Great song: Tin Angel by Bob Dylan

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.

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 simmilarities 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 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.

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

49 thoughts on “Great song: Tin Angel by Bob Dylan”

  1. Thanks for this interesting discussion. I love this song, and it made me listen again to Bob’s version of Black Jack Davey on Good As I Been To You. The situation is about the same, but not the end. Tin Angel is darker, like an ancient tragedy.

    1. Thanks for the feedback!
      ..and yes it is an interesting discussion and it is very interesting to see how the song(s) have developed over time.

      – Hallgeir

  2. When were electric wires first used? Combined with cross handled swords it indicates that Bob was evoking timelessness. Some time or other out of mind.

  3. Excellent article. Is the tin angel the knife? What do people think?
    I thought the ancient race allusion was Jewish perhaps but may not be
    There is a man called Richard Lee on Together through Life. Henry and Richard – both Shakesperean names.
    Another enigmatic Dylan saga like Frankie Lee – he sure uses Lee a lot.
    Now have you disentangled Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts? I have never been quite able to
    Magnificent song made mysterious in part by having to figure out who said what.

    1. Thank you, very interesting feedback!

      I am working on some songs, maybe I should look into Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. It is good and it is deep.

      – Hallgeir

  4. Since the tempest album has released, I listened to this song more than 1000 times.. If only dylan had this song it would be enough to bit Shakespeare in literature……

    1. Well, Shakespeare also “borrowed” story lines, plot and characters from former folk tales and stories.
      The Geniuses all stand on the shoulders of the ones that came before them.

      Thanks for your comment

      – Hallgeir

  5. Great post! ‘Tin Angel’ immediately stood out to me too. Lover kills husband, wife kills lover: no answers, no elaboration: a beautiful and tragic story. The lines from Scott stood out as quotation but I didn’t know from where. “He bent in the middle like a twisted pin” and “I’d have given you the stars and the planets too, but what good would those things do you?” shows Dylan can equal them! Many thanks

  6. Love your site! After listening to the song multiple times, I’ve changed from your quote attributions and now tend to think that The Boss shot and killed Henry Lee first, and that the wife killed The Boss in retaliation, but also treats him tenderly in his dying moments, perhaps as a tribute to their past love, then kills herself in repentance. But, I also agree that the interpretation is really up for grabs. I hadn’t noticed the line “it was hard to know who was who,” but it does seem, as another commenter already pointed out, that Dylan is hinting with that line that who-said-what is meant to be ambiguous.

    1. Thank you for the kind words.

      “it was hard to know who was who” is a line that I’ve always taken as is, meaning that the husband wants to shoot the lover but it is so dark that he hesitates. His wife is so entangled with her lover that the husband dare not shoot because he’s affraid he might hit his wife.

      That said, your view on that line makes sense, and Dylan might very well mean to hit us with uncertainty and ambigity. The man playes games and tricks onn us all the time!


      – Hallgeir

  7. Throughout his career, Bob has had more than a passing acquaintance with the heat of great anger. But sometimes when it’s at its peak, he picks words from the vernacular that have a strong chilling effect on the people and events played out in front of us.

    I’m of course thinking of this line, spoken by the Boss: “He’s a gutless ape with a worthless mind.” Sheww! That’s cold!

    I’d also point out, from “Soon After Midnight”: “Two-timing Slim / Who’s ever heard of him? / I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.”

    Dylan’s corpus of work is shot through with angry bolts like these. My purpose is not to write a paper on them, just mention a couple.

    Is this better than “Modern Times?” I thought so at first, but now I don’t think so. What do I know, anyway? I’ve only been going to see Bob for 50 years. I think I know less about him than I did in the ’60s.

    1. Thanks for you comment!

      Thos hard words from Dylan also comes out in the few interviews he does, and he seems to like the shocking effect they have, I think he likes playing with our heads a bit.

      I agree that only time will truly tell how good it is, but to me, right now, it is great.

      – Hallgeir

  8. Another thing I really like about Tin Angel, and so much of Dylan’s post-Time Out of Mind work, is the complete lack of time and place.

    Unlike classic Dylan stories, Tweeter, Lily and even Isis, which the listener gets a good feel as to the historic time which the story takes place, Tin Angel keeps us guessing.

    The character of the Wife certainly has a Shakespearean feel with her robe and knife. The Boss, with his mansion, servants, mare and “golden chain”, feels like he could be out of Jane Austin novel. But the “coat” and “tie” also evokes, in my opinion, a Bonnie and Clyde feel. The terms “nobility of an ancient race” and “chief of the clan” evokes a pre-Civil War or even a tribal civilization.

