The first thing to say is that there’s little reason to see It’s All Over Now Baby Blue as ‘about’ an event in Dylan’s life, such as his adopting a new musical style around the time it was written. Essentially it’s about the mental state of someone trying to renew their life following what they see as a calamity – the breakup of a relationship. Although the woman concerned is being addressed by the narrator, it makes sense to see her for most of the time as addressing herself. As such the song can be taken as her thoughts as she comes to terms with the change in her life and perhaps achieves some sort of spiritual renewal. It traces the development of her mental outlook from the realisation of her situation at the beginning, to her purposeful response to it at the end. Along the way this outlook moves from depression, back to reality and finally to optimism.
From the outset the woman’s state of mind is associated with death and whether her life has been of moral value:
‘You must leave now, take what you need you think will last’
Taken literally, she is doing no more than deciding on a course of action following the departure of her lover and, presumably, the end of their relationship. However, from what follows in the first verse (in particular the reference to the orphan’s gun) this opening line would also seem to imply that there’s a danger of imminent death at the hands of her child. The imminence of the danger, and the need to ‘leave now’ is enhanced by her death being presented as having already occurred – the child is an ‘orphan’. The orphan need not be a literal child, and the death need not be a literal, physical death. The child is best seen as the consequences of the woman’s past life which will in some sense destroy her if she doesn’t turn her back on them. The term ‘orphan’ perhaps implies a lack of concern for others, an orphan having been deprived of parental care. The woman’s death, then, (if it were to occur) would be spiritual death resulting from a failure to reform. Reforming needn’t require a total rejection of her past. There are things ‘you think will last’ – things of eternal value, which can be a basis for spiritual renewal. The urgency of a need to reform is further enhanced by the phrase ‘you think…’. There’s no time to decide whether the things to be taken will actually last.
It’s on this interpretation that the fifth lines of both this verse and the second verse make sense. First she’s warned (or warns herself):
‘Look out, the saints are coming through’
and then she becomes aware that she’s no longer on earth:
‘The sky too is folding under you’
Again the woman’s no longer merely anticipating death, but imagining she’s already dead. She’s imagining, in traditional Christian terms, that she’s on the threshold of heaven, but has little chance of being admitted. Instead she’s in danger of being mown down by a horde of saints. Since she’s not actually dead, nor in danger of literal death, the images involving the sky and the saints can be seen as an expression of the woman’s fears of spiritual death. This fear of spiritual death gets addressed as the song progresses.
Spiritual Renewal: Orphan And Vagabond
If she’s to avoid spiritual death she needs to act responsibly. It’s in this context that the vagabond mentioned in the fourth verse becomes relevant. The implication seems to be that she can achieve spiritual renewal by assisting the vagabond.
Caring for the vagabond would represent the exact opposite of her behaviour so far. There’s an obvious similarity between vagabonds and orphans in an uncaring world. A vagabond, like an orphan, is someone in need. In a sense the vagabond and the orphan are one and the same at different times – the latter representing past failure to care for others, and the former a new opportunity to do so. This identity is supported by a similarity in the ways they’re described. In each case, perhaps to represent their helplessness, they’re shown to be immobile – standing :
‘Yonder stands your orphan …’
‘The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore’
It’s not just the orphan and the vagabond who are one and the same. That the vagabond is dressed ‘in the clothes that you once wore’ suggests that he and the woman are identical. She, too, was in the vagabond’s position, in need of help from others. The vagabond represents an opportunity for the woman to help someone else in the same position as she had once been in. In addition, improving the vagabond’s physical wellbeing will amount to improving her own spiritual wellbeing.
This improvement in her spiritual wellbeing is represented in the song by her substituting one form of love for another – her love for her lover (eros) by her love for the vagabond (agape). That the one is to be seen as a direct replacement for the other is clear from a similarity in the language used in describing their behaviour:
‘The lover who just walked out your door‘
is replaced by
‘The vagabond who’s rapping at your door‘
However, that the vagabond is still ‘at’ the door, and has yet to walk through it, indicates that the woman has yet to help the vagabond. Her spiritual welfare is still in the balance.
