A number of reviewers have said that this song is a tribute by Dylan to Jimmy Reed. But it doesn’t seem to be. It’s about self-deception and in particular how the narrator believes he’s giving a favourable impression of himself while succeeding only in doing the opposite. The narrator comes across as mixture of Jimmy Reed fanatic and of someone disappointed in Reed who thinks, wrongly, that he can succeed where Reed failed. He shows himself to be an unmotivated, inconsistent, misogynistic, woolly-headed loner who is too ready to blame others for his own inadequacies.
There’s more. The song has something in common with I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. Just as the narrator in that song was covering up a predilection for assaulting women sexually, so is the narrator here. Unlike in the earlier song, though, the present narrator attempts to pass the blame on to the women themselves.
We can tell much about the narrator from the opening two verses. Almost everything he says shows him to be critical in the most negative way. This gives us an insight into his character. He turns out to be misogynistic, ignorant and intolerant of religion. His approval of a ‘straightforward puritanical tone’ tells us that the opening line
‘I live on a street named after a saint’
is not the innocent descriptive comment it might at first seem to be. It’s intended ironically. Not only does the narrator shows no interest in the identity of the saint, but his sympathy with Puritanism would suggest he has no time for saints. The irony then turns to denigration when he dismisses protestants, not only by using the term ‘Proddy’, but by implying that they’re over-zealous:
‘I can tell a Proddy from a mile away’
He’s ignorant enough to think Jews and Muslims pray in churches, and announces this in the context of a misogynistic remark about women worshippers:
‘Women in the churches wear powder and paint
Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray’
In saying this, he’s implying that Muslim women wear excessive makeup, which is hardly the case.
The narrator’s implicit approval of ‘old-time religion’ and a bible-thumping approach to worship shouldn’t be taken literally. It’s not God he worships but Jimmy Reed – and even more than Jimmy Reed, himself..
Neither should his reference to:
‘… the mystic hours when a person’s alone’
be taken literally. His real concern may simply be to justify a misanthropic desire for solitude. He’s exploiting the fact that genuine mystical experience is often said to occur when a person is on their own.
A more genuine reason than the one the narrator gives for being on his own may be that he doesn’t get on with women. And this he makes up for by being a sexual predator. He as good as tells us this in the penultimate verse where he says of the ‘transparent woman’:
‘I thought I could resist her, but I was so wrong’
The words ‘resist her’ imply that it’s the woman who was a sexual threat to him. He’s claiming he couldn’t fight off her sexual advances. It’s far more likely that he was the threat though and that he’s covering this up. That this is so is implied by the cryptically expressed:
‘I’ll break open your grapes I’ll suck out the juice’
What’s more, his comments in the opening lines of the verse focus on her purely as a sex object:
‘Transparent woman in a transparent dress
It suits you well …’
He also seems to be implicitly blaming her for his assault on her, claiming it’s due to the way she’s dressed. This is an extension of the attitude he had in the opening verse where he criticised female church goers for wearing ‘powder and paint’. There too he may have been doing so to imply that women generally are responsible for the assaults on them made by men.
The narrator makes no attempt to treat the ‘transparent’ woman as a person. The fact that he doesn’t mention her name suggests he’s as uninterested in knowing it as he is in knowing the name of the saint after whom his street is named. He’s just concerned with his own needs and makes this explicit when he says:
‘I need you like my head needs a noose’
– implying that he has no use for the woman other than as a way of fulfilling his sexual desires. This focus on his own desires is in keeping with his earlier attitude:
‘Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need’
The narrator’s attitude to Jimmy Reed is ambivalent. He can be seen as simultaneously hero-worshipping Reed and as contemptuous of him – seeing himself as superior.
That the narrator hero-worships Reed is suggested by the second verse. Infatuation seems to be causing him to treat Reed not just as a king, as suggested by the phrase:
‘For thine is the kingdom …’,
but, given the religious language, as God. And although by saying:
‘I’ll put a jewel in your crown …’
the narrator is primarily saying he’ll advance Reed’s reputation, the use of ‘crown’ also shows he’s treating Reed as some sort of king.
Likewise, when the narrator says:
‘… go tell the real story’,
and goes on to associate Reed with:
‘… this lost land’,
the biblical flavour of the phrases suggests that he’s associating Reed with Christ. The latter phrase in particular treats him as a potential saviour of the world. Despite knowing he’s dead, and visiting his grave, the narrator addresses him as if he were in some sense alive, as a sort of Christ cheating death:
‘Can’t you hear me …’
Hearing him could only happen if Reed were still alive. The whole line is:
‘Can’t you hear me calling from down in Virginia’.
where the emphasis is on ‘me’. He seems to be saying ‘Whereas you were famous for your song Down in Virginia, it’s me that’s doing the calling now’. If the world is to be saved, and its saviour, Reed, is dead, then it’s the narrator who must save it. It’s up to him to ‘proclaim the creed’.
On this view, the refrain is also ambivalent. On the one hand, by saying ‘Goodbye’ the narrator shows his respect for Reed. On the other, it and the similar expressions he uses can be taken as indicating his disappointment in Reed for dying before having saved the world. In context ‘Goodbye’ might be seen as implying an unspoken ‘and good riddance!’
That the narrator’s attitude to Reed is ambivalent in this way is again suggested by the phrase:
‘… I’ll put out the light’.
Taken literally, it might indicate respect to someone who is dead, but equally it might indicate the narrator’s intention to put an end to Reed’s time in the limelight and replace him as musical saviour of the world.
There’s further ambivalence when the narrator says he can only fight his adversaries with a ‘butcher’s hook’. By this he’s not just associating himself with Reed, who had worked as a butcher, but is seeing himself as Reed. If he is seeing himself as Reed, then he must hold that ‘the kingdom, the power and the glory’ he attributes to Reed equally belong to himself.
