Bob Dylan – Tin Angel Revisited


Just a few thoughts on the song Tin Angel.

For me, after listening to it for two days, the most obvious masterpiece on Bob Dylan’s new album is the murder ballad, Tin Angel. It’s a story-song, the kind Dylan has done so magnificently many times before. Cross the Green Mountain, Tweeter and the Monkey Man and  Brownsville Girl springs to mind. They are extremely cinematic songs and they tell a story over many verses.  Another song that pops up in my head is the wonderful story of Spanish Jack by Willy DeVille, not very like in sound but in tone.

The music on Tin Angel is repetitive, but not in a bad way, it’s an hypnotic rhythm and a bass that sucks the wind straight out of you. It transcends ordinary music and serves as a enhancement of the fascinating story that is told over the 28 verses.

I could try to analyze the song, but I don’t think we should. It is straightforward ballad of three doomed lovers, told in a dark, dark song, and it sounds like Bob Dylan is having a hell of a time when he tells it.

After I got a comment on the original post about the song Gypsy Davy I just had to do a revision (see the bottom of the post)!

..and why is it called Tin Angel, I have an idea, but I could be off the mark. Joni Mitchell has accused Dylan of being unoriginal, and I think he is poking fun at her  by naming the song Tin Angel. The same title as a song recorded by Mitchell but written by somebody else.

Here’s the spotify link:

It is a bit difficult to see who says what in the story, I have put who I think delivers the lines after each line of dialogue in the song.

The “playas”:

The Boss
The Wife
Henry Lee

The story starts at home at the mansion:

It was late last night when the boss came home
To a deserted mansion and a desolate throne
Servant said: “Boss, the lady’s gone
She left this morning just ‘fore dawn.” (Servant)

“You got something to tell me, tell it to me, man
Come to the point as straight as you can” (The Boss)
“Old Henry Lee, chief of the clan
Came riding through the woods and took her by the hand” (Servant)

The boss he lay back flat on his bed
He cursed the heat and he clutched his head
He pondered the future of his fate
To wait another day would be far too late

“Go fetch me my coat and my tie
And the cheapest labour that money can buy
Saddle me up my buckskin mare
If you see me go by, put up a prayer” (The Boss)

The Boss is determined to “set things straight” and rides off to get his wife and to kill Henry Lee. Henry Lee is a name that we know from an old song on the Harry Smith collection (the first on the first cd). Covered by Bob Dylan earlier (as Love, Henry), also covered by Nick Cave on the album Murder Ballads. An album where Tin Angel would fit very naturally.

The next 6 verses tells us about his journey and how he sneaks up on the unknowing lovers. Dylan really sets a terrifying scene for what is about to happen. The Boss really gets into a killing mood, “he renounces his faith, he denies his lord”:

Well, they rode all night, and they rode all day
Eastward, long down the broad highway
His spirit was tired and his vision was bent
His men deserted him and onward he went

He came to a place where the light was dull
His forehead pounding in his skull
Heavy heart was racked with pain
Insomnia raging in his brain

Well, he threw down his helmet and his cross-handled sword
He renounced his faith, he denied his lord
Crawled on his belly, put his ear to the wall
One way or another put an end to it all

He leaned down, cut the electric wire
Stared into the flames and he snorted the fire
Peered through the darkness, caught a glimpse of the two
It was hard to tell for certain who was who

He lowered himself down on a golden chain
His nerves were quaking in every vein
His knuckles were bloody, he sucked in the air
He ran his fingers through his greasy hair

They looked at each other and their glasses clinked
One single unit, inseparably linked
“Got a strange premonition there’s a man close by” (Henry Lee)
“Don’t worry about him, he wouldn’t harm a fly” (The Wife)

As we hear, the wife is not very worried or affraid of her husband.

A small snippet seems to be taken from The Fire-King by Sir Walter Scott:  “He has thrown by his helmet, and cross-handled sword, Renouncing his knighthood, denying his Lord”. I’m sure there are a lot of other small “thefts” as well.

