Dear Landlord

Introduction

The landlord is probably to be seen as a representation of God. Accordingly his property will be the gift of eternal life which he gives out under certain conditions. The beneficiary, or tenant, is the speaker. If the conditions are fulfilled, the gift will become permanent. The song itself is made up of the speaker’s words to God as he attempts to force God into keeping his side of the bargain, while finding excuses for reneging on his own side of it.

 

First Verse

The first verse has the speaker sycophantically addressing God as ‘Dear landlord’, and then pleading that a price not be put on his soul. This plea immediately brings out a bitterness in his character. It seems to imply that God has put a price on everything else, thereby making it next to impossible for the impoverished speaker to scrape by. His soul is the last thing he has and he doesn’t want to have to forego it just because he can’t afford to meet God’s extortionate demands. The payment being withheld is presumably moral, rather than pecuniary as it would be with an earthly landlord. In other words in order to save his soul, and keep his eternal life, the speaker is being expected to live morally.

The excuses the speaker makes for not so doing are that his ‘burden is heavy’ and that his ‘dreams are beyond control’. The burden can be interpreted as those moral responsibilities the reward for whose fulfilment will be eternal life. The claim that his dreams are beyond control looks like a straightforward refusal to accept due responsibility for his own actions.

Next follows what looks like a bribe:

‘When that steamboat whistle blows
I’m gonna give you all I got to give’

The whistle can be taken as death – the summons to confront God in the afterlife. And the steamboat would be the equivalent of Charon’s vessel in Greek mythology used for ferrying souls into the underworld. If the underworld is taken to be hell, the metaphor might seem to hint that hell is the speaker’s likely destination.

The two lines provide evidence of the speaker’s guile. They imply that he’s perfectly happy to pay his debt to God, but only on condition that this is done at the very end of his life. On the one hand this is an audacious attempt at striking a disingenuous bargain aimed at allowing him to pursue an immoral life which will be repented only on his deathbed. On the other, the speaker’s language seems cunningly designed to make him sound both generous and selfless, as if God should be grateful to get even a postponement of what’s his due.

After patronisingly and presumptuously going on to express his hope that God will receive the offer ‘well’ – in other words not treat it with the contempt it deserves – the speaker proceeds to indulge in further criticism. Whether God is up to receiving it well will depend, he tells him:

‘… on the way that you feel that you live’

The hypocritical implication is that God lives immorally, but nevertheless still might be able to receive the offer graciously if only he can manage to delude himself – ‘feel’ – that his existence is not immoral. Not only is the speaker a thoroughly filthy pot calling a sparkling kettle black, but in so doing he provides evidence of appalling tactlessness. Apparently he has no inkling that to criticise the very person one’s trying to influence is likely to be be counterproductive.

 

Second Verse

In the second verse the speaker’s technique for winning over the landlord is again sycophantic. ‘Dear landlord’ and:

‘I Know you’ve suffered much’

At the same time, like Satan, he’s presumptive enough to put himself on the same level as the landlord:

‘I know you’ve suffered much
But in this you are not so unique
All of us, at times, we might work too hard
To have it too fast and too much’

The third line, like the first, purports to recognise the weight God is under, in suffering and having to work too hard, as if his well being is uppermost in the speaker’s thoughts.It immediately becomes apparent, however, that the speaker’s obsequiousness is a cover. Really it’s he himself who’s at the forefront of his mind. In saying:

‘But in this you are not so unique’

he highlights his own suffering. Continue reading

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight

On first hearing, a calm love song – relaxing, gentle, a lullaby. Lights down low, romantic moonlight, no need to worry, no need to be afraid, secure, alone in each other’s arms. What more could they want? Ah, bliss! Even the mockingbird’s buggered off.

Well not quite. If it’s a lullaby, it’s a bit sinister. The baby’s singing it.

In fact the whole song is sinister. The narrator is far from being the ideal romantic lover. He’s domineering throughout. Just about everything he says is an instruction – ‘close your eyes’, ‘close the door’, ‘shut the light’, ‘shut the shade’, ‘do not fear’, ‘kick your shoes off’, ‘bring that bottle’. And when it’s not an instruction, it’s a statement of what he’s decided – ‘you don’t have to worry’, ‘we’re going to forget it’, ‘you won’t regret it’, and so on.

But more than that. One wonders what he means when he says ‘You don’t have to worry any more’. Why doesn’t she? After all, her personal problems are still going to be there in the morning, aren’t they? Perhaps he means a different worry. Him.

But it’s not just worry. ‘You don’t have to be afraid,’ he says’. Afraid of what? There’s nothing to be afraid of – again, except him. So can we trust him when, presumably in response to her spoken qualms, he constantly tries to reassure her? The door’s to be closed, and he tells her there’s no need to continue worrying. The light’s to be turned off, and he tells her she doesn’t have to be afraid. And when she’s kicking her shoes off (presumably), he tells her not to fear. There’s a progression. The door closed, the light out, no shoes. The chance of escape is steadily decreasing. And the more it does so, the more she moves from worry, to being afraid, to fear.

It would seem we can’t trust him. There’s more to be said about the woman’s chance of escape being cut off. The instruction ‘Close your eyes, close the door’ is bizarre if taken literally because it seems to mean close your eyes and then shut the door. This perhaps suggests something irrational about the narrator. Alternatively, though, it might be taken to mean that  the woman’s act of closing her eyes will be the equivalent of closing the door. The eyes are the door. What door? The door to safety perhaps. If the woman obeys the narrator’s injunction to close her eyes, she ceases to see what’s happening and thus loses any control she had over it.

That we can’t trust the narrator becomes obvious in a number of other ways. ‘I’ll be your baby tonight’, he says. By ‘your baby’ he might mean something like ‘your lover’, but he might also be saying she’ll find him to be really docile. But why does that need saying? If it’s true that he’d be gentle, and she knows him, she’d know it anyway without being told. If he were a trustworthy character, the assurance would be unnecessary. The fact that he has to tell her he’ll be gentle is a sure sign that she has good reason to think he won’t.

His untrustworthiness becomes even more apparent when he again tries to reassure her, saying:

‘Well, that mockingbird’s gonna sail away’

Whatever the mockingbird represents, it’s clearly something he expects her to see as a threat. But it’s alright, isn’t it? It’s going to sail away. Phew! Except whoever heard of a mockingbird sailing? It’s a bird. And birds don’t sail, they fly. The misrepresentation alone suggests we should treat what this narrator says with caution.

And what is this threat which he calls a mockingbird? Again, the only candidate is the narrator himself. He is the one who is no longer going to be a threat to her, he’s saying. Not only does this imply that hitherto she’s been right to see him as a threat, but his denial makes his choice of metaphor all the more sinister. Mockingbirds are so-called because they take on the characteristics of other birds, as camouflage. And that suggests something Freudian about his choice of the term. ‘Mockingbird’ is appropriate because in trying to deceive her that he’s no longer a threat, he’s unwittingly making it clear that he is.

The title, thrice repeated in the song, requires further comment. First, the word ‘tonight’ provides some confirmation of our suspicions about him. It hints that the narrator has no intention of this being a lasting relationship. Once his desires have been satisfied, we can assume, that’s it.

Secondly, there’s something absurd about a man referring to himself as a baby. It’s hardly chimes with the machismo image of protector from worry and fear that he’s trying to present. It suggests weakness. One can see why such a man ends up imposing himself on the woman. He invites rejection. He comes across as thoroughly immature. And his referring to a threat as a mockingbird is also immature. It’s baby language . And so is ‘The big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon’. A very young child might appreciate the comparison, but it’s hardly going to impress an adult.

Quite apart from his immature language – ‘baby’, ‘mockingbird’, ‘big,fat moon’, ‘like a spoon’ – his description of the moon suggests another reason for not trusting him. If his aim is to appear romantic, he’s failing hopelessly. A fat moon shining like a spoon really isn’t the stuff of romantic poetry! But the description also suggests that creating a romantic atmosphere might be the last thing he’s bothered about. The same can be said about his wanting the light ‘Shut’ – when creating a romantic atmosphere would have required only that it be turned down low. One must conclude either that he is incompetent, or that he thinks that being romantic would be an unnecessary distraction on the way to his goal.

