Nobel Laureate Wrote Archetypal Ballads

bob_dylan_-_blood_on_the_tracks

Tuesday

It’s high time that I weighed in on the latest Nobel Prize winner in literature. As I know little about music, or song lyrics for that matter, I am agnostic on the choice of Bob Dylan. I like the argument made by the selection committee that Dylan falls within the oral tradition of Homer and Sappho, and I certain believe he caused us to look at song lyrics in a new way. He has an extraordinary number of memorable poetic lines which went right to the heart of his historical moment. He was certainly an outside-the-box choice.

There are arguments to be made for inside-the-box choices as well. Among American authors, I think of Richard Wilbur and Philip Roth, who write fine poems and novels respectively within a recognized tradition. Had either one of them won the Nobel, we wouldn’t be rethinking the prize itself.

The best argument for prizes in my view is that they get people to read more. I have added a number of unknown authors to my life list (unknown to me, that is) because they became Nobel laureates. In that respect, the selection of Bob Dylan doesn’t expand my horizons.

To honor Dylan, I share one of my favorite ballads, found on his album Blood on the Tracks. I love the narrative of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,”, which has the folkloric feel of a classic western, even as the Jack of Hearts works as trickster figure. Lily may think that her former lover’s luck has run out–is “the brand new coat of paint” courtesy of her new lover?–but the Jack of Hearts always comes out on top.

The card imagery, along with some Tarot imagery, gives a sense of fate inexorably unfolding, as do the ballad’s surreal dream images. (Everyone is ignoring a bank break-in that is underway, and the Jack of Hearts at one point escapes in the costume of a monk.) Like great ballads such as “Barbara Allen” and “Sir Patrick Spence,” there are suggestive ellipses that listeners must fill in for themselves.

Since I can’t get Donald Trump off my mind these days, I’ll note that there’s also Big Jim resembles the Donald:

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine
He made his usual entrance lookin’ so dandy and so fine
With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place
He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste

Like Trump, Jim gets into trouble from being too loose with the ladies.

If you want to listen to Dylan sing the ballad, you can go here:

Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts

By Bob Dylan

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

He moved across the mirrored room, “Set it up for everyone,” he said
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin’ before he turned their heads
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin
“Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?”
Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts

Backstage the girls were playin’ five-card stud by the stairs
Lily had two queens, she was hopin’ for a third to match her pair
Outside the streets were fillin’ up, the window was open wide
A gentle breeze was blowin’, you could feel it from inside
Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine
He made his usual entrance lookin’ so dandy and so fine
With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place
He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste
But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts

Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town
She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown
She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear
“Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,” but he didn’t seem to hear
He was starin’ into space over at the Jack of Hearts

“I know I’ve seen that face somewhere,” Big Jim was thinkin’ to himself
“Maybe down in Mexico or a picture upon somebody’s shelf”
But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim
And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him
Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts

Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child
She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled
She had come away from a broken home, had lots of strange affairs
With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere
But she’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts

The hangin’ judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined
The drillin’ in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind
It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring
And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king
No, nothin’ ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts

Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife
She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife
She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide
Was lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died
She was gazin’ to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts

Lily took her dress off and buried it away
“Has your luck run out?” she laughed at him
“Well, I guess you must have known it would someday
Be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand-new coat of paint
I’m glad to see you’re still alive, you’re lookin’ like a saint”
Down the hallway footsteps were comin’ for the Jack of Hearts

The backstage manager was pacing all around by his chair
“There’s something funny going on,” he said, “I can just feel it in the air”
He went to get the hangin’ judge, but the hangin’ judge was drunk
As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk
There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts

No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick
The door to the dressing room burst open and a Colt revolver clicked
And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised
Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes
She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts

Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
And cleaned out the bank safe, it’s said that they got off with quite a haul
In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town
But they couldn’t go no further without the Jack of Hearts

The next day was hangin’ day, the sky was overcast and black
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn’t even blink
The hangin’ judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink
The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts

The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, “Closed for repair”
Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair
She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw
Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary and thinkin’ about the law
But, most of all she was thinkin’ ’bout the Jack of Hearts

Further note: I didn’t realize until I went on line that there are a number of allegorical readings of the ballad, including one that parallels it with the Watergate break-in. You can find out about those readings if you go here.  (Make sure you check out the comments section.)

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  • This is the album I thought of when I heard the news. I still hear “Buckets of Rain” in my head sometimes. But still, I am troubled by this prize for half of what he does–I would rather there was another Prize for music.

  • Robin

    I agree, Leslie. There’s a bit too much genre confusion in the decision for my conservative taste (conservative literarily, not politically). I’m also not sure what to make of last year’s award, an instance of creative non-fiction journalism being singled out.


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