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 this opening line would also seem to imply an acceptance that she’s about to die. Given the context, the departure of her lover, we can take it that she’s contemplating suicide. In death the only things she’d ‘need’ would in fact be ‘things that will last’ – things of eternal value, such as having been selfless while alive.
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’
Here she’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. Obviously the woman is not literally dead. The images involving the sky and the saints can be seen as an expression of the woman’s fears about spiritual death resulting from her suicide. This fear of spiritual death gets addressed as the song progresses.
Spiritual Renewal: Orphan And Vagabond
It’s because she’s imagining she’s dead that the woman is able to think of her child as an orphan crying as a result of having been left destitute:
‘Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
The gun would represent the destructive consequences of her suicide which might in the circumstances be considered a selfish act. These consequences would be her own spiritual death and, it’s perhaps implied, the suicide of the uncared for child.
Accordingly, if she’s to avoid spiritual death she needs to act responsibly. It’s in this context that the vagabond mentioned in the fifth verse becomes relevant. The implication seems to be that she can achieve spiritual renewal by assisting the vagabond.
Caring for the vagabond would be the exact opposite of turning her child into a destitute orphan. In terms of responsibility the vagabond plays the same role in her life as her child, and this is made clear by way of their implied identity. This identity is suggested both by an obvious similarity between orphans and vagabonds in an uncaring world, and 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. And this in turn makes the woman identical with the orphan. The significance of this is twofold. First it renders her suicide indistinguishable from the orphan’s. It’s not just that her suicide leads to his, but that in committing suicide she is killing him. Secondly, in helping the vagabond the woman is doing good to herself too in that improving the vagabond’s physical wellbeing amounts 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 might be the woman as she envisages herself following her suicide, or perhaps the saints she imagined failing to notice her in heaven. By focusing on life these images needn’t haunt her anymore.
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.
In envisaging a time – a ‘now’ – after her suicide, she clearly hopes that all that’s oppressing her will have been ended. What immediately becomes clear, however, is that there’s a gulf between her wish and reality. Despite her death, it isn’t ‘all over’. Her misery will simply live on in her orphaned child. In fact, given their identity, she herself will still be alive. Viewed objectively, her death will have achieved nothing.
Nevertheless the title can also be taken as expressing a truth. 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 of her misery. Interpreted in this way the word ‘now’ no longer refers to the period following her death, but to the present moment.
This is also its sense 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 others she’d selfishly tried to exploit.
Mental Turmoil: Sheets, Sky, Blankets, Carpet
That she’s in a distraught mental state in the early part of the song 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.
The carpet’s moving is clearly 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 thought include:
‘All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home
Your empty handed army is all going home’
The metaphor is one of naval and military failure, representing perhaps her views on her own situation. The military metaphors cannot but help remind us of the orphan’s gun, however. She may be thinking that those who live by the sword, however unsuccessfully, die by the sword.
Nevertheless, there is hope. It’s significant that the army is ‘going home’ in that this negative description contrasts it with the saints which are ‘coming through’. ‘Coming’ has connotations of being welcome and therefore of success which the army lacks. Also, despite their failure, the sailors and army have survived which suggests that the woman too might live to fight another day. That the army is ’empty handed’ is, from a military perspective, neither good nor bad. It simply hasn’t made any conquests. The thought seems to be that although the woman’s strategy for living has come to nothing, this need not be a disaster however she might feel about it.
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. 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, illusion and madness.
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.