His attitude to the moon’s shining has an oddness which needs accounting for:

‘But we’re gonna let it
You won’t regret it’

Let it! Let the moon shine! Is there any option? He talks about the moon not as a heavenly symbol of romance, but as an unwelcome intruder they’re going to have to put up with. The expression ‘let it,’ then, suggests he’s prepared to put up with the intrusion. But why does he see the moon as an intruder? Because it produces light, when what he wants is total darkness?

‘You won’t regret it,’ he continues. Under normal circumstances one might wonder why on earth she should regret it. The moon shining is just not the sort of thing which occasions regret. Ironically, as it happens, it’s the one thing the woman needs to hear. Far from being a source of regret for her, the light from the moon is the one crumb of hope she has. It’s the one thing which might save her from his machinations. But perhaps he’s not thinking of her when he says ‘You won’t regret it’. It’s his own regret, not hers, he’s hoping to prevent. The moon is interfering with his plans.

There’s another possibility. If he’s fat and rotund, ‘That big fat moon’ could be a jokey reference to himself in a misguided effort at seduction. ‘You won’t regret it’, then, would show his mind slipping back to his main interest so that he’s telling her she won’t regret giving in to him.

The penultimate line of the song presents his final instruction, ‘Bring that bottle over here’. One might be forgiven for thinking this need for alcohol at just that point is a final confirmation of his unwholesome intentions. Not only a rapist, but a drunken rapist!* Or perhaps he thinks if he can get her drunk she might be a bit more compliant. A dark thought to end on, made lighter only by the absurdity of its continuing the belittling baby imagery. The baby wants his bottle.

*That might be a bit too condemnatory. The narrator comes across as a human being with human faults. He may well be convincing himself that his motives are genuine, and therefore not be fully responsible for what transpires.

Last updated 6.10.17

Down Along The Cove

There’s much more going on in this superficially simple song than at first appears. The first verse apparently tells how the narrator greets his ‘true love’ as he sees her approaching. The second verse appears on first hearing to be little more than a copy of the first, but with the ‘true love’ now referred to as a ‘my little bundle of joy’. She, it seems, is as delighted to see the narrator as he is to see her. And then, in the final verse, the two of them walk together without a care in the world, ‘hand in hand’.

All is not what it seems. While the similarity in wording between the first two verses might give the impression that the second is merely reinforcing what’s been said in the first, there is in fact no reason to suppose that it’s the same lover the narrator ‘spies’ in each verse. In other words there’s no reason to suppose that the ‘true love’ of the first verse is the same person as the ‘little bundle of joy’ of the second.

That the first and second verses are about different women, is supported by the very lines which might have made us think there is only one. In the first verse there’s:

‘I say “Lord, have mercy, mama
It sure is good to see you comin’ today”‘

and this is mirrored in the second by:

‘She said, “Lord, have mercy, honey
I’m so glad you’re my boy”‘

On the assumption of just one woman, one might think that it’s she who is replying in the second verse to the narrator’s greeting in the first. She’s heard the original greeting and naturally uses a similar form of words in reply. However, if there are two women, what needs explaining is how the similar style of greeting is to be accounted for if the one who delivers the second greeting is not the one to whom the first was delivered, and who therefore hasn’t heard it. The apparent coincidence is quite plausible, though. It’s quite natural for people emotionally attached to copy each other’s turns of phrase. In fact the similar style of greeting might well be taken as evidence for the closeness of an illicit relationship.

There is much more reason to suppose there are in fact two women, though. There being two would explain the very different descriptions used by the narrator. He tells us that he spied his ‘true love’, and then that he spied his ‘little bundle of joy’. ‘True love’ is distantly formal. It’s the sort of clichéd expression one finds in songs like ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’. It’s not how real people refer to people they love, although the narrator might be using it ironically if the woman’s love is true, but his isn’t. ‘Little bundle of joy’, on the other hand, is informal and affectionate. It’s just the sort of expression a lover might use. It’s unlikely that both a cold and distantly formal expression and a warm, affectionate one would be used  about the same woman. It also seems improbable that the person called ‘mama’ in the first verse is the same as the one who uses ‘honey’ in the second. In both cases a difference of register makes it unlikely that there’s just one woman. Clearly the narrator is in a relationship with two women, probably his wife and a girlfriend, about each of whom he has very different feelings.

If this is so, it turns the otherwise sugary last line of each of the first two verses into painful ironies. ‘It sure is good to see you comin’ today’, says the narrator to the first woman, and we feel his awkwardness because he’s deceiving her. ‘I’m so glad you’re my boy,’ says the woman in the second verse. She may or may not know she has a rival, but if she’s unaware of it, we feel sorry for her – because she’s been deluded into thinking the narrator is hers; she’s being used.

There’s further significance to the ‘Lord have mercy’ spoken by both the narrator and the girlfriend. Whether or not he’s aware of it the narrator, one feels, will need the Lord’s mercy once the true nature of his situation comes to light. The same is true for the girlfriend, but particularly so if she’s as aware of the true situation as the narrator. Their need for mercy will be equal, because both are guilty of a cruel deception.

What then of the third verse in which we’re told the narrator and his lover walked together? If the song were about just one woman, there’d be no problem. But since it’s about two, we need to know which one he’s walking with. The answer is that it can be either. That the verse applies equally to each can be seen from its final two lines:

‘Ev’rybody watchin’ us go by
Knows we’re in love, yes, and they understand’

Clearly the first line and a half could be a joyful affirmation of his love if it’s the girlfriend he’s with. There’s no reason for not taking it that way. But it’s just as apposite if the woman he’s with is the one with whom he’s not in love. There would only be an inconsistency if the narrator himself were saying they were in love. But he needn’t be taken to be doing that. He can be taken to be just reporting the opinion of others – a false opinion, as it happens.

The same can be said about the final words ‘yes, and they understand’. These too can apply just as well, whichever woman the narrator’s taken to be with. If it’s the first woman, the ‘yes’ is an ironic ‘confirmation’ of the bystanders’ erroneous judgment of the situation. And if it’s the second woman, the ‘yes’ is an actual confirmation of their correct judgment. Similarly with ‘and they understand’. If it’s the first woman, the narrator means that the onlookers realise he’s only going through the motions of being in love. And if it’s the second woman, he means that the onlookers appreciate the nature of his predicament. Whether he’s right in each case is another matter. It seems quite likely that the bystanders wouldn’t have given either couple a second thought, and the narrator’s simply imposing on them a concern with his affairs which they don’t have. What matters is that his words make sense whichever woman he’s with. It’s worth noting that if there were only one woman, the phrase ‘yes, and they understand’ would be entirely redundant, for there would be nothing to understand.

Our being initially misled into thinking the song is just a sentimental love song, should not be overlooked. It may well have been deliberately and purposefully crafted to so fool us. This is because once we’ve come up with the opposing interpretations, we can’t help contrasting them. In the context of a real life disaster-in-the-making we’re forced to reject a shallowly sentimental view of relationships. And against the backdrop of shallow sentimentality, the anticipated consequences of unfaithfulness are made to seem all the more poignant.

The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest

Introduction

The song is about betrayal and the possibility of redemption. In particular It shows how one person – Frankie Lee – dies in part through his own moral failings, but mainly through the failure of another to take on responsibility for him. And it suggests that people might be saved from moral death if they take responsibility for themselves, despite being let down by others. But the concern is not just with the behaviour of the protagonists but with the way we all behave, especially to one another. For it’s made clear that Frankie Lee’s fate is potentially the fate of us all. The song will be considered under the following headings – Frankie, Judas, The Passing Stranger, Eternity, The Moral, The Little Neighbour Boy, and Revelation – before being briefly summed up in a general Conclusion.

Frankie

Frankie Lee is presented in ambivalent terms. He comes across as an ordinary, highly impressionable and sensitive person. In addition although well meaning, he’s morally weak – in fact a character drawn from life.

