It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

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.


Spiritual Death

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 …’

and

‘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.


Religious Imagery

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 …’

and

‘… 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.


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.

So:

‘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’.


Hope

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 thought 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. They, like her, have achieved nothing. In addition, the military metaphors cannot but help remind us of the orphan’s gun. She may be thinking that those like herself who (metaphorically) live by the sword, however unsuccessfully, die by the sword.

Nevertheless, there is hope. It’s significant that the army is ‘going home’ – departing, so that what it represents will no longer be a part of the woman’s life. This negative description contrasts it with the saints which are ‘coming through’. ‘Coming’ has connotations of being welcome. Thus the ‘going’ of the army and the ‘coming’ of the saints can 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’


Conclusion

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.

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5 thoughts on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

  1. This article helped me out immensely in writing my analysis of Joyce Carol Oats’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I really appreciate this in depth analysis of this song. Thank you for writing it!

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  2. David, I stumbled across your blog and I’ve only read a few posts so far – I thoroughly enjoy your analysis as it’s easy to tell you have devoted a lot of time to thinking through the complexity of Dylan’s works and you offer interpretations I had never considered, especially in a religious sense. This is one of my favorite Dylan songs, although I much prefer the Grateful Dead version from the Complete Live Rarities Collection – I think the backing music does a much better job of capturing mercurial thoughts of the narrator. I’ve listened to this song what feels like hundreds of times, but I’ve never thought of it as a song about a woman’s suicide, or rather suicidal thoughts. Your analysis says a lot, so I don’t know if I can completely respond to it in this reply, but I would like to offer some of my interpretation to at least start a conversation and see where we differ and agree. Please excuse some of the rambling as this is mostly off the cuff.

    To me, the song has always been about moving forward and the struggles and fears that always seem to accompany that process. I see the narrator as this all-knowing voice in the mind of the subject/listener who lays out the chaotic and dooming yet beautiful situation the subject now finds herself in. The change in this person’s life, whether trivial or severe, is in fact there, and she can either fold with it or move forward. The first stanza describes how things are changing now, and exactly right now – there’s no time to plan ahead. It’s too late for that. The orphan with the gun has always been a perplexing line. I don’t see it as an actual orphan, but an extension of the subject herself– with all this sudden change comes no guidance. There is no parent to say what is right and what is wrong, so the image of the gun is used to convey ultimate desperation. As a lost orphan, this desperation is clearly juvenile and miniscule in the grand scheme of things, thus “crying like a fire in the sun.” Is it over? Well the saints are coming through, so it sure seems like it… but its far too early to end as the song has just begun, so we must move forward.

    The highway is for gamblers – time to get up and take a risk, but you better use your sense. However, nothing actually makes sense, hence the next line “take what you have gathered from coincidence.” It’s really a solid juxtaposition, because what sense is there in coincidence? I totally agree with you about the empty-handed painter being the subject a restless sleeper. The sky, however, resembles something greater, something far more complex that is completely out of the subject’s control, leaving her in limbo without the ability to know which way is up or down.

    The third stanza starts by describing all those who have tried and failed, but were never really prepared. It’s hard to even say that they failed, since they didn’t put everything on the line – they just went home. The sea-sick sailors feel sick, but they still have the ability to row home, so they clearly hadn’t made it that far. The empty handed armies never brought anything to begin with. Just as quickly as they showed up, they turned and left. Why does the lover have his blankets on the floor? He either hasn’t made it to the bed or didn’t stick around after making love to lay around for what’s next. He’s going home, too, without seeing what else is there to come. The carpet is gone, too, leaving the subject naked and without warmth. That’s no home.

    Finally, there is a realization. Leave the stepping stones behind. All that seems to have made sense in the past doesn’t necessarily make any sense at all. You can leave a trail that shows from where you came but it tells you nothing of where you will be or are meant to be. Don’t dwell on the dead – the dead doesn’t change. They stay where they are, and if you stay you may as well be dead, too. Now the subject can either be the vagabond and wander aimlessly through life, knocking on an empty home that once was, or embrace this change, start something new and move forward.