Traditional religious concepts play a part in representing the woman’s spiritual renewal. One way in which this is so is in the use of fire and sun imagery. When the orphan is described as:
‘Crying like a fire in the sun’
the woman seems to be dismissing his misery, represented by fire, as insignificant compared with her own, represented by the much vaster sun.
In the final verse, however, things have changed. The sun is no longer a representation of her misery, but is associated instead (by way of a sun/Son pun) with Christ. Accordingly the exhortation to:
‘Strike another match, go start anew’
can be seen as an exhortation to start a fire and so take the first step towards bringing the much vaster fire – the sun or Christ – into her life. This will be done by kindness, literally striking another match (a love match of sorts) with the vagabond.
The advice to ‘forget the dead you’ve left’ can also be interpreted in a religious way. It is similar to Christ’s exhortation to ‘let the dead bury the dead’ (Matt 8.22; Luke 9.60) – perhaps meaning that to prosper spiritually one needs to engage with the living. The ‘dead’ to be forgotten are her past moral failings.
Religious imagery is also present in the expression ‘something calls for you’ in that ‘calls for’ has a religious air. This is perhaps because it reminds us of ‘vocation’ in its original sense. In this sense, by heeding the call to act selflessly for the sake of others, the woman would be beginning a process of spiritual renewal.
The Title And The Refrain
The words constantly at the forefront of the woman’s mind are those of the title, which are repeated in the refrain:
‘It’s all over now, Baby Blue’
There are two, conflicting, ways in which this claim can be taken.
The first is negative. In envisaging a time – a ‘now’ – after her anticipated death, she sees her life as a failure. Her life is gone, and with it both her chance of happiness and the opportunity for doing good.
The other way of taking the claim is more positive. By the end of the song it might well be the case that ‘it’s all over now’ in that her decision to help others will have brought about the end their misery, and with it her own.
Interpreted in this way the word ‘now’ no longer refers to the period following her death, but to the present moment – the moment she decides to reject her previous selfish outlook and be more openhearted.
This is also the sense of ‘now’ in the first and final verses:
‘You must leave now …’
‘… now something calls for you’
where the woman sees immediate action as a way of ending her present misery. The present is being seen not only as a time of misery, but as providing a means of ending that misery. It’s by action in the present that she can deal with her pain so that it really is ‘all over now’. It’s perhaps because she realises this that she ceases to project herself into the future, and sees the need to turn her back on the past:
‘Leave your stepping stones behind …’
– the stepping stones perhaps representing her hitherto more self-centred approach to life – in particular, those she’s exploited.
Mental Turmoil: Sheets, Sky, Blankets, Carpet
The woman’s distraught mental state in the early part of the song would seem to be as a result of rejection by her lover. That she’s distraught is suggested by the lines:
‘The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets’
The expression ‘crazy patterns’ not only suggests the appearance of crazy paving, and therefore creases in the sheets, but that these creases have been caused by her writhing around in her mental agony as if she’s indeed crazy. The ‘painter’ responsible for them is therefore her. That the painter is ’empty-handed’ also suggests that the patterns are creases because they cannot be the result of actual drawing.
The woman’s mental turmoil is further seen in the realistic way one thought gets sparked off by another. That her thoughts should move in this way is made plausible by their running from one flat, laid out thing to another. They run from her sheets to the sky, then from her lover’s blankets to the carpet, and finally (simultaneously with the latter) from the sky to the carpet.
‘The sky too is folding under you’
is a reappearance of her imagining that she’s dead suggested by the previous reference to sheets:
‘The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets’
In particular the creases, or folds in the sheets seem to have suggested to her the idea of the sky ‘folding’. Such is her mental state that something fairly normal is giving rise to a bizarre thought about being dead and in heaven.
The same thing happens a little later. We’re told, matter-of-factly, that the lover:
‘Has taken all his blankets from the floor’
This is immediately followed by:
‘The carpet, too, is moving under you’
Taken literally this is ludicrous, but in her mind, the removal of the blankets has become the removal of the carpet. This perhaps suggests that the woman can’t help associating her lover’s leaving with her whole life falling apart, even to the extent of her losing the carpet. His rejection of her is again turning her into a vagabond, and thus reflecting her own rejection of others.