The narrator refers to him somewhat undeferentially as ‘Frankie’, which would suggest he’s of little social standing, and probably younger than the narrator himself. That he’s also younger than Judas Priest is suggested when the latter calls him ‘Frankie Boy’. It’s notable that Frankie never addresses Judas by name at all. He’s a simple, childlike character and this comes across in a number of ways. Fatherless, he seems reliant on Judas when he supposedly needs money, and he fails to see just how untrustworthy Judas is. Judas sees him as easy to dupe, as shown when he says ‘My loss will be your gain’, and when he’s able to get him to believe that the money might ‘disappear’. Frankie’s innocence is further apparent when, with Judas in mind, he naively declares to the stranger ‘Oh, yes, he is my friend’. This innocence is also there in his childlike compliance, ‘I’m going to start my picking right now’. The task set by Judas seems to fool him too. He doesn’t seem to realise that he’s effectively being given money by Judas, for winning it requires him to do no more than select from an array of ten-dollar bills.

Frankie’s innocence is accompanied by a propensity for showing simple emotions. On hearing that Judas is stranded, his response is to panic. Earlier, on hearing that Judas will be at ‘Eternity’ he, perhaps justifiably, goes cold with horror. Once Judas has reassured him, we’re told ‘he sat back down’ – implying that he must have sprung to his feet, so intense was his horror. And then we’re told he felt ‘low and mean’ – presumably for having distrusted his mentor. The simplicity of his emotions might also come across in his smiling on hearing that Judas’ destination was ‘Paradise’.

Frankie is clearly being presented realistically, and as someone with whom we might sympathise. However, this realism is enhanced by there being a number of things which suggest that morally Frankie is far from perfect. We find he associates being alone with hiding, as if he cannot possibly be alone without incurring a guilt which needs to be hidden. Yet despite this, he still asks to be alone. And when the stranger tells him he’s needed by Judas, his immediate response is to prevaricate:

‘”Oh, yes, he is my friend”

“I do recall him very well
In fact he just left my sight”‘

In speaking like this he seems to be trying to give the impression he hasn’t seen Judas for some time. You don’t say you recall someone well if they’ve only just left you. And then, too late, realising the hopelessness of being able to fool the stranger, he admits the truth, that Judas has only just left him.

That he can be disingenuous also becomes apparent when he finds Judas at the house:

‘”What kind of house is this,” he said
“Where I have come to roam?”

By saying ‘where I have come to roam’ he is clearly pretending he happened on the house by chance, and yet we know that he set out deliberately to go there.
And once in the house, he appears at his worst. He goes upstairs with ‘a soulful, bounding leap’ – the sounds of ‘soulful’ and ‘bounding’ both beautifully capturing his motion. I doubt if a leap could be both soulful and bounding, but the description reflects the conflicting sides of his character – ‘soulful’ showing he’s aware of his guilt, while ‘bounding’ indicates his decadent enthusiasm. At that point he seems to go mad with a lust so exaggerated it results in his death.

Overall Frankie comes across as a sensitive and loyal, but at the same time a vulnerable person with human weaknesses.

Judas

Our initial impression of Judas Priest comes from his names. Being named after the biblical Judas, he clearly represents betrayal – and he’s undoubtably the betrayer of Frankie. The surname, Priest, suggests he has the role of intermediary, on behalf of others, between man and God. However, whereas he should be helping lead Frankie to God (or Paradise), he in fact helps bring about his death. This can be interpreted both as his literal and his moral death. Judas’ guilt is made worse by the fact that he knows that Frankie’s father is dead, and that as a result Frankie is dependent on him.

Judas is not to be trusted. That this is so becomes apparent when his response to Frankie’s needing money is to ‘quickly’ pull out a roll of tens. The ‘quickly’ is highly significant. It tells us this was no natural kindness on behalf of a friend in need. This is Judas seizing an opportunity to exploit Frankie. That he is able to patronise Frankie shows he knows he’s is simpleminded and easy to dupe, and he spares no pains to dupe him. Emotionally Judas is the opposite of Frankie – the difference being brought out by the respective use of ‘cold’ for each. Judas’ ‘cold eyes’ contrast with Frankie’s voice when it’s described as ‘cold as ice’. Frankie is being highly emotional – horrified. Judas is without emotion.

Judas is devious too. He exploits Frankie by ensuring he has the money it suits Judas that he should have. To get him to acquire it quickly he frightens him, yet he does so in language which makes it seem he has Frankie’s interest at heart:

‘”But you better hurry up and choose which of those bills you want
Before they all disappear'”

And Judas’ complicity in Frankie’s implied guilt is implied by his winking.

We’re not told why Frankie needed money, but since he ends up in a brothel it’s reasonable to assume it was for that. Given Frankie’s simplicity we needn’t suppose the idea was his, though. It may well have been Judas’, who then finds a way of supplying him with the necessary money. Once Frankie has the money, Judas sets about luring him to the brothel and his moral destruction.

Judas’ deviousness is further apparent in the message sent via the stranger. First, it plays on Frankie’s fear for Judas by informing him he’s in need of help. Secondly, it employs the language of flattery:

‘… “Are you Frankie Lee, the gambler
Whose father is deceased?’

Not only is Frankie described as ‘the gambler’, which we’ve reason to believe exaggerates his abilities, but the reference to his father can only be designed to afford him status – as does the formality of the language, in particular ‘deceased’ instead of ‘dead’. That the message is unnaturally formal is brought out by the informality of expressions like ‘fellow’ and ‘down the road’ in what are presumably the stranger’s own words which follow:

‘”Well, if you are, there’s a fellow calling you down the road’

The message is a lie. As we find out, Judas is not stranded – at least in the literal sense he has in mind. Morally he is.

It seems, too, that Judas’ guilt, like Frankie’s, involves hiding. it seems he wanted to hide his name from the stranger, who apparently discovered it from others:

‘”And they say his name is priest'”

In not being prepared to divulge his name, Judas can be seen as giving us reason to doubt his intentions.

Perhaps the most damning thing about Judas can be divined from his behaviour, or lack of it, at the end of the song. He does nothing to stop Frankie from his uncontrolled behaviour. And when Frankie dies in Judas’ arms, it’s not because of compassion on Judas’ part. Frankie ‘burst’ into his arms; there’s no sign that it was Judas who put his arms round Frankie. And after Frankie’s death, Judas isn’t in evidence at all. It’s left to someone else, the little neighbour boy, to bury him.

The Passing Stranger

Literally Frankie couldn’t ‘burst’ into Judas’ arms. But the word’s unnatural sound serves a purpose. It has the effect of reminding us of the episode of the passing stranger who ‘burst upon the scene’. Literally strangers who are merely passing don’t ‘burst’ any more than dying young men ‘burst’ into other men’s arms. The passing stranger episode resulted in Frankie setting out to rescue Judas, so an effect of the repetition of ‘burst’ is to remind us of this. In so doing it also reminds us that Frankie then neglected to rescue him and that therefore some of the guilt for what followed lies with him.

While the stranger can be seen literally as the carrier of Judas’ message aimed at bringing Frankie to the brothel, a number of things suggest that he might also be seen as a representation of Frankie’s conscience. One is Frankie’s realisation, referred to above, that he can’t keep the truth from him. Another is his having the effect of spurring Frankie into a charitable act. This would make his ‘bursting’ upon the scene the same thing as Frankie’s sudden realisation that he has a duty – namely to rescue Judas from moral death. It’s apparent, however, this burst of conscience is no longer in evidence once he arrives – for from then on he doesn’t give a further thought to Judas’ being ‘stranded’.

That the stranger can be seen as Frankie’s conscience is further suggested by the lines:

‘”Yes, that’s the one,” said the stranger
As quiet as a mouse’

said in reply to Frankie’s:

‘”In fact he just left my sight”‘

‘Yes, that’s the one’ is a rather uncomplimentary way of referring to someone. It suggests that the speaker has reason not to respect them. It seems unlikely that a stranger delivering a message would make such an overt moral judgment. And such a judgment is perhaps implied too by his speaking ‘as quiet as a mouse’, suggesting, perhaps, embarrassment at having to be associated with someone like Judas. It also seems unlikely the stranger would have known that Judas had just left Frankie. But Frankie knows that. And Frankie might well have doubts about Judas’ character. This would make it quite plausible that the stranger should be taken as a representation of Frankie’s moral qualms.

