For the most part the song presents the character of the narrator. A number of techniques are used along the way, including ambiguity – and in particular ambiguity about identity. The narrator is apparently the same as that of No Time To Think, a song which ended with him contemplating murder or suicide.
Baby, Stop Crying starts with the narrator on the brink of carrying out his intention:
‘Go get me my pistol, babe’
It’s still unclear who the intended victim is. If the wife has a lover it seems likely to be him. But either way, given the narrator’s deranged state of mind, he could be considering killing either himself, or his wife, or them both. As it is, the song ends without the intention having been fulfilled.
The phrases ‘stop crying’ and ‘baby, please stop crying’, occur repeatedly in the chorus. It’s probable that Dylan is here re-using a device he used in ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ – playing on an ambiguity in the sense of ‘baby’. In the four main verses the woman is addressed as ‘babe’, not ‘baby’, indicating that – although she can still be seen as the one addressed in the chorus – the addressee is someone else, probably the narrator’s infant child. Since a child is referred to in No Time To Think, then it’s plausible that ‘baby’ would refer to an actual baby. That the identity of the addressee doesn’t have to be limited to one or other is significant in that the destructive effect of the crying on the narrator’s state of mind will be double. This at least mitigates what might otherwise come over as sheer heartlessness – a plea to stop crying repeated no less than thirty-two times.
On Street Legal the phrase ‘stop crying’ is also sung by the female backing singers, possibly without the word ‘baby’. Accordingly the addressee could also be the narrator. His wife would be complaining equally about his effect on her mental state. And, of course, she too could also be addressing a baby. The overall effect would be to show both the narrator and his wife driven to distraction in each others’ company.
Life And Death
The second verse is replete with ambiguity. The reference to fare in:
‘I will pay your fare’
suggests a journey, but we’re told nothing explicitly about the nature of the journey. The instruction:
‘Go down to the river, babe
Honey, I will meet you there’
is consistent with the fare being for a journey along the river, across the river, or even to the river. And even if we assume it’s along or across, we still don’t know if the narrator is going to accompany the woman, or if he’s expecting her to go alone.
Much will depend on what the journeys along and across the river each represent. It’s most likely that they are journeys to life and death respectively. Rivers traditionally represent life, and if the river is the Styx it would represent death. For the woman, a journey along the river might represent life without the narrator. One across it would represent life with him – if that for her is a sort of death.
The first verse too can be taken as involving the river, though here the direction of travel is vertically downwards – ‘down to the bottom’:
‘You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe’
As noted above, the phrase ‘down to’ in ‘You’ve been down to the bottom’ is echoed in the second verse’s ‘Go down to the river, babe’. The ‘bottom’ and the river are thus associated; the bottom is the bottom of the river. The narrator would seem to be contrasting life with him, represented by a joint journey along the river, with life with the ‘bad man’, which he associates presumably with drowning.
Given that the woman survives, ‘down to the bottom’ might also be taken as a sort of baptismal immersion. In this case, for the narrator the wife has survived metaphorical drowning in the ‘bad man’s’ company, but has emerged spiritually better off in that she’s returned to him. And from the wife’s point of view the ‘bad man’ has been the source of spiritual, or emotional, renewal, and her return to the narrator is to be associated with drowning.
The language of the third verse suggests an alternative interpretation of the second. This is that while the river does indeed represent death, it’s representing literal death. Accordingly, when the narrator says ‘I will pay your fare’, he’s offering to facilitate his wife’s journey into the next world – in other words, to kill her. Support for this in the third verse comes in the opening line:
‘If you’re looking for assistance babe’
To the early twenty-first century ear ‘assistance’ has overtones of ‘assisted suicide’. At any rate the word ‘assistance’ is distancing in a way that its synonym ‘help’ isn’t. The second line:
‘Or if you just want some company’
could then be referring to company in death – in other words a suicide pact. It would be for the purpose of such joint suicide that the narrator offers in the second verse to meet his wife at ‘the river’ (now more obviously the Styx).
The ‘Bad Man’
Just as the ‘baby’ need not be the wife, it’s clear that the ‘bad man’ is not to be uniquely identified with the wife’s lover. The description ‘bad man’ equally applies to the narrator himself, particularly if he’s also the narrator of No Time To Think.
At the surface level, the ‘bad man’ clearly is a different person to the narrator. This is implied by some subtle differences in the language and tone of the second verse compared with the language and tone of the first. In the first verse the narrator declares:
‘You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe’
and in the second,
‘Go down to the river, babe
Honey I will meet you there’
The difference in language concerns the words ‘with’ and ‘meet’. While we’re told the wife has been ‘with‘ a bad man, we learn that the husband intends merely to ‘meet’ her. The difference is crucial because it points to a harmony between the wife and the ‘bad man’, but to a distance between her and the narrator. Doing something with someone creates a kind of unity between them, whereas simply meeting them draws attention to their prior separation. Being with someone implies a mutual closeness, whereas ‘I will meet‘ implies at best closeness on one side.