Love and theft, baby, love and theft.

Now things starts to get “heavy”:

From behind the curtain, the boss he crossed the floor
He moved his feet and he bolted the door
Shadows hiding the lines in his face
With all the nobility of an ancient race

She turned, she was startled with a look of surprise
With a hatred that could hit the skies
“You’re a reckless fool, I could see it in your eyes
To come this way was by no means wise” (The Wife)

“Get up, stand up, you greedy-lipped wench
And cover your face or suffer the consequence
You are making my heart feel sick
Put your clothes back on, double-quick” (The Boss)

“Silly boy, you think me a saint
I’ll listen no more to your words of complaint
You’ve given me nothing but the sweetest lies
Now hold your tongue and feed your eyes” (The Wife)

“I’d have given you the stars and the planets, too
But what good would these things do you?
Bow the heart if not the knee
Or never again this world you’ll see” (The Boss)

“Oh, please let not your heart be cold
This man is dearer to me than gold” (The Wife)
“Oh, my dear, you must be blind
He’s a gutless ape with a worthless mind” (The Boss)

“You’ve had your way too long with me
Now it’s me who’ll determine how things shall be” (The Wife)
“Try to escape,” he cussed and cursed
‘You’ll have to try to get past me first” (The Boss)

“Do not let your passion rule
You think my heart the heart of a fool
And you, sir, you can not deny
You made a monkey of me, what and for why?” (The Boss)

“I’ll have no more of this insulting chat
The devil can have you, I’ll see to that
Look sharp or step aside
Or in the cradle you’ll wish you’d died” (Henry Lee)

The gun went boom and the shot rang clear
First bullet grazed his ear
Second ball went right straight in
And he bent in the middle like a twisted pin

He crawled to the corner and he lowered his head
He gripped the chair and he grabbed the bed
It would take more than needle and thread
Bleeding from the mouth, he’s as good as dead

Now there’s a twist as the wife turns against Henry Lee (and decides to kill him).

“You shot my husband down, you fiend” (The Wife)
“Husband? What husband? What the hell do you mean?
He was a man of strife, a man of sin
I cut him down and threw him to the wind” (Henry Lee)

This she said with angry breath
“You too shall meet the lord of death
It was I who brought your soul to life” (The Wife)
Then she raised her robe and she drew out a knife

His face was hard and caked with sweat
His arms ached and his hands were wet
“You’re a murderous queen and a bloody wife
If you don’t mind, I’ll have the knife” (Henry Lee)

“We’re two of a kind and our blood runs hot
But we’re no way similar in body or thought
All husbands are good men, as all wives know” (The Wife)
Then she pierced him to the heart and his blood did flow

His knees went limp and he reached for the door
His tomb doom was sealed, he slid to the floor
He whispered in her ear: “This is all your fault
My fighting days have come to a halt” (Henry Lee)

She touched his lips and kissed his cheek
He tried to speak but his breath was weak
“You died for me, now I’ll die for you” (The Wife)
She put the blade to her heart and she ran it through

All three lovers together in a heap
Thrown into the grave, forever to sleep
Funeral torches blazed away
Through the towns and the villages all night and all day

A love story of epic proportions, worthy of Shakespeare. I’m not sure why, but I imagine the setting to be in the old south. Maybe it is the mention of the mansion, the clan and Henry Lee that brings me to this. The music also takes me to a swampy and hot place a long time ago.

The song reminds me of chants with a  chaingang rhythm or an old scandinavian “kvad”, a long song that is sung by groups of people to remember stories, from before they could write them down.

This is an excuse for me to print these fantastic lyrics, so go get the album, listen to the song, get immersed in this captivating song.

Update 16 Feb 2013:

Barbara (se the comments) made me aware of similarities with Woody Guthrie’s song Gypsy Davy, and I must say it is obvious that Dylan have used quite a bit of the lyrics from that song.

The first verse:
It was late last night when the boss come home
Askin’ about his lady
The only answer he received, “she’s gone with the
Gypsy Davy, gone with the gypsy Davy.”

