody’, hope is not the final suggestion, however. The emptiness of existence, a world which self-destructively ‘corrodes’, continues. And the fact that Christ’s blood ‘once flowed’ suggests that it isn’t doing so any more. And not having ‘showed’ might suggest not going to show.

Equally open to contradictory interpretation is the fiddler’s ‘everything’s been returned which was owed’. This may refer to Christ’s successful redemption of the world, but equally could be presumption on the part of the fiddler. The suggestion, then, is that our debt has to be paid by us as well as Christ, and our part is still to be paid.  Since the fish is an emblem of Christianity, Christ being a fisher of men, the fish in the fish truck too could be taken to be Christians on the road to their just reward, their debt to God having been paid by Christ. Equally, though, since the fish in a truck are likely to be dead, they could be seen as representing the pointlessness of existence (or a certain type of existence).

It’s curious that when the fiddler writes on the fish truck that ‘everything’s been returned which was owed’ the narrator’s conscience explodes. It would seem that either the narrator is the fiddler, or is someone who at least sees himself reflected in the fiddler. And that in turn suggests that the narrator’s conscience is rebelling against his presumption. In the end he doesn’t accept it because his negative visions are ‘all that remain’. Like ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ the song ends on a pessimistic note.

Went To See The Gypsy

The song seems to be about spiritual renewal, both for oneself and for others. The narrator wants to achieve that renewal and initially sees the gypsy, presumably a fortune teller or seer, as a way of discovering how to do so. It seems that the narrator has visited the gypsy once before  in Las Vegas, but the success was temporary – leading to his having to repeat it now. This earlier attempt is mirrored by his attempt referred to in the opening line, and this in turn is mirrored by the return referred to in the final verse.

Mirroring is a theme of the song. When the gypsy asks ‘How are you?’, we’re told the narrator ‘said it back to him’, thus merely reflecting the gypsy’s words. And when the narrator makes a ‘small call out’, taken literally this is both mirrored, and amplified, by the dancing girl’s shout. The dancing girl is thus reflecting back to the narrator his own desire to return to the source of his knowledge. The dancing girl even says that the gypsy can bring the narrator ‘through the mirror’ , and that he had done this previously in Las Vegas. The mirror thus in part represents the division between the narrator’s present state and the state of renewal he craves.

Light is another theme. The gypsy’s room has minimal light, it being described as ‘dark’ and the lights as ‘low and dim’. We are then told that ‘Outside the lights were shining/On the river of tears’. And the song ends with the narrator watching ‘that sun come rising/From that little Minnesota town’. There is a movement then from the gypsy’s minimal light, to the greater lights outside – presumably street lights, to – ultimately – the sun. Light might be seen as symbolising the renewal the narrator is seeking, and this increases as the song progresses.

That the theme is renewal becomes apparent from a consideration of the place names. Las Vegas, where the narrator has been, is renowned as the ‘city of sin’, and Dylan himself was born in a ‘little Minnesota town’. By way of the place names, then, Dylan himself is identified with the narrator, a narrator who has been morally deficient. At the same time – if ‘sun’ is read as ‘Son’ – there is also an association of Dylan with Christ, the origin of spiritual renewal. This would enable  the song to be seen as about Dylan’s being both the cause and beneficiary of spiritual renewal. He is the cause of that renewal through his identity with the Son. And he is the beneficiary of the renewal in that he is the one who sees the sun. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, Christ is not the whole answer to the quest for renewal.

That the song has a moral significance can also be seen through the gypsy’s words. The narrator’s reply to the gypsy was a mindless (if polite) echoing of them. This suggests any significance to them was lost on the narrator. Yet ‘how are you?’ shows the gypsy taking on himself the very concern for others, here the narrator, which the narrator needs to take on for himself on seeing others’ misery – the ‘river of tears’.  And the gypsy’s ‘Well, well, well,’ may echo Christ when he contrasts water in the well with the water he gives, water which will become for others ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4.13) This would suggest that although the gypsy is not the answer in himself, he can provide the means for the narrator to achieving it. He can ‘move [him] from the rear’. Put another way, Christ is not the answer in himself to the narrator’s quest for renewal, but can be the means to his achieving it.