Since the lover is unlikely literally to have taken the carpet, the carpet’s moving is an illusion, created in her distraught state – probably by her walking across it unaware of what she’s really doing. It’s not dissimilar to her illusion about the sky folding, a fact emphasised by a similarity in the language used in each case. Just as the carpet is said to be moving ‘under you’, so the sky was said to be folding ‘under you‘. However, the repetition also serves to draw our attention to a difference between the cases which might suggest her mental state is improving. At least if the carpet is under her, it’s in its rightful place, whereas the same cannot be said about the sky.
If she is walking across the carpet, this might be seen as a sign of hope for her. She at least is being active, and this makes a favourable contrast between her situation and those of the orphan and vagabond whose desperation is represented by their simply ‘standing’.
The song is a fine representation of someone’s mental state as they oscillate between decisive action and despair. The opening lines of verses one, two and four are all positive, as are the song’s final couplet, suggesting the woman is determined to put her immediate past behind her. The passages in between are essentially negative, as her thoughts start to dwell on her situation.
These negative thoughts include:
‘All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home
Your empty handed army is all going home’
They are presumably ‘your’ sailors and ‘your’ army, in that they represent the woman’s approach to life up to now. The militaristic metaphors suggest that she sees the successful formation of relationships as a matter of making conquests. Her strategy has failed, however. Not only are her sailors ‘seasick’, the last thing sailors should be (thereby suggesting her methods are not up to the job), but her ‘army’ – returning ’empty handed’ – has conquered nothing. Her lover has left.
In addition to her defeat, the battle has left her mentally scarred. The destruction of the woman’s mental resources is represented by the fate of her ships. They’ve been sunk. We’re not told this explicitly, but it can be inferred from the sailors’ rowing – they’re in lifeboats. And since the military metaphors cannot help but remind us of the orphan’s gun, it may be that her depression runs further. She may be thinking that those like herself who live by the sword, die by the sword.
Despite this, there is hope. Literally it would be absurd for sailors to be rowing home. But the word ‘home’, used in connection with both army and the sailors, is important. It suggests a return to where they belong, to where they can do no more harm. In other words it suggests the bellicose approach they represent will no longer comprise the woman’s approach to forming relationships.
It may be significant too that the army is ‘going home’ – departing. This negative description contrasts it with the saints who are ‘coming through’. ‘Coming’ has connotations of being welcome. Thus the ‘going’ of the army, in line with the ‘coming’ of the saints, can itself be seen as reflecting the woman’s determination to change her spiritual outlook.
Hope is again implied in the second verse, which shows the woman confronting the problem of how to survive in her changed world. She accepts that what befalls one is a matter of chance:
‘The highway is for gamblers …’
A ‘sense’/’cents’ pun in:
‘… better use your sense’
tells us that she can only afford low stakes (‘use your cents’), but also that she recognises the need to act wisely (‘use your sense’) in selecting which risks to take. The same pun suggests how she might achieve spiritual renewal, for with the beggar at the door she has an obvious use for her cents.
All this leads up to a final suggestion of hope in the penultimate line, an apparent willingness to:
‘… go start anew’
As with so many Dylan songs, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue is a masterpiece of economical writing. The four verses cover a range of issues. These include the way the addressee’s state of mind develops as she tries to come to terms with the vicissitudes of her life, her spiritual development, and the relationship between helping others and saving herself.
Although the refrain at the end of each verse always remains unaltered, it would seem to reflect her despair only at the end of the first three verses. By the end of the song, it can be taken as expressing new-found hope in that the woman no longer seems intent on dying, and seems prepared to act for the sake of others. The route to this hope has been difficult, however, as attempts to get a grip are submerged by bouts of despair and illusion.
By the end of the song it seems likely that the woman is likely to start afresh. She’ll have made up for past failings. She’ll have done so by turning away from both her past and an imagined future, instead making the most of the present moment. By focusing on those around her she’ll be not just helping them, but bringing about her own spiritual renewal – and at the same time, a return of her mental wellbeing.
Revised 11.9.2017. The revision takes into account some, but not all, of the comments made by Mr Wheeler in his reply, and in my follow-up responses, below. I’ve discarded my original suggestions about the woman’s having thoughts of suicide, and the orphan’s being an actual child, in favour of one in which the woman feels her spiritual wellbeing is under threat unless she makes radical changes in her outlook.
Revision to ‘Hope’ section, 25.02.2020.