Finally there’s the fact, mentioned above, that both the stranger and Frankie have a strange propensity for bursting – the stranger ‘burst upon the scene’ and Frankie ‘burst into the arms of Judas’. This would be accounted for if the propensity is really Frankie’s, the stranger just representing a part of him.

There’s an important consequence to this. If the stranger who bursts onto the scene is really Frankie’s conscience, then Frankie’s bursting into the arms of Judas might be seen as his conscience at work again after a lapse. If on the seventeenth day in the brothel his bursting into Judas’ arms is his conscience making him give up that way of life, the suggestion is that he managed in the end to save himself from moral death.

Eternity

There seems to be a mismatch between the speed at which time passes for Frankie and Judas respectively. It seems that no sooner has Judas left Frankie than a stranger arrives with a message saying Judas is stranded. Frankie has just sat down:

‘When just then a passing stranger
Burst upon the scene’

Judas clearly wouldn’t have had time to get to his destination, the house, let alone realise he was stranded. Nor would the stranger have had time to be entrusted with the message and take it to Frankie.This temporal mismatch seems linked to the concept of ‘eternity’, a term used by Judas to describe his destination. Frankie seems to be not wholly within time in that it doesn’t pass for him at the normal speed it passes for Judas. Since ‘eternity’ can be taken to mean timelessness or existence outside of time, Frankie seems to be partially in eternity. Judas, by contrast, is wholly there. He’s literally at the house called Eternity.

If this Eternity is the opposite of Paradise (rather than simply providing another name for it, as Judas claims) it can be seen as spiritual death. It’s a spiritual death which Judas reaches first. Frankie is not yet spiritually dead, but his atemporal experience suggests he’s on the way. It will only take Judas’ machinations to complete the process for him. And that process is completed for Frankie when he too literally arrives at the house called Eternity.


The Moral

While Frankie and Judas both fail in their duty to each other, one person who doesn’t is the little neighbour boy, and it’s through the moral spoken by the narrator that his importance becomes apparent. What, then is the moral? The moral is in three parts, the first two of which are discussed here. The first is extremely trite, suggesting the narrator doesn’t really see what’s significant about the events he’s related:

‘The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong’

Nevertheless, despite the simplistic expression, there is a moral here. Frankie died because he went where he should not have been – where he did not ‘belong’. The real moral at this point is that one risks moral death if one does not take responsibility for oneself. Although as it happened Frankie may have earned himself a last minute reprieve, he’d have done better not to have needed it in the first place.

The narrator’s simplistic expression of the first part of the moral suggests he might well not fully appreciate the significance of the second part either. (This, after all, is the same narrator who naively thinks Frankie and Judas are ‘the best of friends’.) He advises:

‘So when you see your neighbour carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load’

As presented by the narrator the advice is nothing more than trite. Also, he seems to think that from the fact that someone shouldn’t be where they don’t belong, we ought to help our neighbour when he’s carrying something. Nevertheless, despite the poor logic and its appearing trite it has an import greater than he seems to realise. This will become apparent when we consider the episode of the little neighbour boy.

It’s apparent that the narrator’s simple outlook seems to make him a reflection of Frankie whose character is one of simple minded innocence. This is similar to the way the passing stranger can be seen as Frankie’s conscience. Another example of characters sharing characteristics is involves Frankie and Judas for not only are both guilty, but this guilt becomes apparent in each case through there interest in hiding it. If the characters can be identified with each other, or at least be een to share each other’s characterisics, it suggests that these characteristics belong to everybody. The song is thus made to appear especially relevant to us because, sadly, we too will often have these characterisics. We are in the narrator, and Frankie and Judas just as much as they are in each other. Whatever applies to them will equally apply to us. That the various characters are to be sen reflected in each other will be reinforced when we consider the little neighbour boy, for it will become clear that he too is a reflection of Frankie.

The Little Neighbour Boy

What the narrator seems not to realise is just how pertinent his words are with respect to the little neighbour boy. Not only is this boy a neighbour, but he has a load – his guilt, for in the previous verse we were told:

‘And he just walked along, alone
With his guilt so well concealed’

Whatever his guilt is, it makes him seem just like Frankie. Frankie too had wanted to be alone. And being alone was a substitute for hiding – or concealing his guilt. In hiding his guilt, the little neighbour boy, it would seem, is being presented as another Frankie. And accordingly he will be in danger, like Frankie, and in need of help so that he too does not suffer Frankie’s fate. In the person of the little neighbour boy the narrator’s tritely expressed moral is brought home to us. He, a real person – not just one’s neighbour in the abstract, as the narrator would have it – is the one who needs help with his load.

Guilt is not the neighbour boy’s only load, however. He is carrying another one – the body of Frankie Lee. This suggests he need not just be seen negatively – as a potential victim of people like Judas. We can see him positively – as someone who takes on responsibility. He helps others with their load in that he helps Judas with the body that is actually Judas’ responsibility.

What the neighbour boy episode suggests is that despite Frankie’s moral death, and the neighbour boy’s own danger from those like Judas, there is hope. If people take on responsibility and assist others, as the neighbour is doing here, tragedies like Frankie’s can be avoided. There’s no need for humanity to be represented just by the morally corrupt. But the virtuous will only be representative of humanity if people decide to follow the little neighbour boy’s example.

This last point is made clear in the third part of the moral – the closing words of the song – where it’s the listener who is told:

‘… don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road’

Across the road! The listener is being addressed and the source of moral death is no longer the remote ‘down the road’ from Frankie and Judas. It’s near. It’s across the road, the listener’s road. Our road! The clear implication is that if others are to avoid the fate of Frankie, it is we who must act.

Revelation

It’s ironic that we’re told the ‘house’ – the brothel – is ‘as bright as any sun’. The description might make us recall the House of the Rising Sun, in the song of that name, and the preventable misery of its narrator. But more than that, the words ‘any sun’ are likely to remind us of one particular sun, or son – Christ. It’s Christ who revealed the means of avoiding moral death, and ultimately it’s Christian attitudes that Judas Priest is working against to the eternal detriment of both himself and Frankie.

This might throw light on the cryptic words muttered by the little neighbour boy – ‘Nothing is revealed’. Literally they might mean that Frankie’s, and perhaps Judas’, guilt has been hushed up. Or they might mean the neighbour boy’s own guilt is safely hidden. But in a song replete with Christian imagery, the remark is likely to remind us of Christian revelation. As such it represents the attitudes of those like Judas who act as if there has been no revelation. But it also comes across as ironic, since the way to Paradise has ‘been revealed’ – by way of the revelation of Christ.

Conclusion

Frankie Lee’s literal death might be seen either as representing his moral death, or  as a happy end to life given a last minute moral about turn. What distinguishes Frankie’s treatment from Judas’ is that, whereas Judas is presented as morally dead from the start, Frankie’s moral development unfolds before our eyes. The source of his moral demise is in part his own weakness, but it’s first and foremost Judas’ refusal to ‘help him with his load’. The song’s focus, then, is not primarily on human weakness itself, as represented by Frankie, but more on the failure of people like Judas to be responsible for others. Even if Frankie redeemed himself at the last moment, he might not have done and much of the fault would have been Judas’. The moral is not just that we should reject temptation for our own good, but that we should help others avoid it for their good.

Last revised 9.11.15

I Pity The Poor Immigrant

The song has a tone of calm regret created by the narrator’s use of words with long vowels throughout. In making him seem relaxed and in control, these words give the listener the impression that he is to be believed. In fact the narrator, consciously or otherwise, is using this air of calmness as a cover for his own hatred. Combining it with claims of sympathetic concern allows him to disguise his highly unsympathetic feelings towards the immigrant. I say ‘consciously or otherwise’ because it might be that the narrator doesn’t properly know his own mind. It’s common for human beings to be irrational, to hold mutually contradictory views while not being aware of the contradictions. Here it might be the case that the narrator genuinely pities the immigrant, while at the same time seeking to poison the mind of the listener against him. Alternatively, it might be that he thinks he ought to pity him, tries to do so, but ends up giving in to his negative feelings. For present purposes, however, I’ll put these possibilities on one side and assume he’s fully aware of, and in full agreement with, what he’s doing. That will leave it for the reader to decide how much of what’s said can be reconciled with the alternative views.