On the other hand, the butcher’s hook reference suggests contempt – as if the only legacy Reed left the narrator as a defence against his critics was a butcher’s hook.
Whether or not the narrator is using the ‘Goodbye’ with contempt, it contrasts with how a sibling – presumably the narrator’s sister – greets him:
‘God be with you, brother dear’
The sister uses the phrase ‘God be with you’ with genuine feeling. It’s significant, though, that it’s the same phrase in unabbreviated form as the ‘Goodbye (God-be-with-ye)’ repeatedly used by the narrator. The difference is that the narrator is not showing anything like the same personal concern for Reed.
Neither does he show concern for anyone else as a person, even his sister. Rather than returning his sister’s greeting, he simply and coldly answers her question. The form of the question:
‘If you don’t mind me asking, what brings you here?’
indicates a difference between them. It’s considerate, but the first clause tells us that the sister is expecting to be snapped at despite the reasonableness of what she’s asking. And the line also lets us know that the narrator doesn’t visit her much. The encounter is clearly a surprise.
Exaggeration and vagueness
The third verse is an attempt by the narrator to stand up for himself. And it fails. He seems to denigrate critics for pointing out his lack of originality rather than learning from their criticism. The denigration is achieved by exaggerating their advice to make it sound absurd:
‘You won’t amount to much the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes and threw them into the crowd’
Obviously he wasn’t being advised to do any of the things he lists. Rather, he’s taking refuge in exaggeration. Furthermore, the phrase:
‘the people all said’
is an absurd generalisation reminiscent of the equally absurd claim that in ‘the churches’:
‘… the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray’
Presumably he’s been criticised for being incompetent – but rather than admit the source of the criticism, which might make it seem justified, he attributes it vaguely to ‘the people’ who ‘all said’. He makes it sound as if people generally can’t be trusted.
The vagueness continues when he says:
‘They threw everything at me …’
‘They have no pity – they don’t lend a hand’
Again, we aren’t told who ‘they’ are, and – as the narrator presumably intends – this prevents our being able to judge whether or not it’s right to withhold the pity and the support he claims is lacking. The narrator omits to tell us why he thinks he deserves pity, or why it would be appropriate for him to expect help.
And an attempt to answer a question from his sister in the final verse is hopelessly vague:
‘… I’m just looking for the man
I came to see where he’s lying in this lost land’
‘The man’ – which man? If he means Jimmy Reed, in what sense is he the man? It sounds as if the narrator is assuming his hearer must agree with his inflated estimation of Reed. He seems to be engaging in a sort of adolescent hero worship.
We can see from the three ‘nevers’ in verse three:
‘… never acted proud’,
‘Never took off my shoes …’
– that what the narrator is actually being criticised for is his negative outlook. He’s not doing anything to make a success of his life.
The negatives continue. He’ll:
‘… put out the light’,
but not do anything positive. He:
‘Can’t play the record’
And why can’t he play the record? It’s because his:
‘… needle got stuck’.
The excuse once again implies a negative outlook. He blames the needle, not himself; needles stick when records haven’t been kept in good condition. And he does nothing to put matters right.
The negative ‘can’t’ reappears in:
‘… I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand’
Well, he could if he took the trouble to get to understand it, but he’d rather just complain.
In the fourth verse, it’s in negative language that he disparages his critics:
‘They have no pity –they don’t lend a hand’
But he’s not short of self-pity, and the language in which he expresses this is again negative:
‘Had nothing to fight with but a butcher’s hook’
It’s also not true. He could have fought back either by demonstrating Jimmy Reed’s virtues as a musician, or by demonstrating the virtues of his own musicianship.
Another ‘nothing’ in the final verse is a sign of the aimlessness of his life. When asked what brings him to where his sister is, he replies:
‘Oh, nothing much …’
He even dismisses the whole of his country in negative terms, referring to it as ‘this lost land’.
All this negativity emphasises the distinction between the narrator and his critics. Whereas he associates himself with nothing, he associates them with everything:
‘They threw everything at me, everything in the book’
He’s clearly oblivious to how pathetic his whingeing attempts to sound downtrodden make him seem.
The narrator’s attitude is inconsistent. On the one hand he complains about ‘everything in the book’ being thrown at him, and yet on the other he makes a great deal of ‘the book’ in his dealings with them:
‘Thump on the bible – proclaim the creed’
In other words, while he objects to having others weighing him down with their requirements he thinks nothing of doing the same to them.
There’s a further inconsistency in his outlook. In the first verse, he objects to women wearing makeup in church. This is ironic given that he’s perfectly happy to applaud a woman for wearing a ‘transparent dress’:
‘It suits you well, I must confess’
Since the word ‘confess’ is usually used in religious contexts, it reminds us of his earlier opinion and alerts us to the inconsistency.
The song has little to say about Jimmy Reed himself. But it does present the narrator’s ambivalent view of him. It also presents in its narrator a picture of a flawed individual who has changed from being a Reed fanatic (something echoed musically in the blues style in which it’s presented) to disappointment and, for no good reason, to seeing himself as inheriting Reed’s mantle.
The vision he has is almost laughable in that neither Reed nor he would have been capable of saving the world with their music. But it’s particularly so in the narrator’s case since it’s clear that others think him musically inept, and because his character is so flawed. He’s shown to be a sexual predator, and one who attempts to put the blame for his wrongdoings on the women he wrongs. He’s also obsessive, weak, misanthropic, and inconsistent – not least in his intolerance of religion – and particularly so given the absurdly religious attitude he has to his hero. In addition, he lacks motivation, makes wild criticisms, sees himself as a victim, and has little sense of responsibility to himself or to others. Unlike many of Dylan’s characters, he comes across as an all-round failure.