It is not word for word, but it is close.

The next two verses also have lyrics that reminds us of Dylan’s song, not quite vermatim, but close:
“Go saddle for me my buskin’ horse
And a hundred dollars saddle
Point out to me their wagon tracks
And after them I’ll travel, after them I’ll ride”

Well, I had not rode ’til the midnight moon
When I saw the campfire gleaming
I heard the notes of the big guitar
And the voice of the gypsy singin

Gypsy Davy:

When I started looking for lyrics to the song I discovered that Guthrie had done the exactly the same thing as Bob Dylan, he had taken another, older song, and made it his own. In Woody’s case it was an old Scottish song called The Gypsy Laddie or The Raggle Taggle Gypsy (or Johnnie Faa, Seven Yellow Gypsies, Black Jack Davy, The Draggletail Gypsies). The first known versions are from around 1720-1740, so it’s an old song.

The lyrics differ from version to version but here are some of the lyrics:

Lord Castles he came home at night
Inquiring for his lady,
The one denied, and the other replied
She’s awa’ wi’ the gypsy laddies O.

Make haste, make haste my milk-white steed
Make haste and soon be ready,
For I will neither eat no drink
Or I get back my lady O.

They’ve rode east and they’ve rode west
Until they cam to yonder boggy,
And there they spied the pretty girl
Wi’ the gipsies a’ stanin’ roon her O.

As we can see, Dylan, puts himself in a tradition of adapting songs, rewriting songs to make them his own.

Bob Dylan did a variation on Good As I Been To You:

Here’s a verse from a completely different (and very “frisky”) version:

He’s rade on and further on til he’s came tae Strathbogie
An there he spied his ain dear wife lyin doon wi the gypsy laddies 

..all three of them?!

What is very interesting is the very dark twist that Dylan has written, I can not find that in other interpretations of the song. Usually the master finds his wife and they ride home, sometimes she choses to stay with the gypsy and sometimes we don’t know but the master swears to kill the gypsies.

I want to include The Waterboys interpretation as well, a great song.

The Raggle Taggle Gypsy:

– Hallgeir

9 thoughts on “Bob Dylan – Tin Angel Revisited”

  1. A really fascinating analysis-thanks.
    Dylan adapting a story from traditional song via Woody Guthrie and many singers who have gone before.
    It shows Dylan’s knowledge of, and affectionfor,traditional song.The Clancys in New York,Martin Carthy et al in London and generations of unknown singers in fields and villages in the UK ,Ireland and USA.
    Very clever to be able to take a ‘standard’ and give it a twist.
    One of the reasons why I’m a Dylan fan.

    1. Thanks for your comments!

      I agree, and I’m sitting listening to Tempest (the album) as I write this, and I am even more sure now that putting it at no one at our year-end list was right.

      – Hallgeir

  2. Tin Angel is just another version of Matty Groves recorded by Fairport Convention. Another version of the same song is Little Musgrave recorded by ChristyMoore/Planxty.

    1. Well, to call it just another version is to oversimplify it to say the least. It has some similarities rhytmichally and the lyrics have some connections, not word by word but thematically (yes, some words are taken from this song as well). I do agree that the dark twist may be derived from Matty Groves (the last part of Tin Angel).

      Matty groves is also an old ballad, collected by Francis James Child, a so called “Child ballad”, the same as Black Jack Davy/Raggle Taggle Gypsy (and all those other names)

      …but all this just underscores my point, Bob Dylan is part of an ancient folk tradition where you take what has been done before and you addapt it into your own work.

      Plagiarism do not play a part in this, this is the way it should be done, the way it has been done for hundreds of years.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂 Made me play Fairport Convention again, and that’s not bad at all!

  3. I had completely forgotten but Dylan himself recorded a variation of the song on Good As I Been To You, Black Jack Davey, the song has gone full circle! (see post)

    Thanks to Caroline Swartz for making me aware of this!

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