That self-renewal is all but achieved is suggested by what we’re told in the last verse. On his return to the gypsy, the narrator finds the gypsy gone. This is surprising, especially since we had earlier been told that he was ‘staying’ in the hotel. It suggests that there was something chimerical, perhaps unnecessary, about him. Taken at face value it seems like a mockery, then, that his ‘door was open wide’ – welcoming, but leading to nothing. However this might also suggest that the narrator is still not barred from achieving the renewal he seeks. He perhaps no longer needs the gypsy to magically bring him through the mirror. Looked at this way, the gypsy was a stimulus to action – to prosaically walk through a door on his own, rather than through a mirror with magical help. Similarly the dancing girl’s function was to urge him to accept that stimulus. The narrator is able, then, to rely on himself – be the sun from a Minnesota town.

What, then, is the significance of the dancing girl? The reason the narrator returns to the gypsy’s room, it is implied, is her words because they are ‘music in [the narrator’s] ears’. She perhaps represents superficial pleasure of the sort available in Las Vegas. That she might represent superficial pleasure can further be seen in the effect she has on the narrator. Not only does he return to the gypsy’s room, but in so doing either ignores the ‘river of tears’ – watching instead the lights that shine on them –  or thinks that the solution to that problem lies with the gypsy, as distinct from what he himself can do. Alternatively, however, she can be seen as a reflection of the narrator’s own desire to achieve fulfilment. She recognises his need to be pushed into self-reliance. She is the starting point for his moral maturation (just as the water Jesus provides is the starting point for personal salvation).

In returning to the gypsy’s room it was, we’re told, nearly early dawn. The implication is that what happens next is itself actually early dawn – the beginning of the new morning of the album’s title. As he witnesses the sun rise, the narrator is at the same time witnessing his own new morning, rising from ignorance to a new understanding of what he himself can do to achieve spiritual renewal.

Appendix

An article in the Guardian (24.07.15) has suggested that Dylan songs lack the lyrical breadth of the rap artists. Clearly this is a fault in need of urgent remedy. Accordingly I offer the following rewrite of a verse from Went To See The Gypsy as an example to Mr Dylan of what Guardian readers expect from him. It is to be hoped the offering won’t fall on stony ground.

I visited the expectant Bohemian
Residing in sumptuous lodgings.
As I tendered my approach, I encountered
His beam of resigned recognition.
From his camera gloomy and congested,
Where luminosity was sparse,
He enquired whether I was able to flourish,
To which I unenthusiastically reciprocated in kind.

Although some will object that  the improved version has not preserved all (or, indeed, any) of the original rhyme, it should be apparent that this and some inconsequential loss of meaning are more than compensated for by the newly added veneer of lexical richness.

The Man In Me

In this song the narrator tries to present a positive image of himself, but only succeeds in letting the reader know how pathetic he is.

The opening lines are disingenuous. The speaker tells us:

The man in me will do nearly any task
And as for compensation, there’s little he would ask

What we’re in fact being told is that there are tasks he won’t perform, and for those he does perform he expects to be compensated. Although he praises the woman for getting through to the man in him, the context suggests that even the tasks he does are performed only at her instigation. Accordingly, if he requires her as a stimulus to action, he would seem to have little reason to boast about ‘the man in’ him.

The second verse opens on a note of dissatisfaction:

Storm clouds are raging all around my door
I think to myself I might not take it anymore

Again he needs her to ‘find the man in me’ in order to deal with these ‘storm clouds’. If there’s a danger of his not being able to ‘take it anymore’, it would again seem that there’s not much manliness about him. The ‘wonderful feeling’ he has knowing she’s near would seem to be not so much a romantic feeling for her, as he seems to imply in mentioning the effect on his heart, but a feeling of relief that she’s there to sort out his problems. It sets his ‘heart a-reeling’ from his toes to his ears in the sense that she enables him to take heart in the face of his adversities.