Secondly, the tone of the first quotation suggests the wife’s behaviour was voluntary; there’s nothing to indicate compulsion. By contrast the second quotation has him ordering her, and tells her he’s going to meet her whether she likes it or not.
The ‘Bad Man’ As The Narrator
Despite these differences, there is also a marked similarity in the language which hints at an identity between the bad man and the narrator. In each verse the direction of travel is described using the same phrase – ‘down to the‘. She has been ‘down to the bottom’ with a man and she’s told to go ‘down to the river to be met by a man’. If, as this seems to imply, the bad man is the narrator, the narrator is unconsciously informing us that he himself is at least in part responsible for the woman’s demise in going ‘down to the bottom’.
The narrator and the’ bad man’ can, then, be seen as two men or one. If there are two men, the happiness and misery represented by different interpretations of the river can easily be accommodated. It’s possible for the wife to be happy with one man and miserable with the other. However if the narrator and the ‘bad man’ are one and the same it cannot be that the wife is happy with one man and miserable with the other. Instead her happiness and misery must apply to her relationship with the same man, the narrator, but at different times.
Breaking The Cycle
The wife, and perhaps the narrator, seem to be locked in a cycle of misery. Her attempt to find happiness with the ‘bad man’seems futile. The use of the word ‘back’ in the second line of the song emphasises this:
‘But you’re back where you belong’
She has arrived at where she is in the present only by having come back to it from the past. Not only does an earlier present give rise to an exactly similar present now but, if things don’t change, that present too will give rise to an exactly similar present in the future – and so on, ad infinitum. 1 On the narrator’s view his wife is locked in an eternal cycle of repeatedly finding the present. A way out of the cycle would be if a decisive step is taken.
Right And Wrong
There is reason to suppose that the narrator might be on the way to breaking the cycle. In the fourth line of the song,
‘Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong’,
which is apparently intended to refer to the use of the pistol, the narrator has, he claims, lost the ability to distinguish good from bad. There are a number of things to say about this. 3
First, if the line is taken at face value, it might indicate the narrator’s having concluded that traditional moral values don’t always apply. While it’s far from clear that the song is espousing this, there’s some suggestion in No Time To Think that remaining unfaithful to his wife might have been the better course of action. This might seem to him to justify decisive action.
It may be that the narrator has not really lost the ability to tell right from wrong, though. If he had, he surely wouldn’t think it necessary to point it out. It might be natural to do so after killing someone, to the police perhaps, but it’s unlikely to be the sort of thing on his mind beforehand. Furthermore, if he really knew what he was contemplating might be right or wrong, that would be a reason for not going ahead just in case. It would hardly excuse going ahead as he seems to expect it to. More likely the narrator is just trying to bolster himself in the woman’s eyes, hoping perhaps that she’ll prevent him from doing what he’s threatening, while at the same time trying to get her to feel guilty for the murderous or suicidal state she’s put him in. If so, the cycle of misery seems set to continue.2
Identity And Division In The Chorus
In the chorus there’s again an implication of identity between different people – this time the narrator and the woman. And it’s because they share the same knowledge:
‘You know, I know, the sun will always shine’
At this point they’re unified by their optimistic outlook – or so the narrator is convincing himself. Yet while the narrator and the woman can be seen as a unity, the narrator sees himself as mentally disintegrating. The crying is:
‘… tearing up my mind’
Unity with her, it seems, goes hand in hand his own mental disintegration.
The precise nature of the division in the narrator’s character comes out in the same line that informs us of his disintegration. In saying:
‘So baby, please stop crying, ’cause it’s tearing up my mind’
he’s unintentionally making himself out to be both considerate and selfish. He does so in giving two different reasons why she should stop crying. The word ‘so’ – used to imply a reason’s been given – refers back to the previous line which ends:
‘… the sun will always shine’
Accordingly the reason he’s giving that there’s no need to continue crying is that there are always grounds for optimism. But immediately, this considerateness for her state of mind vanishes as he follows up with a very different reason – her crying is destructive of his mental state. One part of him focuses on her need for comfort, while the other part is selfish.
Just as we’re told the narrator and his wife are united by the same optimistic outlook, so it seems they’re united in distress. In her case it’s shown by her crying, and in his it’s shown by his claim about the effect of the crying on his mind. Despite their being so similar, neither seems to recognise that each has as much need of sympathy as the other.
The Narrator’s Character – Positive
The presence of ‘please’ four times in the chorus shows the narrator to be respectful, and the offer of assistance and referring to himself as a friend suggest at least some consideration for others. He seems sympathetic too, recognising that she’s been often hurt before, and the recognition that she must be ‘madly in love’ combines sympathy with generosity.
If he’s actually unable to tell right from wrong, this too would work in his favour. Someone who murders, but can’t tell right from wrong, can hardly be judged guilty.
The Narrator’s Character – Negative
The narrator has a number of negative characteristics which not only seem to outweigh any good points, but enable us to see why the relationship might have foundered. He imposes on his wife, he’s selfish, and he seems to lack commitment to her.
Imposing: He’s both imposing and sexist when he tells the woman she’s back where she belongs.
