In ‘Scarlet Town’ we’re presented with a view of the world as it seems to the narrator. The setting is a dance hall, although the song just comprises the narrator’s thoughts and a few spoken words from the moment the music starts, to around the time he makes a request. In the earlier part of the song the features of the world are made to appear harsh, as if there is no hope for any but the privileged. But the descriptions we’re given are highly subjective. They come through the eyes of a flawed character whose judgments can be unduly biased. However, as the song develops so do his thoughts. By the end, we’ve been given reasons to believe there may be substantial hope after all.
Origin in ‘Barbara Allen’
The song borrows phrases from various John Greenleaf Whittier poems, and a juxtaposition of Dylan’s and Whittier’s versions will sometimes serve to highlight the very different effect that Dylan is creating. More importantly, perhaps, a version of the traditional song ‘Barbara Allen’ provides the title and a couple of lines for Dylan’s song, and the latter can be seen as a more detailed study of the folk song’s main theme. The original tells the story of a young woman who spurns her lover as he’s on his deathbed, but comes to regret it. She dies and is buried in the same churchyard. Then:
‘Out of sweet William’s heart, there grew a rose
Out of Barbara Allen’s a briar.
They grew and grew in the old churchyard
Till they could grow no higher
At the end they formed, a true lover’s knot
And the rose grew round the briar’
The song ends happily in that the unity which the lovers failed to achieve in life, is achieved in death. Nevertheless, even in death their characters remain unchanged – Sweet William’s being represented by a rose, and Barbara Allen’s by a coarse briar. In some versions the colours, the red of the rose and the green of the briar, are emphasised. Despite the opposite qualities represented by the plants – true love and harsh cruelty – the harshness no longer matters. It’s overcome by gentleness, represented by the rose growing round the briar.
Dylan’s song too presents a world containing both good and bad, and one in which the presence of bad should in no way prevent the combination of the two from resulting in ultimate good. His world, though, is far more recognisably our world, so that unlike its progenitor the song isn’t in danger of becoming over sentimental.
That Scarlet Town should be seen as the whole world is clear for a number of reasons. Not only does it contains the seven wonders of our world, but the events and people alluded to seem to have a universal significance. Life and death, wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty are all present just as they are in real life.
Doubts about William and Mary
The second verse gives us what at first seems to be a straightforward account of an impending death – that of Sweet William. The tone is sad and seems to reflect the narrator’s state of mind:
‘Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face and heaping prayers on his head’
However, all is not necessarily as it seems. Mistress Mary may have no more genuine concern for the dying William than Barbara Allen before her. Although her behaviour might seem innocent enough, one might wonder why she’s said to be merely at ‘the side of the bed’ rather than at his side. The situation is being presented as ambiguous, though it’s not clear whether the doubt is being imparted by the writer or the narrator. The words are the narrator’s, but whether the doubt is his will depend on how consciously he chose them. It may be that the writer is giving the narrator’s account an ironic overlay of meaning so that we’re not forced to take what he says at face value.
We’re also told she’s:
‘Kissing his face and heaping prayers on his head’.
Again this sounds innocent until one notices the precise words used. Kisses are not always the sign of affection they’re meant to be. Kissing has overtones of betrayal. The idea is taken up later in the song:
‘See who will hold you and kiss you goodnight’
where on one level ‘kiss you goodnight’ – in a verse beginning ‘…the end is near’ – can be seen to mean ‘kill you’. ‘Heaping prayers’ might also seem to be suspiciously overdoing it. Again, in each of these cases it’s unclear whether it’s the writer or the narrator who is responsible for the secondary meaning.
There’s also ambiguity about the line:
‘I’ll weep for him as he would weep for me’.
It’s not just that we don’t know whether this is a statement of the narrator’s outlook (‘I’d weep’) or Mistress Mary’s, but it suggests both sorrow and the lack of sorrow. Which is the case will depend on how likely it is that ‘he would weep for me’. While the implication is that he would weep copiously, what might be implied is ‘He wouldn’t weep for me at all, so I’m not going to weep for him’.
There’s evidence in the first verse for each interpretation – sorrow or lack of sorrow for the dying man. There we were told that ‘Uncle Tom’ is still working for Uncle Bill’. ‘Uncle Tom’ can be taken to represent black people, while Uncle Bill, judging by his name, is Sweet William. The line can be taken in two ways. On one level it suggests that there’s still slavery or, at the very least that black people are still being mistreated (as in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’) by unscrupulous employers like Uncle Bill. But equally it might be ‘Uncle Tom’ who is being criticised, the expression ‘Uncle Tom’ often being used for someone who is being unduly subservient.
