Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Scarlet Town





In Scarlet Town where I was born
There’s ivy leaf and silver thorn
The streets have names you can’t pronounce
Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce

“Scarlet Town” was inspired by “Barbara Allen,” a seventeenth-century English or Scottish traditional ballad brought by immigrants to the New World. A recording of “Barbara Allen” can be found on the album Live at the Gaslight 1962, a collection of early Dylan performances at the Gaslight Cafe in New York City. “Scarlet Town” has other allusions as well, including echoes of the children’s nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue,” the country hit “I’m Walking the Floor Over You” by Ernest Tubb, and even a reference to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe with the line in the first verse, “Uncle Tom still workin’ for Uncle Bill.” But beyond these references, the picture drawn is pure Dylan. He clearly describes a damned city, a new alley of desolation with “beggars crouching at the gate,” where “evil and the good [are] livin’ side by side.”
-Margotin, Philippe; Guesdon, Jean-Miche (Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track)

Spotify:

TOC

  1. Facts
  2. Lyrics
  3. Live versions

@#97 on my list of Bob Dylan’s top 200 songs.

Facts

Release on Tempest, his 35th studio album on September 10, 2012 by Columbia Records.

Known studio recordings:

Musicians: Bob Dylan: vocals, guitar; Charlie Sexton: guitar; Stu Kimball: guitar; David Hidalgo: violin; Donnie Herron: banjo, mandolin (?); Tony Garnier: upright bass; George G. Receli: drums, shaker

Recording Studio: Groove Masters, Santa Monica, California: January– March 2012

Producer: Jack Frost (Bob Dylan)
Sound Engineer: Scott Litt

Live:

  • First known performance: MTS Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada – 5 October 2012.
  • It has been performed 285 times live – last performance: Oakdale Theater, Wallingford, Connecticut – 18 June 2017.
  • Top year 2014 – 84 performances

Lyrics

Scarlet Town is indeed, as Dylan said of the album at large, a place “where anything goes.” His 1962 “Barbara Allen” had begun “In Charlotte Town, not far from here,” clearly heard in the opening of the new song—“In Scarlet Town where I was born,” but it has other company, now from the unreleased song of 1963, “Goin’ back to Rome / That’s where I was born.” Beyond this particular echo, we encounter a literary and cultural pastiche that forms the world of this song. Here “the streets [of Rome?] have names that you can’t pronounce.” “In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes / Up on the hill a chilly wind blows,” where the hill in this context resembles the one in “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the Capitoline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, which may lie behind another of the images in the song: “The Seven Wonders of the World are here.” The father is most easily Julius Caesar, whose foes were fought and defeated by his adoptive son, the future emperor Augustus. As Dylan said in the same interview after the album came out:

Who knows who’s been transfigured and who has not? Who knows? Maybe Aristotle?
Maybe he was transfigured? I can’t say. Maybe Julius Caesar was transfigured.

Transfigured into this song perhaps, now dead as his son fights his father’s foes? One verse of the song, the sixth, points in its entirety to Rome and adds a new ingredient, that of Christians under Rome or in Rome: On marble slabs and in fields of stone You make your humble wishes known I touched the garment but the hem was torn. In Scarlet Town where I was born “Marble slabs and in fields of stone” has an ancient world feel to it, perhaps the Roman Forum, while the next lines point toward biblical lands and to the woman in the Gospel of Luke 8.43–48 who makes her humble wishes known by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment as Jesus passes by, and is immediately cured of her chronic bleeding.

-Thomas, Richard F. (Why Bob Dylan Matters)

In Scarlet Town where I was born
There’s ivy leaf and silver thorn
The streets have names you can’t pronounce
Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce

The music starts and the people sway
Everybody says, are you going my way?
Uncle Tom still working for Uncle Bill
Scarlet town is under the hill

Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face, heaping prayers on his head

So brave, so true, so gentle is he
I’ll weep for him as he’d weep for me
Little Boy Blue come blow your horn
In Scarlet Town where I was born

Scarlet Town in the hot noon hours
There’s palm leaf shadows and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes but it comes too late

On marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town where I was born

In Scarlet Town the end is near
The seven wonders of the world are here
The evil and the good living side by side
All human forms seem glorified

Put your heart on a platter and see who’ll bite
See who’ll hold you and kiss you good night
There’s walnut groves and maple wood
In Scarlet town crying won’t do you no good

In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows
You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in
You fight ‘em with whisky, morphine and gin

You got legs that can drive men mad
A lot of things we didn’t do that I wish we had
In Scarlet Town the sky is clear
You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here

Set ‘em up Joe, play Walking The Floor
Play it for my flat chested junky whore
I’m staying up late and I’m making amends
While the smile of heaven descends

If love is a sin than beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
It’s all right there for ya in Scarlet Town

Live versions

There are an overwhelming amount of live versions available on youtube, soundcloud etc.. here are 5 of them.

Ryan Center
University Of Rhode Island
Kingston, Rhode Island
8 April 2013

Teatro degli Arcimboldi
Milan, Italy
3 November 2013

Opera House Theatre
Blackpool, England
22 November 2013

Broward Center For The Performing Arts
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
21 April 2015

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium
New York City, New York
8 July 2016

Sources

-Egil

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