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.