That he is in fact unmanly is apparent from what amounts to an admission of cowardice in the final verse. He admits he’ll hide so that he isn’t seen. It’s absurd that he tells us that it’s ‘the man in him’ that will hide since the very fact of hiding suggests there is no ‘man’ in him. He attempts to justify his hiding by telling us he doesn’t want to become a machine, but this sounds like a pathetic excuse. It’s ironic, too, since he is machine-like in that he only acts when prompted by the woman.

The final two lines have ‘Took a woman like you/To get through to the man in me ‘ in place of the earlier ‘Take a woman like you/…’ The implication is that the man in him has now surfaced, due to her, whereas previously it hadn’t. However, what he’s told us in the rest of the song suggests that this is anything but the case. He is as unmanly with the woman as he was without her.

Father Of Night

The song works as a summary of themes and motifs of the album, unifies them, and draws attention to the interconnections between the songs.  Nearly every word or concept is to be found in another song, and quite often in several. Examples from the first verse alone are father (pa), night, day, taketh (take), darkness, bird (birdies), rainbows, sky, loneliness (lonely), pain (tears), love and rain.

The ‘Father’ would seem to be God, but the sense is ambiguous. ‘Father’ could equally refer to the god of Blake’s ‘Tyger’, which is the cause of negative as well as positive things, and could just as well be the devil, as the traditional, all-loving Christian God. It would depend whether the expression ‘Father of loneliness and pain’, for example, is taken to mean ’cause of loneliness and pain’ or ‘someone who consoles when people are afflicted by loneliness and pain’ That the traditional God is at least in part intended is indicated by the perhaps reverential use of archaic, biblical verb forms – ‘taketh’, ‘teacheth’, ‘shapeth’, and the positive things attributed to him. That a devil-god is intended is indicated by the painful things attributed to him.

The language is also simplistic, mirroring the childlike language of Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’. God is presented anthropomorphically as teacher, builder, shaper and turner. This childlike language would suggest that the positive view of God is in fact an inaccurate one. In the light of this, the line ‘Who dwells in our hearts and our memories’ is ambiguous. It’s unclear whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have such a god at one’s core.

In the final line, ‘Father of whom we most solemnly praise’, ‘of whom’ might seem an ungrammatical alternative for ‘who’. This would mean we praise such a God. Taken literally, however, the person we ‘most solemnly praise’ would be his son – i.e. Christ. The important thing about God would not be that he is equally the cause of good and bad, but that he is the cause of Christ.

Day Of The Locusts

The song seems to be based on a real event – Dylan’s accepting an honorary degree. What comes across in each of the four verses  is the narrator’s lack of enthusiasm for the occasion. Nevertheless we are made to feel there is more significance to the occasion than the narrator seems to realise.

There is a fair amount of religious imagery – particularly the references to locusts, a tomb, darkness and light, praying, and possibly gates and trucks. Locusts were sent by God to punish the Egyptians by eating their crops; they represent God’s work as well as destructiveness. Additionally there may actually have been locusts (cicadas) around during the year of the award. Apparently swarms emerge from under the ground about once in seventeen years, and that year, I’m given to understand, was such a year. Also, the title is reminiscent of Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust. This may be significant for there the locust of the title may (I’m told) refer to the main character; likewise Dylan’s narrator may also be one of the locusts.

‘Darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb’ (verse 2) seems to be a reference to Christ’s burial. The darkness would be the moral state of people before being saved by Christ’s death. The next line, ‘I was ready to leave, I was already walkin”, by implication has the narrator as Christ since he is leaving the tomb. This would explain the subsequent ‘light in the room’. His emergence becomes, then, not just the onset of his own freedom but the freedom of everyone else (just as Christ’s death and resurrection freed everyone else from original sin). In verse 4 the narrator expresses surprise at having emerged alive, reinforcing his identity with the equally surprisingly risen Christ. This fits with the opening line’s mention of ‘tears and perspiration’ since this would be more appropriate to a crucifixion than to a degree ceremony. And the reference to judges in verse 2 creates a judicial atmosphere appropriate to an impending crucifixion rather than an academic occasion. In this context the trees of the opening verse would represent crosses.