And his expectations of her are equally imposing. From the outset he seems bossy, taking it for granted she’ll do what he says. The order:
‘Go get me my pistol, babe’
is followed by,
‘Go down to the river, babe’,
And even though the tone of the final verse is sympathetic, he still ends up being bossy:
‘Honey, come and see about me’
Selfish: Despite the sympathetic tone, it’s clear that the narrator is self-centred and selfish. In the line just quoted, instead of saying he’ll go to her, he requires her to come to him.
Additionally, he doesn’t just say ‘come and see me’ which the context requires, but ‘come and see about me’. Why ‘about‘? It changes the meaning. The focus is suddenly himself. He’s telling her that his state is as bad as hers, and that he’s just as in need of sympathy.
One might also wonder how he knows, in verse four, that she’s:
‘… been hurt so many times’
– unless, that is, he is the one who has hurt her. If the narrator is the same as the narrator of No Time To Think, we know that he has been unfaithful. In this case the aura of sympathy looks disingenuous. Apology would seem more appropriate than sympathy.
Uncommitted: The narrator’s commitment to his wife gets thrown into doubt in the third verse which begins:
‘If you’re looking for assistance, babe
Or if you just want some company’
‘Assistance’ seems remarkably stiff and formal in the context. So does ‘company’. And despite the offer in the next line:
‘Or if you just want a friend you can talk to’
it’s apparent that it’s not friendship pure and simple he’s offering. The qualifying ‘you can talk to’ sounds distancing . Once again he’s eschewing an opportunity for closeness, just as he did earlier in wanting to ‘meet’ her at the river instead of going with her. The expression ‘talk to’ provides no indication that he’s offering anything other than a one-sided conversation in which his own contribution will be minimal.
This lack of commitment continues in the fourth verse in which the tone suggests he’s resigned to losing her. When he says:
‘ I know what you’re thinking of’
he may mean he thinks she’s considering leaving him for good. That this has been in the back of his mind is suggested by his having said ‘Come and see about me’. The word ‘come’ implies he expects her to be somewhere else, and not likely to return unless pressed. If this is what she’s thinking, it suggests too that he’s relinquishing his other explicit claim to knowledge in the chorus, that the sun will always shine. He doesn’t actually think it will.
His recognition that her commitment is to her lover is implied when he says:
‘Well, I don’t have to be no doctor, babe
To see that you’re madly in love’
The ‘doctor’ reference has him presenting her love for someone else as an illness. At the same time the word ‘well’ – read as the opposite of ‘ill’ – either ironically suggests that her love is anything but an illness, or that he (not being ill, in the sense of ‘in love’) is in a position to judge. On each interpretation his claim that she’s ‘madly’ in love has him trivialising her suffering, rather than recognising that she too is mentally deranged – something borne out by her constant crying.
The lack of commitment shown goes hand in hand with a gradual diminution in his affection which becomes apparent as the song progresses. By the end he’s no longer so inclined to use expressions of endearment. While in three of the four verses ‘babe’ and ‘honey’ occur, after the second verse their appearance gradually lessens so that by the fourth ‘babe’ appears just once. And by this time ‘honey’ doesn’t appear at all.
The song uses a dramatic monologue style to present in his own words the narrator’s character and view of his situation. The presentation is helped along by way of a number of ambiguities, particularly ones involving identity. He doesn’t specify the identity of the ‘baby’, and this enables us to see it as both the wife and a child. The effect is to show us the extent of the pressure he’s under. On the other hand the ‘bad man’ can be seen both as his wife’s lover and as the narrator himself. Where the ‘bad man’ is seen as the lover, the narrator’s failure to recognise the ‘bad man’s’ characteristics in himself is complemented by his failure to recognise his wife in himself. He fails to see that her mental distress and need for sympathy is as great as his. At the same time, his actual identity with the ‘bad man’ would mean there is no lover. In that case the wife’s happiness and sadness would accompany her relationship with the narrator at different times, rather than the narrator and a lover at the same time. It’s not that he’s been replaced in her affections, but that in her eyes he’s no longer the man he was.
Although he seems to be a man at end of his tether, the narrator’s words are not entirely trustworthy. On the surface he comes across as polite, kind and sympathetic, an impression which belies his deviousness in pretending to be in a worse state than he really is. And towards his wife, he’s both imposing and sexist. In addition he’s selfish, his apparent concern for her wellbeing being insincere, or at least immediately being replaced by concern for himself. His attitude to his wife has been ambivalent from the outset. He’s never seemed committed , and by the end what feeling he may have had for her seems all but gone.
By the end of the song the narrator has made no progress towards carrying out any violent intention. The pistol of line three doesn’t get mentioned again. We’re left with the impression that he’s been bluffing in order to elicit sympathy.
- See footnote 3.
- Both the ideas of eternal recurrence, which a strong man can escape, and of a need to break down traditional distinctions between right and wrong, have their origin in Nietzsche. Eternal recurrence is also a theme of Mr Tambourine Man.
- See footnote 1.