One’s immediate impression from the title is that the song is one of compassion. In the first verse this is reinforced by implied regret that the immigrant is ‘left so alone’, that he ‘hates his life’ and that he ‘fears his death’. However all this need not be taken at face value. The opening lines read:

‘I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home’

Although the lines imply that the narrator would have been happier for the immigrant’s sake if he’d stayed at home, the suspicion might enter our minds that the narrator would have welcomed this for his, the narrator’s, own sake. There’s no indication that the immigrant’s presence is welcome or that his departure would be in any way regrettable. Nevertheless, at this point we only have grounds for suspicion. What can’t be denied is that the malevolence of the narrator becomes obvious in the fifth and sixth lines where he brands the immigrant as a cheat and a liar:

‘The man who with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev’ry breath’

So much for pity! The long vowels in ‘fingers’ and ‘cheats’, and in ‘lies’ and breath’ present such an atmosphere of calm that we might almost miss the vitriol in these lines. The underlying condemnation is there again in the concluding lines of the verse:

‘Who passionately hates his life
And likewise fears his death’

Long vowels in almost every word provide a calmness which, despite the narrator’s profession of pity, can only contrast with the immigrant’s supposed passion. Who could think we’re being informed that in being so passionate the immigrant is getting things out of proportion and going wildly over the top? Yet this is what comes across. This is poison dressed up as pity. The narrator is skilfully bolstering his own reputation in the listener’s eyes, while at the same time tarnishing the immigrant’s. We might note that the narrator doesn’t stop to ask why the immigrant is so passionate. A genuinely sympathetic person might think it’s because his life is so appalling and his death, possibly a violent one, seems imminent. For all we know, ‘fears his death’ might be a matter of fearing that there are those out to kill him.

The second verse too initially comes across as sympathetic . We’re told the immigrant’s ‘strength is spent in vain’, and that his tears are ‘like rain’. Again, however, the sympathy is followed by apparent criticism. ‘He eats but is not satisfied’ seems to paint him as a glutton, and that he falls in love with ‘wealth itself’ makes him seem avaricious. It’s more likely, we might suppose, that his lack of satisfaction is the result of not having enough to eat, and falling in love with wealth is an exaggeration of the immigrant’s wishing he had just some money. While the phrase ‘his strength is spent in vain’ might suggest that the immigrant is to be pitied for unrewarded effort, equally it might be that the narrator is trying to elicit a critical response – that the immigrant is downright incompetent.

The narrator rather gives himself away when he mentions that the immigrant ‘turns his back on me’. Other than the ‘I’ in ‘I pity’, this is the only time the narrator refers to himself. It’s as if he is so incensed by his treatment by the immigrant that he can’t avoid mentioning it. But to be openly hostile would be to abandon the benevolent disguise. And so the narrator keeps cool. Rather than admit openly that the immigrant has scorned him, he keeps up the pretence of gentle kindliness, seeming to regret only for the immigrant’s sake that he turned his back. But all the while the narrator knows that his poison will work.

The lines:

‘Whose heaven is like Ironsides
Whose tears are like rain’

need to be taken together. That his ‘tears are like rain’ not only tells us how unhappy the immigrant is, but the reference to heaven makes it seem as if it’s not just the immigrant but it’s heaven, or God, that’s crying. This would fit with the narrator’s overt view that the immigrant is to be pitied. Equally it might be that this telling juxtaposition of ‘tears’ and heaven’, and the consequent idea of tears raining down from heaven, is unconscious on the part of the narrator- particularly if we suppose the last thing he wants to do is present the immigrant as deserving of God’s sympathy.

The reference to Ironsides is obscure, and on any account it’s difficult to determine what the narrator intends us to understand by ‘His heaven is like Ironsides’. However, ‘Ironsides’ may be a reference to the US warship the Constitution which in 1812 survived attack from a more heavily armed British frigate. The unlikely escape was apparently due to the British ship’s shot merely bouncing off the side of the Constitution which was from then on nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’. In the light of this, ‘Whose heaven is like Ironsides’ might be taken to mean that the immigrant’s greatest happiness (‘heaven’) lies in nothing better than the surprising escapes he makes from those out to get him. Equally, since the ‘Ironsides’ story is somewhat mythological (I imagine), the line might be taken to mean that the immigrant’s hope of a better life (heaven on earth) is non-existent. As such it could be seen as reiterating the content of the preceding line about the immigrant’s strength being spent in vain.*

The narrator shows himself to be just as two-faced in the final verse. To say the immigrant ‘fills his mouth with laughing’ is to choose language which serves to reinforce the earlier suggestion that the immigrant is a glutton. And ‘tramples through the mud’ is language more appropriate for describing an animal than a human being. Why say ‘who fills his mouth with laughing’ and not just ‘he laughed’? Why ‘tramples’? Why ‘mud’? Implicitly the narrator, under the guise of sympathy, is telling us that the immigrant is contemptible.

And what are we to make of ‘Who fills his town with blood’? Again the tone is calm and regretful, the stressed syllables all having long, drawn out vowels. And again our immediate reaction is to applaud the narrator for his sympathy. But what sympathy? Whatever ‘blood’ represents – murder? lynching? – we’re actually being told it’s the immigrant’s fault. He is filling the town with blood. Again under the guise of compassion the narrator sticks the knife in.

In the final four lines we’re told that his

‘…visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass’

Superficially we’re being told, with apparent regret, that the immigrant’s aspirations are hopeless. And the sub-text subtly informs us that the immigrant should have realised this because, after all, the narrator realises it. Once again, however, we have lines which are open to a different interpretation. ‘Visions’ and ‘final end’ both have religious connotations. And ‘Must shatter like the glass’ seems to refer to St Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 13:12 ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’. Applied to the immigrant the suggestion is that the somewhat impoverished vision of heaven he has at the moment – unlikely escapes and raining tears – will disappear, shatter, and he will achieve salvation, ‘gladness’. Though this may be the benevolent listener’s interpretation, it isn’t the narrator’s. The narrator sees the immigrant’s ‘final end’ as the end of his life ‘when his gladness comes to pass’. And the narrator knows full well that the mental state of the immigrant is anything but one of ‘gladness’.

* The title of the album from which I Pity The Poor Immigrant comes provides a modicum of reason to suppose that Dylan might have had the ship in mind. The date in 1812 on which the Constitution earned the nickname’ Ironsides’ was the same as the one on which John Wesley Hardin died eighty-three years later – 19th August. See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/old-ironsides-earns-its-name

The Drifter’s Escape

The song questions the attitudes of society – people generally, and in particular those in positions of authority. While it seems to be both a condemnation of callousness and selfishness, and critical of those who don’t take responsibility for their own well-being, it offsets human failings by recognising that those failings tend to go hand in hand with virtues. In addition it seems to suggest a means for achieving some sort of redemption.

The events depicted are from the standpoint of a narrator present in a courtroom in which a drifter has just been tried, and presumably sentenced, for an unspecified crime. Through its opening words the song straight away makes us feel sorry for the drifter. He is, from his own mouth, presented as weak and in need of help – ‘Oh help me in my weakness’. Whether he is really deserving of our pity is another matter, though. There are two reasons. First, one would have expected him to have said ‘Oh help me in my predicament’, not ‘in my weakness’. To ask to be helped out of a predicament is reasonable, but to ask to be helped out of one’s weakness is nonsensical. Weakness is a character trait, control of which cannot be exercised by others – at least, not in the way predicaments can. Accordingly, one suspects that the drifter is more devious than he at first appears. Secondly, it would appear that he hasn’t taken the trouble to find out what he’s accused of. This might well confirm any suspicion that he’s not really a deserving case for sympathy.