Freedom as opposed to confinement is represented by natural images – birds, trees, locusts, hills. It’s ironic that the narrator escapes to the hills, since the hills, ominously, are described as ‘black’. This perhaps indicates that his freedom is not assured; he is still in darkness. And as Christ, he is escaping to more Calvarys.

The implicit ambivalence with respect to his escape is reflected in, and perhaps explained by, a similarly ambivalent attitude towards the locusts. On the one hand they sing with a ‘sweet melody’ and are ‘singing for me’, but on the other their song ‘give me a chill’ (despite the weather being hot) and is a ‘high whinin’ trill’. The suggestion is that on one level the locusts are the people at the ceremony who, while intending to be nice, succeed only in making the narrator uncomfortable. Since the locusts are ‘off in the distance’ the implication is also that the narrator will still be subject to their oppression even when he’s in Dakota.

However, it is also possible to identify the locusts with the narrator. Just as they emerge from underground, so the narrator emerges from the darkness which ‘was everywhere’. Like the locusts, he achieves his freedom when emerging from the darkness. That he never totally escapes, given the description of his refuge as ‘black’, suggests that Christ’s death and resurrection, with which he is associated, is not the be all and end all. More is required – in some sense more Calvarys – before humanity can achieve salvation.

Overall, then, the song expresses the narrator’s ambivalence towards life as represented by the degree ceremony. He sees his presence as bringing light, but neither he (as one of those present) nor the others present (as beneficiaries of his ‘light’) can escape the darkness purely through his efforts.

One More Weekend

The song concerns the characters of two people who seem to have been in a relationship. The reference to children suggests they are, or were, married. Throughout, the woman the speaker is addressing is not present, so we’re just getting an indication of how he might behave towards her if she were. The narrator continually shows that he’s an unpleasant character trying to impose himself on her. If the first line is taken as referring to him, then he’s sly like a weasel – as the first syllable of ‘slidin” might suggest. The phrase ‘One more weekend with you’ seems at first to indicate the speaker’s delight at another weekend with his partner. However, when the phrase changes to ‘one more weekend’ll do‘ it’s clear that he’s not looking for any contact after that date. The impression is given that he wants one more weekend just to satisfy his sexual desires, before ridding himself of her.

That the speaker’s motives are sexual is suggested by the phrase ‘ride on deck’ and the line ‘We’ll fly over the ocean just like you suspect’. Taken literally ‘We’ll fly over the ocean’ seems an enticing prospect, not the sort of thing to arouse suspicion. What the woman ‘suspects’, then, is presumably that the speaker has some nefarious intention.

In the third verse the lines ‘Things will be okay/you wait and see’  show the speaker clearly aware of the woman’s misgivings since he has to try to persuade her. The suggestion ‘why not go alone/just you and me’ is ironic because the woman does want to be alone, but truly alone – without him. It’s similarly ironic that he says ‘We’ll go some place unknown’  since we learn in the final verse that he is intent on searching for her. She’s a ‘gone mama’. In other words she’s already ‘someplace unknown’.

Just as the speaker might be the weasel in the first verse, so the woman may be the rabbit in the fourth. Weasel’s attack rabbits. The idea is likely to arouse the listener’s sympathy for her. However the opening line of the first verse is ambiguous. The weasel could equally be the woman – ‘on the run’ from him. In that case she too is exhibiting characteristics of slyness in avoiding him.

The fourth verse provides two other indications of the speaker’s character. In ‘I’m happy just to see you, yeah, lookin’ so good’ the qualification ‘lookin’ so good’ implies he wouldn’t be glad to see her otherwise. And the parenthetical ‘yes you will!’ shows him to be domineering. It’s left up to the reader to decide what it is he intends her to have no choice in doing.

And in verse five we learn that the speaker realises that he’s unlikely to succeed with any comparable woman – ‘You’re the sweetest gone mama that this boy’s ever gonna get’. From the picture we’re getting of him it’s easy to see why he might never get a similarly attractive partner.

Overall the song, while, exuberant in tone, has the speaker betray both his sinister intentions and the unwillingness of the woman to have anything more to do with him.