I will not pretend to know what Bob Dylan’s exact meaning with this song is but I will offer my thoughts on what I consider the second best song on Tempest.
Scarlet Town from the Bob Dylan album Tempest (with film footage from Masked & Anonymous):
The song feels like a mash of several songs, and that’s actually what it is. He draws inspiration from the old ballad Barbara Allen, but he just uses it as a framework to tell an even more sinister tale. The new parts of the song also feels like a split between two different songs, one set in biblical times and the other addressing the state of USA/The Western world today.
Lyrics Barbara Allen (The three first verses):
In younder town where I was born
There was a fair maid dwell’n
Made every youth cry well away
Her name was Bar-bry Ellen
Was in th merry month of May
When greenbuds they were swell’n
Sweet William come from th western state
An’ courted Bar-bry Ellen
Was all in the month o’ June
When everything was blooming
Sweet William on his death bed lay
For th love of Bar-bry Ellen
Bob Dylan has a long lasting relationship with Barbara Allen (the song) and I’ve included some versions here just as a reference.
The first two verses from the Gaslight tapes (it’s eight minutes and has a lot of verses):
In Charlotte town, not far from here,
There was a fair maid dwellin.’
Had a name was known both far and near,
An’ her name was Barb’ry Allen.
‘Twas in the merry month of May,
Green buds they were swellin’,
Poor William on his death-bed lay,
For the love of Barb’ry Allen.
The first two verses in the -88 version:
In Scarlet Town where I was born
there was a fair maid dwelling,
and her name was known both far and near,
and they called her Barbara Allen.
T’was in the merry month of may
the green buds they were swelling,
sweet William on his death bed lay
for the love of Barbara Allen.
Two other artist that has used this song as a basis for an entirely new song are Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:
Not at all like the original Barbara Allen and the only two things it has in common with Bob Dylan’s song are, the title and it’s origin. The melody is different and the “story”/text is completely different (even if both have a distictly sombre tone). Gillian Welch/David Rawlings have more folksy/appalachian feel, while Dylan sings in a more talking blues style.
So what is the new Bob Dylan song Scarlet Town about?
I’ll do it verse by verse, it’s a complicated mission and I know a lot of people will disaggree with my (not so serious) analysis. And there are probably dozens of references and meanings that I haven’t discovered (yet…). Please do not take this too seriously, this is just a playful game, a way of looking at words that probably means something else entirely.
1. Verse (The setup part1)
In Scarlet Town where I was born (1)
There’s ivy leaf and silverthorn (2)
The streets have names that you can’t pronounce (3)
Gold is down to a quarter an ounce (4)
The music starts and the people sway
Everybody says, “Are you going my way?”
Uncle Tom’s still working for Uncle Bill (5)
Scarlet Town is under the hill (6)
1.) This is taken from the old song Scarlet Town/Barbara Allen
2.) Poison Ivy with it’s thorns, it’s a poisonous place.
3.) “where the streets have no name” = A mythological place
4.) Does it mean that money has little value in Scarlet Town? Or that the financial system has suffered a blow, I think it is a reference to the present financial situation in the world
5.) Referencing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Bill = Uncle Sam? dollarBill? I’m not sure, and I did read a very dark interpretation somewhere: That Uncle Tom is Obama that is a puppet for Bill Clinton. That’s very cynical and I don’t think that’s the meaning.
6.) Boot Hill? A graveyard, a “dead” town. Purgatory is also described as located on/near a mountain in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, or does it simply mean that the town is well past its best days. There are also at least two biblical references, Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (depicted as located by some hills/under a hill).
The phrase entered the American lexicon early in its history, in the Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity”. Still aboard the ship Arbella, Winthrop admonished the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be a “city upon a hill”, watched by the world—which became the ideal the New England colonists placed upon their hilly capital city, Boston. Winthrop’s sermon gave rise to the widespread belief in American folklore that the United States of America is God’s country because metaphorically it is a Shining City upon a Hill, an early example of American exceptionalism.