    Let me know what you think. I’d love to discuss each section in more detail as well as Dylan’s other songs.

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  3. Thanks for your comment. Sorry it’s taken so long to appear – I had to rescue it from the spam. Most of what you say I think I agree with – at least to the extent of thinking it’s plausible. I like your description of the narrator as an ‘all-knowing voice’ in the woman’s head. That seems to do justice to the tone.

    I think you may well be right that the orphan isn’t an actual orphan. The expression ‘your orphan’ sounds rather awkward; it’s not what you’d use when speaking to someone. I tried to get round that by casting her child as a sort of potential orphan, but I like the idea of the orphan being the woman. One slight problem with that is that it’s a ‘he’ (‘his gun’).

    Your point about nothing making sense and therefore her having to rely on coincidence is interesting, but I’m not sure you can get from ‘use your sense’ to ‘nothing makes sense’. It might be forcing an interpretation onto the phrase. It occurs to me that ‘gathered from coincidence’ in this context presumably refers to things which she’s acquired without actually having done anything to get them. It suggests she’s a bit feckless. Nevertheless, if they’re all she’s got left, the sensible thing is to make use of them.

    Yes, the sky folding under her could be seen as her being ‘left in limbo without the ability to know which way is up or down’. Why would the carpet be gone, though? The lover takes (‘has taken’) his blankets, so you’d expect it to say he’s taken the carpet rather than that the carpet’s moving. I might stick with my interpretation there!

    The lover’s blankets being on the floor does seem odd. I think I was picturing a room without a bed so that they both had to sleep on the floor. But that wouldn’t account for their being his blankets. Perhaps we’re not meant to take it literally. It could be combining the idea of a sort of vagabond lifestyle and her being so pathetic she has to rely on him even for blankets. I’m not sure. There’s a comparable problem about the sailors and the army. Why are they ‘your’ seasick sailors, and ‘your’ empty-handed army? (It’s a bit like ‘your orphan’.)

    I agree about the stepping stones. Your interpretation of them fits the song as a whole better than mine. And about the dead too. Presumably the dead would stand for the things in her life which she’d be better off forgetting.

    It was good to get your comments. Do let me know if you have any further thoughts. And it would be good if you can say what you think about some of the other songs too. I had hoped there’d be much more discussion on the site, so your contributions will be very welcome.

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    • Just thinking a bit more about the stepping stones. One thing I’ve been assuming, which may not be right, is that the narrator (which we agree can be taken to be the woman herself – a voice in her head) is to be trusted as a giver of advice. An alternative would be to see the woman as flawed both as recipient of the advice and as the giver of it. So, the advice to leave the stepping stones behind might not be good advice at all. Even if the stepping stones are not people the woman has selfishly tried to exploit, they still might be people who’ve helped her. In that case, just leaving them behind because they’re no longer of use would be irresponsible. If the narrator is giving flawed advice here, then it’s likely to be happening elsewhere in the song too.

      6.9.17: A couple more points. The song begins ‘You must leave now’ and, while this could be the narrator addressing the woman (or the woman addressing herself), it may be significant that the lover has left. Was this in response to the instruction? Whether he is still there to hear the instruction, and so could be leaving as a result of it, depends on whether time has moved on between the first and second verses. Related to this, it occurs to me that the word ‘take’ in the first line is significant. The narrator advises someone to ‘take what you need’. While this could be the woman mentally instructing herself, it may be significant that the lover has ‘taken all his blankets from the floor’. He seems not just to be acting in accordance with the instruction to leave, but to be following the advice to ‘take what you need’. The sailors and armies are also leaving in that they’re rowing/going home. However, in the armies’ case, according to the sung version of the song, they haven’t taken anything – they’re ’empty-handed’.

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