There is, then, nothing definite that can be said about the characters of Mistress Mary and Sweet William. The uncertainty forces us to see the characters as each representing both good and evil, and as such exemplifying the theme taken from ‘Barbara Allen’.
The Narrator’s Pessimism
Whether or not he’s alive to the possible negative qualities of William and Mary, the narrator undoubtably takes a rather jaundiced view of the world. He seems to be a pessimist. He seems anxious to present the world as corrupt.
In connection with the beggars, ‘Help comes’ he admits. But he immediately adds ‘but it comes too late’, as if he’s determined to dwell on the negative. The writer’s allusion to the parable of the rich man and the beggar (Luke 16.20) also makes it clear to the listener that the narrator is being unduly pessimistic, for the whole point there is that the beggar ultimately is rewarded.
The narrator also seems unduly pessimistic when he (presumably unconsciously) alludes to the biblical account of a woman being healed by touching Jesus’ cloak (Matt 9.20) – ‘I touched the garment, but the hem was torn’. What would it matter if the hem is torn? The narrator, it seems, is making excuses, claiming that circumstances are against him.
This pessimism seems to extend to an excessive self-deprecation (ironically given his reference to ‘Uncle Tom’):
‘You make your humble wishes known’
What need is there for him to describe his wishes as ‘humble’? There’s no contextual requirement as there is in the Whittier poem from which the phrase comes:
‘But, bowed in lowliness of mind,
I make my humble wishes known’ (The Wish of To-Day)
And the fact that Dylan’s narrator sees these wishes as being made in cemeteries – ‘by marble slabs and in fields of stone’ – suggests that he focuses too much on the negative aspects of death. This happens again when he announces ‘the end is near’. And it also happens when his presumably ironic ‘Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn’ seems to have him replace Gabriel with a fictional nursery rhyme character as he anticipates the death of Sweet William. The narrator, it seems, does not hold out hope for eternal life.
For the narrator the world seems devoid of hope:
‘Put your heart on a platter and see who will bite
See who will hold you and kiss you goodnight
In Scarlet Town crying won’t do no good’
To put your heart on a platter is presumably to open up, or announce your innermost feelings. But there’s a sinister atmosphere, perhaps created by the association with John the Baptist whose severed head was delivered to Herod on a platter (Matt 14.6). ‘Bite’ could mean ‘respond positively’, but in the light of this association and the reference to crying, it seems more likely to mean ‘take a bite out of it’. Similarly ‘hold you and kiss you good night’ could be taken literally with the suggestion that such a display of affection could occur. Or it could be meant literally but with the implication that such a display won’t occur. Or it could simply mean there’s a high chance someone’s going to do you in.
All in all, the narrator is presenting us with a bleak picture.
In presenting this thoroughly pessimistic view, the narrator seems to be ignoring signs of hope.
That there is hope is indicated in numerous descriptions. First, the ‘hot noon hours’ needn’t be as unpleasant as the description implies because there are also ‘palm leaf shadows’ – suggesting shade. The Whittier source has:
‘The palm-leaf shadow for the hot noon hours’ (To Avis Keene)
which puts emphasis on the effect of the palm leaves by mentioning them first. Dylan’s takes the emphasis away from the shadows by mentioning the heat first:
‘Scarlet Town in the hot noon hours
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers’
The effect is to make the narrator seem to be presenting things in as bad a light as possible. This happens again in the line:
‘Help comes, but it comes too late’
Although mentioned first, help is not what gets emphasised. By saying it comes too late, the narrator creates the impression that there’s in fact no hope. But he could equally have said ‘although it arrived too late, at least help did come’. This would have put the emphasis on help coming, but deprived the narrator of a chance to be pessimistic.
A couple of descriptions imply that the narrator sees his choices as predetermined. To begin with, you don’t have to ‘put your heart on a platter’ – an absurdly exaggerated form of wearing it on your sleeve – ‘and see who will bite’. This might be seen as unnecessarily asking for trouble. If ‘put your heart on a platter’ means ‘make an open display of your feelings’ then it’s hardly surprising if this would get met with hostility. But a more subtle account of one’s feelings would almost certainly have less injurious consequences.