Nevertheless, that he is in fact weak seems true. It is suggested not only by his admitting it, but also by his having to be carried out of the court, and even by his being described as a drifter. The expression ‘drifter’ implies his life has no aim, and that he just allows himself be at the mercy of events. He’s weak in that he doesn’t assert himself.

In support of the drifter’s being devious, we might also conclude that his predicament is not as bad as he goes on to imply. He tells us that his ‘trip’ – perhaps meaning his life, but with a telling suggestion of his having ‘tripped up’ – hasn’t been pleasant. He seems to expect this to be taken figuratively, to mean it’s been unpleasant. However, he hasn’t actually stated his life has been unpleasant, or mentioned anything at all untoward having happened in it. It may be, then, that he’s trying to beguile us into feeling sorry for him. ‘And my time it isn’t long’ is likewise ambiguous. On the one hand he seems to be implying he’s not far from death – again to gain sympathy – and on the other exploiting the ambiguity as a way of not having to directly admit that the sentence handed down to him was actually lenient.

The second verse can be taken as presenting a similarly ambivalent picture of the judge. The judge’s casting aside his robe can be taken as representing an awareness that his role as a human being extends beyond his official position. Officially, he is required to mete out punishment, but as a human being he is required to be compassionate, and this is what we see in what appears to be a purposeful dismissal of his badge of office. He seems to recognise how pathetic the drifter is, and to be sorry for him. On the other hand, the further extent of his concern is limited to an emotional response – the tear coming to his eye, and to an admission (‘why must you even try?’) that he can’t see why the drifter should be required to accept society’s values. It’s here that we see a similarity between the judge and the drifter. Neither, it would seem, has troubled to find out something it is their responsibility to know, and in each case their lack of knowledge might be seen as the result of a character weakness. There seem to be three further weaknesses in the judge’s character. He appears to make no effort to inform the drifter about why he’s being punished. Neither does he admonish the jury for their inappropriate behaviour – as if, once out of his robe, his official duties are over. (It’s perhaps a comparable fault that he’d not been able to show compassion while wearing his robe.) And if the judgment of the attendant and the nurse in the final verse is to be trusted, he is at fault for presiding over an unsatisfactory trial.

While the picture we get of the judge is ambivalent, that of the jury is not. The ludicrous depiction of the jury’s crying ‘for more’ makes them seem like an audience trying to get more than its money’s worth after a final encore. And that, in turn, makes them seem to be treating the plight of the drifter as trivial. If ‘more’ refers to a longer sentence, then we might wonder what business it is of the jury to be demanding it. They seem no better than the rabble outside whose stirring, the narrator makes a point of telling us, can be heard from the door. And if the crowd are ‘stirring’ because the sentence is lenient, it might be they’d do better to emulate the humanity of the judge. As it is their restlessness would seem to stand for the social irresponsibility and blood thirst to be found in some parts of society.

It may be that the narrator is no more reliable than the drifter. He tells us that the crowd’s stirring could be heard from the door, and the implication is ‘even from the door’ – and therefore that they had become menacing. However, the one place one might expect to hear a crowd who are outside is from the door. That they could only be heard from the door does nothing to suggest they were getting unruly. And ‘stirring’ is not exactly baying for blood. Another possibility is that the narrator is trying to malign a well-behaved crowd, though it’s unclear what his motive would be. It seems more plausible that their behaviour would have matched that of the jury and that the stirring is the beginning of something more threatening. We can probably trust his account of the jury’s behaviour because it’s corroborated by how he says the attendant and the nurse responded. I think we can conclude that there’s no obvious reason for distrusting the narrator. That he mentions that the crowd can be heard from the door may be just to account for his knowledge about what’s going on outside when he’s inside.

The resolution of the drifter’s problem is instigated by the almost comical intervention of an ‘act of God’. Whether or not the thunderbolt is literally God’s doing is not established. What is clear, though, is that those present take it to be. However, their immediate response is not to mend their ways by determining to act more humanely in future, but – true to form – to look after themselves. They see themselves as in danger, so they pray. Or, perhaps, they see themselves as having angered God, and so they attempt to ingratiate themselves with him. Either way, we’re left feeling that a more appropriate response would have been to demonstrate a concern for the drifter which they had hitherto denied him.

The thunderbolt’s ultimate effect is that the drifter is able to escape. It’s left up to the listener, though, to decide whether he should be seen as a criminal escaping a deserved punishment or as a pathetic but now fortunate former victim of society. If the thunderbolt definitely came from God, the latter interpretation would seem warranted. If it was sheer chance, the former might. The narrator has presented the facts but it’s up to the listener to decide on their significance. Likewise we can either condemn the drifter outright as a devious manipulator of our sympathies, or we can modify our criticism by accepting that at last he has given us reason to respect him.

In favour of the latter is that, where previously he’d been pathetically inactive, he is now seen to be taking advantage of the situation on his own initiative. By deciding to escape he has shown he’s no longer a straw for every wind that blows. Accordingly, whether or not it’s actually the work of God, the God-like intervention has enabled him to redeem himself somewhat by acting in a decisive way – something which the judge in particular lacked the will to do. His decisiveness here can be seen as his overcoming his weakness of character. But, as before, it’s left up to the listener to decide whether the drifter has indeed exonerated himself.

Overall, then, the main characters – the drifter and the judge – are both presented as complex. Of course, although we appear to be being presented with a straightforward, unbiased account of the facts, we need to take precautions to ensure we’re not subtly being led by the narrator to conclude one way or the other. Nevertheless, the song gives the listener plenty to work on in the form of weighing up the virtues and failings of each character. The only way the song obviously leads us, it would seem, is in expecting us to condemn outright the behaviour of the jury and the mindless rabble.

I Am A Lonesome Hobo

Introduction

These three short verses are a magnificent example of conciseness and compression. The narrator is presented by way of his own words as thoroughly duplicitous, and at the same time as a subtly skilful manipulator of his audience. The immediate impression one gets is that the narrator is utterly honest, albeit self-pitying. After all, he seems to be happy to confess to his misdeeds. And he appears generous enough to advise his listeners how to avoid a fate similar to his. That’s the immediate impression. However it soon becomes apparent (to an attentive listener) that everything he says is either questionable or downright untrue. What we have is an ex-convict, skilfully beguiling his audience in order to recover a justly lost reputation.

Verse 1

The opening two lines begin with as many lies. Despite his attestation, he is not really a ‘hobo’ and (judging from the reference to a brother) he does have ‘family’. That he’s not a hobo is apparent from his admission that he had ‘fourteen carat gold in his mouth and silk upon his back’. Well what’s happened to the gold in his mouth? People don’t usually lose their fillings when they hit hard times. Probably it’s still there. And what about the silk shirts? It’s clear he didn’t have to escape in the middle of the night without having time to grasp a few possessions because, by his own admission, he did no more than ‘wander off’ in shame – and that wouldn’t account for his supposed destitution. He admits to having been prosperous, and we’re given no reason to suppose that he isn’t still prosperous.

The tone is apparently self-pitying and it continues throughout the first verse:

‘Where another man’s life might begin
That’s exactly where mine ends’

But why? If other people’s lives can begin when they’re in his position, then why can’t his begin again from that position? He seems to be doing nothing more than making his lot sound as bad as possible. Later on he refers to his wandering off in shame as his ‘fatal doom’ – a ludicrous exaggeration. We can’t trust what he says. He seems out to elicit his audience’s sympathy.

Then comes the confessional bit:

‘I have tried my hand at bribery
Blackmail and deceit
And I’ve served time for ev’rything
‘Cept beggin’ on the street’

It’s not altogether surprising that he’s been in prison for bribery and blackmail, but by putting the emphasis on the time served, he seems to be trying to make us feel sorry for him instead of condemning what he’s done. Indeed he makes it sound as if we should feel a lot of sorrow because of the supposedly colossal amount of time he’s served – he’s served time for ‘everything’ (with the one exception of begging).

And then he skilfully makes it look as if his crimes weren’t really all that bad. After all, he lets it be known, he didn’t  stoop to begging. And by saying that, he puts begging into the same league as the crimes he did commit. He implies in fact that begging would have been even worse because it’s where he drew the line. In reality, of course,  begging would have been a very minor crime by comparison, and it would have been much better if he’d become a beggar instead of engaging in bribery or blackmail.