Ronald Reagan: Used the term City upon a hill in his speeches when talking about USA
John F. Kennedy did the same when speaking about USA:
“Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities”,
Both politicians referencing J. Winthrop
There is a possibillity that Bob Dylan has drawn an allegory between Sodom/Gomorrah and his homeland USA (“where I was born”), the “town” is in fact a country.
2. Verse (The Setup part2)
Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William on his deathbed lay (7)
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed (8)
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 (9)
In Scarlet Town where I was born (10)
7.) This is a character from the original song Barbara Allen, but it could also be a reference to Shakespeare (the author of the play, Tempest).
8.) This is maybe another biblical reference, the virgin or the prostitute, probably the prostitute.
9.) Taken from Little Boy Blue a popular old nursery rhyme.
10.) Again from Barbara Allen, meaning his home country USA, if we chose to see it that way.
3. Verse (The Bible says so)
Scarlet Town in the hot noon hours (11)
There’s palm leaf shadows and scattered flowers (12)
Beggars crouching at the gate (13)
Help comes, but it comes too late
On marble slabs and in fields of stone (14)
You make your humble wishes known (15)
I touched the garment, but the hem was torn (16)
In Scarlet Town where I was born (17)
11.) I think he’s telling us that the clock is ticking and it might be too late.
12.) I think Dylan is underlining his allegory, the first downfall took place in a hot location, but it also feels like this once was part of another song…
13) Clear biblical references, both in the story of Jesus and also the story of Sodom/Gomorrah where inhospitality are one of the sins of the city/cities.
14) Is he now talking about the Temple in Jerusalem, I must confess I am a bit confused here.
15) Another Jerusalem reference to the temple wall? I think maybe it is.
16) A biblical reference again, it refers to the Gospel according to Mark (Chapter 5) – a woman touches Jesus’ garment as he passes and is healed. But in this case it seems like there’s no salvation.
17) USA or a mythical place or maybe Israel where Jerusalem is located, and most jews consider their “home town” in a way.
4. Verse (The Decline of the Western civilization)
In Scarlet Town the end is near (18)
The Seven Wonders of the World are here (19)
The evil and the good living side by side (20)
All human forms seem glorified (21)
Put your heart on a platter and see who’ll bite
See who’ll hold you and kiss you goodnight (22)
There’s walnut groves and maple wood
In Scarlet Town crying won’t do no good (23)
18) Now Bob Dylan gives it to us straight
19) They “have it all” in Scarlet Town
20) There seems to be no boundaries
21) Nakedness all over the place, I’m thinking of the fixation on body image and sex in the western media
22) Fornication/lovemaking all around
23) You’re fucked basically!
5. Verse (The Wars)
In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes (24)
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows (25)
You fight ’em on high and you fight ’em down in (26)
You fight ’em with whiskey, morphine, and gin
You’ve got legs that can drive men mad
A lot of things we didn’t do that I wish we had (27)
In Scarlet Town the sky is clear (28)
You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here (29)
24) Is he talking about fighting wars that were started by an earlier government? He might be…
25) Up on the hill = The Government
26) American soldier fighting all over the globe
27) A lot of regrets and as he says: Things we
shouldn’t should have done.
28) In the home country there are no war planes or rockets in the air
29) The wish of a soldier to come home
6. Verse (There is hope)
Set ’em Joe, play “Walking The Floor” (30)
Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore
I’m staying up late, and I’m making amends (31)
While a smile from Heaven descends (32)
If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time (33)
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown (34)
It’s all right there for you in Scarlet Town (35)
30) “Set ‘em Up, Joe” is an old country song by Vern Gosdin with the line, Set ’em Joe, play “Walking The Floor”, and it looks like Dylan says that the serious part is over now it’s time to be joyful
31) We work hard to get out of the crisis, things are looking brighter
32) God may not be in Scarlet Town, but there seems to be hope
33) He seems to say that he understand the preoccupation with beauty
34) All the different people of the world can have a meaningful co-existence…
35) …in America
I hope I haven’t offended anyone, and could just as easily had put Europe instead of USA. The Allegory would be just as poignant.
As I’ve said this is just a game, a play with verses and words, much in the same way (but not on his level of course) that Bob Dylan plays tricks with words. And there are lots of lines that I haven’t said anything about…