Secondly, while the narrator resorts to alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with problems:
‘You fight ’em with whiskey, morphine and gin’
he surely doesn’t have to. This would amount simply to giving in. It seems weak on the part of the narrator to just assume he’s doomed. Why, we might wonder, can’t he be assertive in the face of adversity?
That the world has positive and not just negative characteristics is also reflected in the plants singled out for mention. There’s ‘silver thorn’ – reminding us of both Judas’ betrayal of Christ for payment in silver, and of Christ’s crown of thorns – but this is balanced by the innocuous ivy leaf. And:
‘There’s walnut groves and maple wood’
Coming at the end of a verse dwelling on death, this line might seem intended to strengthen the narrator’s negative picture, but it’s capable of doing the opposite. Walnut foliage is green whereas maple’s is gloriously red. Thus Scarlet Town’s trees reflect the harmony in death of the lovers in ‘Barbara Allen’. All that’s needed for there to be hope is not a complete absence of evil, but the co-existence of evil and good. And these requirements are met in Scarlet town where we can find:
‘The evil and the good living side by side’
This hope is perhaps reflected in some of the song’s other religious allusions. Scarlet Town is ‘under the hill’. Presumably this is Calvary, thus suggesting the possibility of salvation. And the name of Sweet William’s lover has been changed to Mary so that it now puts us in mind of the intercessionary role of Christ’s mother.
Narrator’s Negative Character
The narrator not only comes across as a pessimist, but part of the time as unprepared to take on responsibility for others. This is particularly apparent from the way he describes Scarlet Town as if from a distance – as if he’s not really part of it. The dismissive tone of ‘The streets have names that you can’t pronounce’ makes Scarlet Town seem unfamiliar – a foreign country, suggesting that the narrator thinks it’s troubles shouldn’t impinge on him. But it shouldn’t be foreign; the narrator was born there. It’s only foreign when contrasted with the comfortable cosy existence from which the narrator speaks:
‘You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here’.
The mention of God is ironic because the godly thing to do would be to get involved putting things right.
We can also see his attitude as cruelly dismissive. In the company of his lover he says to her, admiringly,
‘You’ve got legs that can drive men mad’.
But as soon as he starts talking behind her back she becomes
‘… my flat-chested junkie whore’.
And he’s avaricious:
‘Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce’
– a conflated line suggesting his regret both at the price of gold having gone down, and at the amount of it that’s available. The welfare of the people would not be likely to be dependent on either; gold is a concern of the wealthy.
Narrator’s Positive Character
Despite his negative qualities the narrator should not be condemned outright. He himself is an example of Scarlet Town’s quality of having ‘the evil and the good living side by side’. The evil in him is balanced by good – perhaps even infused with it. While his description of his lover is cruel, in the very same sentence he shows kindness in asking for a song to be played for her. Furthermore he recognises his imperfections and makes a point of ‘making amends’. The decision is crucial because it’s as he goes about ‘making amends’ that his pessimistic outlook becomes a smile, and that in turn results in a general transfiguration:
‘While we smile all heaven descends’
After the ‘all’ followed by a word beginning with ‘h’, we might have expected him to say ‘all hell is let loose’ or something similar. But he doesn’t. Despite the pessimism we saw earlier, he is capable of seeing that the positive can co-exist with the negative. In the final lines he seems to admit that there is such co-existence:
‘The black and the white, the yellow and the brown,
It’s all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town’
There’s a balance between black and white, between evil and good. And the presence of evil is not to be dwelt upon. On the contrary:
‘All human forms seem glorified’
The narrator realises that pessimism is the wrong approach. We don’t need perfection. Humanity can be transfigured – glorified – even though it contains evil. Just as Barbara Allen was an imperfect character, and was able to produce an ideal unity with the good William after her death, so people in the actual world can be transfigured despite its wickedness. In the company of the good ‘all human forms seem glorified’ – the wicked included.
Despite this there are indications that we shouldn’t be complacent. We’re told ‘all human forms seem glorified’, not that they are glorified. Also, the colours black, white, yellow and brown mentioned in the penultimate line are perhaps more than anything else the colours of people’s skins, a reminder that there’s still massive inequality. Uncle Tom is still working for Uncle Bill in the sense that black people are too often treated as inferior to white people. Nevertheless there is hope. Sweet William’s death may be ushering in a springtime of renewal.