Was it moral uprightness which kept him from begging, as he seems to imply? It’s unlikely. The actual reason he didn’t beg is almost certainly that there would have been no point. Beggars expect to make little more than is required to keep body and soul together, yet this person may not only have access to his previous wealth, but also the proceeds of his crimes. Giving the impression that  it’s his virtue which prevents him from begging, is just an instance of his deceiving his audience.

Verse 2

The narrator hasn’t learnt his lesson, then.  One of the faults he admits to is deceit but, it seems, even now he’s being cunningly deceitful. And we can see this again in the line ‘Once I was rather prosperous’. It’s the word ‘rather’ which is disingenuous. From the evidence he gives – the gold, and the silk, and the admission of there being  ‘nothing I did lack’ – it’s clear he was very prosperous, not just ‘rather prosperous’. Since he’s aim is to get the audience’s sympathy, he presumably feels it would be better to downplay his wealth.

Then we come to the reason he gives for his downfall, and this he presents in highly cryptic fashion. Why? Presumably it’s a deliberate attempt to pull the wool over our eyes again. He says:

‘But I did not trust my brother
I carried him to blame’

‘Brother’ is open to being interpreted in two ways – male sibling and neighbour, as in ‘love thy neighbour’. It’s possible that the narrator is aware of the biblical connotations and is deliberately using the word ‘brother’ to give his pronouncement a religious air. Anything to win people over! Either way it’s not at all clear why lack of trust should be what leads to his destitution. We can assume that he was not justified in withholding his trust, whatever that amounted to, because of the confessional tone – he’s admitting as much. But it’s not obvious why mere lack of trust should have disastrous consequences. It would appear that there’s more going on than meets the eye.

To explain what he means by lack of trust he says ‘I carried him to blame’. The first criticism to make is that it’s difficult to see how this, however it’s interpreted, is supposed to illustrate a lack of trust. It would seem, rather, that the narrator is trying to pass off his wrongdoing as mere lack of trust when in fact it was something altogether more serious. This wouldn’t be surprising since he tried to pass off bribery and blackmail as no worse than begging.

Secondly, ‘I carried him to blame’ doesn’t make sense! It sounds like obfuscation. The natural thing would have been to say ‘I blamed him for something he didn’t do’ (if that’s what happened).  It may well be, then that the narrator is trying to cover up having blamed the brother for something the narrator himself did. It’s this which is suggested by the odd use of ‘I carried’. We can only speculate, but it’s possible that when the narrator says ‘I carried him to blame’ he was about to say something like ‘I carried out the crime, and then saw that my brother got blamed for it’, but changes his mind about making such an honest admission when he’s gets two words into the sentence. Whatever the reason for the nonsensical utterance, it’s clear that we’re not getting the full truth.

More disingenuousness follows. He makes out that it wasn’t his misdemeanour which resulted in his fall from grace. It was instead the unintended consequences of that misdemeanour which resulted in his fall. The mere lack of trust he showed ‘led’ him, we’re told, to his downfall. How? The implication is that from then on what happened was out of his control, and so the end result was not his fault. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t tell us what these events were which he couldn’t do anything about, and we’re left with the suspicion that there weren’t any. It was his original misdemeanour, far more serious than he’d like to admit, which actually did for him.

Verse 3

The audience manipulation continues into the final verse. It begins with flattery:

‘Kind ladies and kind gentlemen’

Not only can calling his audience kind be seen as flattery, but the word ‘kind’ seems to have been repeated just to make sure the audience don’t fail to notice his generosity of spirit! This is immediately followed by another device to make the audience feel sympathy – equivocation:

‘Soon I will be gone’.

‘Gone’ is ambiguous. It might mean ‘gone away’ or it might mean ‘dead’. One suspects from the narrator’s general duplicity that the truth is the former, but that he hopes his audience will take him to mean the latter. This is supported by the way he expresses himself in what follows:

‘Before I do pass on’

‘Pass on’ is equally ambiguous. It too – perhaps through association with ‘pass away’ – seems to imply the narrator is about to die and so warrants sympathy.

The final four lines comprise three pieces of advice given by the narrator to his audience. This advice doesn’t seem to have been asked for, and it’s unclear what business it is of the narrator’s to give it. Nevertheless it has the effect of making the narrator appear decent, as if he’s got other people’s well-being at heart (which, from what we’ve learnt, seems extremely unlikely). Not only that, but he makes it look as if he’s going out of his way to advise his audience about how to avoid a fate as bad as his.  The effect will be to magnify the horror of his fate in their eyes, and thereby to increase their sympathy for him.

The advice itself is almost worthless – but then its point was not so much to advise, as to elicit undeserved respect and sympathy. The first piece of advice has the effect of reinforcing the narrator’s previous attempt to imply that his wrongdoing was really quite trivial. By telling his hearers to stay free from petty jealousy, he’s implying that his own wrongdoing involved nothing worse than petty jealousy. The second piece, ‘Live by no man’s code’, is either just platitudinous, or else downright bad advice (since some people’s approach to life is well worth emulating).  The third piece, ‘And hold your judgment for yourself’, is probably intended to mean one should think for oneself. At best it’s vague advice. But it’s also ironic in that it can be taken to mean ‘You should blame yourself and not anyone else for the effects of your own wrongdoing’ and this is the very thing the narrator seems to be refusing to do with respect to the brother. Good advice for him would be to put his own house in order!

We’re not told who the audience is which the narrator is addressing. We can imagine though that it might well have been taken in. That’s his skill. If we too were taken in by him on first listening, that’s Dylan’s skill.

All Along The Watchtower

Essentially the song is about attitudes towards corruption and privilege. In that the narrator seems to speak dismissively of the main characters in describing them as ‘the joker’ and ‘the thief’ respectively, he may be ironically representing society’s attitudes to those who fail to accept its norms. Nevertheless the joker’s criticisms seem serious.

Like Lear’s fool, he is a wise joker, understanding the true state of the world. He sees that true values are going unappreciated – and in particular that certain sections of society (‘businessmen’) are benefiting at the expense of others (‘ploughmen’). Like the joker, the thief is also presented positively. He calms the joker down and speaks ‘kindly’ to him. His use of the phrase ‘You and I’, putting the joker on a level with himself, seems deliberately unpatronising. It also, by way of contrast, emphasises the very unegalitarian attitudes of those about whom the joker is complaining. He may be dismissed as a thief by those who determine society’s attitudes, but his values are in fact sound. It could, for all we know, be the selfish attitude of the better off, rather than his own inclination, which has forced him to become a thief (see below).

Previously it seems both he and the joker had dismissed what life had in store for them as a joke, but no longer. Now, he says, they are both ‘through that’, meaning presumably that they see there’s no point in complaining – or getting ‘excited’- about things being wrong. The expression he uses is ‘we’ve been through that’ which perhaps captures the idea of having suffered (i.e. been through a lot) as well as having seen through the idea that complaining is likely to be purposeful. Seeing life as a joke will achieve nothing, but there’s no need for them to continue being negative. The thief characterises their previous attitude as false, suggesting that the only proper approach is to recognise true values. ‘The hour is getting late’ shows the thief’s awareness of life’s brevity and the need to act appropriately before the opportunity is lost.

The final four lines tell us what is wrong with life – why it might be dismissed as a joke. The images are of luxurious living and unnecessary poverty – princes, women who came and went (but apparently didn’t do anything worth mentioning), contrasting with servants whose wages aren’t enough to buy shoes. Where the thief represents egalitarian attitudes in his treatment of the joker, by contrast the princes and the women represent privilege and repression. The phrase ‘while all the women came and went’ is reminiscent of T.S.Eliot’s ‘In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo’. Dylan’s women are presumably therefore equally well-to-do, and equally pretentious. They can be taken to represent the sorts of imperfection and corruption which lead the downtrodden to dismiss life as a joke. Interestingly, instead of ‘the women come and go’, Dylan has ‘the women came and went’, the past tense emphasising that time has moved on – ‘the hour is getting late’.

The princes  can be taken to represent those who are in a position to improve the lot of others, but don’t. It’s significant that their watchfulness is described as being ‘all along the watchtower’. The phrase echoes the earlier ‘None of them along the line know what any of it is worth’. It would seem, therefore, that ‘them along the line’ refers at least in part to the princes. If the line is the hierarchical ordering of society, they are among those in that order who have no idea of true worth, and who accordingly fail to see how the world’s resources should be distributed. This is crucial since they, as princes, and therefore at the top of the order, are in the best position to put things right. That they ‘kept the view’ suggests that rather than do this their whole aim was to keep things the same. Nevertheless, in spite of their precautions to preserve the lifestyles of both the privileged and the exploited, the outlook is ominous. The wildcat growling, and the howling wind, represent Nature’s disapproval. And the two riders approaching suggests that the thief is right that ‘the hour is getting late’, that the time for a change of outlook is now.

The point about corruption, and its resolution being about to occur, is reinforced by the song’s religious allusions. The thief is reminiscent of the ‘good thief’ on Calvary. There are faint echoes of Christ’s ‘I am the way, the truth and the life…’ (John 14:6) in both the joker’s and the thief’s language. The joker is looking for a ‘way’ out, and the thief recommends truth – ‘So let us not talk falsely now’. If the wine is taken to be Christ’s blood, as at the Last Supper, then the complaint is that many have failed to recognise Christian values. And the wildcat which growls might remind us of Eliot’s ‘Christ the tiger’ – Christ preparing to mete vengeance on those who’ve ignored Christian precepts.

In addition, the joker’s language, when he refers to ‘my wine’ and ‘my earth’, associates him with the Old Testament prophets who would often refer to God in the first person. This is appropriate since the joker, like the prophets, is drawing attention to social norms which would be abhorrent to a good God. The use of expressions such as ‘watchtower’, ‘princes’ and ‘two riders’, all from the account in Isaiah of  the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 21:5-9), also helps reinforce the idea that there’s nothing ultimately to be gained from corruption and privilege.

I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine

St Augustine here is presented as someone desperate to save souls. His blanket suggests he has little concern for the luxuries of life, preferring to sleep rough so that he can devote himself to his task. In this respect (and others) he is like the ‘wicked’ messenger. His ‘coat  of solid gold’ seems incongruous, though it might associate him with Christ who wore an expensive  garment made from one piece of cloth. It might also suggest he has the wherewithal to redeem – buy back – the lost souls.

The song gets across a sense of urgency and relevance. Augustine appears to be as alive as the narrator and the listener. The blanket under his arm suggests that he has no time for sleep. On the contrary, he’s ‘tearing’ through the very place – ‘these quarters’ – where the narrator is. And that location makes his message seem relevant here and now.  Furthermore his frenetic activity contrasts with that of the narrator who is asleep. The implication is that the narrator himself, and perhaps the listener, need to wake up – act now/’Arise’ –  if they are to be saved. Despite his activity, the task is difficult because the souls he’s targeting ‘already have been sold’. The ‘have’, rather than ‘had’, again suggests these events are going on here and now rather than elsewhere and in the distant past.

In the second verse we find that Augustine is particularly concerned about ‘gifted kings and queens’ who have turned away from religion, none of them being prepared to be martyred for the faith (‘No martyr is among ye now’) . The injunction to ‘go on your way accordingly’ would seem to be spoken with bitterness. Their ‘way’ is not Christ (cf. ‘I am the way’), but the way to damnation. Ironically in one sense they do have a martyr among them, Augustine. In the world of the narrator’s dream he is about to be put to death by these people, as well as by the narrator (unlike the real Augustine who died naturally).

The saint informs the souls he’s trying to save that they’re not alone. ‘Not alone’ can be taken in two senses. First they have Augustine who will save them if they allow him to. Secondly they are not alone in being damned – because their companions are also damned. It’s in both senses that they should ‘know’ they’re not alone. By being aware of Augustine’s warning, and the danger of their companions, they will have the best chance of being saved. As it is, the saint’s warning is ignored.

The final verse refers to Augustine’s ‘fiery breath’. The metaphor makes him seem dragon-like and therefore frightening – as befits his warning of damnation. The narrator is among those who ‘put him out to death’, the expression ‘put him out’ (as distinct from just ‘put him…’) has overtones of extinguishing which suggests that his fiery breath gets extinguished. The narrator then realises that he is alone – again in two senses, perhaps.  Augustine is not there to help him, but neither are the others who put him to death. The narrator is alone because he has to rely on himself if he is to be saved. He tells us he has woken up, and this can be taken both literally and metaphorically. That he might be saved is hinted at in the last line -‘ And bowed my head and cried’. The wording is similar to that of Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, where we’re told ‘he bowed his head and died’. Not only is the narrator, like Augustine earlier, associated with Jesus but (unlike Jesus) his present fate is to cry rather than die. This crying may represent the repentance which is necessary for his salvation.

As I Went Out One Morning

Thomas Paine, famous for his publication the ‘The Rights of Man’, was also one of the founding fathers of the United States. The theme of the song could either be human rights as they exist in America, or else the political outlook of the new country itself. I’ll consider each possibility in turn.

Since Paine himself figures in the song, the setting would appear to be eighteenth century. However the archaic vocabulary and word order used throughout give it a medieval air. This in turn suggests the narrator’s behaviour towards the ‘damsel’ will be chivalric. This is heavily ironic for, as will be seen, it is far from that.

That the narrator’s behaviour is untoward can be seen from close examination. He sees a fair damsel in chains, but does nothing to release her from them. Instead he offers her his hand – a somewhat tame gesture in the circumstances. When she responds by taking him by the arm, perhaps putting her faith in him, he immediately turns on her. It’s clear that any relationship between them is to be on his terms only. If she acts on her own initiative, he sees her as a threat – ‘She meant to do me harm’.

The narrator’s chauvinistic attitude towards the woman also comes across in his language. ‘Depart from me this moment’ is the language of someone who doesn’t doubt either his authority or his superiority. Nevertheless the fault appears to be not just with the narrator but the society he would seem to represent. He tells the woman she has no choice, which suggests that women generally are subservient to men. That she recognises this is apparent from her response; she recognises that her response needs to be demeaning –  that she needs to ‘beg’ him to accept her proposal.

Her proposal is that they elope but in secret – presumably so that he does not have to admit to a relationship he finds demeaning. He tells us, though, that she ‘pleaded/From the corners of her mouth’. That she pleaded seems plausible given her position relative to his, but the claim it came from the corners of her mouth seems to be the narrator’s attempt to show her behaviour in the worst light possible. It must be untrue. If one pleads, one does not do it from the corners of one’s mouth!

The narrator’s disingenuousness is also apparent in that he admits to telling her to depart from him ‘with my voice’. Since ‘with my voice’ seems redundant, one wonders why he’s saying it. The implication seems to be that his body language was telling her something different – that he doesn’t want her to depart, so long as her staying is on his terms. This would explain why her response is so much more mild than one would expect given his terse ‘Depart from me this moment’. She simply says ‘But I don’t wish to’. She seems to be playing the game, hoping there’s still a chance to escape her ‘chains’. She may feel that secretly eloping would be better than nothing.

Tom Paine’s reaction to the scene is the opposite to what one would expect. He shouts at the woman. He commands her. He wants her to ‘yield’ to the narrator. He seems to accept the downtrodden position of women in society as right. He then goes as far as apologising to the narrator on behalf of the woman – even though the woman has done nothing wrong. In fact she’s behaved entirely in accordance with society’s expectations of women.

The song appears, then, to be a critique of attitudes to women as they exist in the United States. It suggests not only that women are downtrodden, but that even the forces of liberalism as represented by Paine conspire to keep them subjugated.

The second interpretation is that the damsel represents the nascent United States. Paine apologises because what was in part his brainchild has failed to reach his expectations. The narrator is equally critical. Given his untoward character, her attempt to have him join her in flying south suggests that the criticism might be justified. It’s unclear what flying south amounts to, but one possibility would be it represents an aggressive foreign policy which might well be seen as America’s betraying the ideals of the Revolution.

Updated 15.3.17