    And in what period does a warrior carry a cross-handled sword and a gun?

    All this ambiguity, pared with the brilliant, simple, hypnotic beat and Dylan’s wonderful delivery… this may be my favorite song on the record.

    1. For me it’s a story set in the southern states of the US, pre Civil War. But that’s my take and I’m open to other views.
      But the exact time and location is uncertain and I completely aggree with you, that this is an exciting aspect of Dylan’s songwriting.

      I think Tin Angel is a song that divides people, quite a lot of my friends says it’s their favourite on Tempest, but equally manny just don’t ” get it”. They find it easy and repetetive, where I find complexity and hypnotic rhythm.

      Thank you again for commenting on our post.

      – Hallgeir

  9. Tin Angel is one of those great songs that really deepens the mystery of Bob Dylan. Are his songs a collection of random bits of inspirations stuck together, or is there some greater intention where every line has a meaning?

    Most of the beauty/ambiguity of Tin Angel comes from who says what. Which Dylan himself seems to be telling us he understands: “Hard to say for certain/Who was Who”.

    I can’t be certain of all the text, but the Boss definitely kills Henry Lee. After the gun shots, Dylan tells us: “His face was hard and caked with sweat/His arms ached and his hands were wet”. That line has to describe the Boss after riding and entering Henry Lee’s residence and killing Henry Lee.

    I think the Boss took his Wife for granted “You’ve given me nothing but the sweetest lies”. She resented him “You’re a reckless fool” and thought he was weak “Don’t worry about him, he wouldn’t harm a fly”. The Wife runs away and marries Henry Lee, much to the Bosses surprise “Husband? What husband?”. The Boss, in coming after the Wife becomes what she has always wanted “It was I who brought your soul to life”. A strong man who will love and protect her. But…

    She’s responsible for the death of one husband (Henry Lee) and the rejection of the other (the Boss) so she kills him and herself. The end.

    So, did Dylan have this whole tale carefully crafted, word for word and line by line. Or, does he just throw out a bunch of old line by others, as noted here, and himself, the references to Isis for one, and leave it up to us to debate who said what?

    That, in my opinion, is his true genius.

    1. A slightly different take than mine, but I aggree that this is part of what makes the song so good and Dylan so clever.

      Thanks for a well thought out comment, it was an interesting read.

      – Hallgeir

  10. Regarding the ambiguity — think back to Tangled Up In Blue — there are several versions that Dylan’s recorded and the people and relationships shift. I’ve been singing that song since the album came out and I’ve picked and pulled from his versions and added some bits of my own. I think of it as cubism, or like Rashomon — the truth of the story depends on your point of view and it shifts as your angle shifts. Look at the song one way and it’s Henry Lee who kills The Boss, shift your perspective slightly and it’s the other way ’round. Either the way the wife is doomed… or is it that she dooms herself… or liberates herself… The genius of this kind of ambiguity is just how much human truth and reality Dylan can cram into a song that has its deep roots in traditional ballads and folk songs.

    1. Thanks for interesting comment.

      …and I agree completely. It can be a bit frustrating, the meaning of his songs sometimes feels like sand slipping through my fingers. I catch a glimpse of Dylan’s thoughts but then it’s gone again. Fascinating guy that Bob Dylan fella.

      – Hallgeir

  11. Thanks all for for fascinating dissection of the song. I’ve just come in from listening to the album in the car and going ‘Man, what a song!’ So I googled it precisely to see if I could find this kind of discussion.
    One piece of information I can add is that the story is undoubtedly based on ‘Little Musgrave’, an Irish folk song recorded by Planxty in the 1970’s. ‘Little Musgrave’ is of a similar length and tells the story of an illicit affair between a swordsman and his Lady (Queen) – an affair which is discoverered by the Lord, who tracks them down and kills them both. The structure is very similar to ‘Tin Angel’ in many ways. Here’s an example: One verse has the lovers in each others arms (presumably post-coital). Musgrave is jumpy and nervous and says he thinks he hears the Lords men, but the Queen chides him and tells him he’s imaginining things
    “I think I hear the morning cock, I think I hear the jay.
    I think I hear Lord Barnards men, I wish I was away”
    …”Lie still, my little Musgrave and hug me from the cold
    …have you not a lady in your arms and yet you would away”
    This, of course, is very similar to:
    “Got a strange premonition there’s a man close by”
    “Don’t worry about him, he wouldn’t harm a fly”
    There ya go. Great songs both.

    1. Great addition to “understandig” Tin Angel, the song just gets more facinating when all these influences are uncovered.
      Thanks for the feedback, this was really interesting (and new to me)

      – Hallgeir

  12. This is good stuff, thanks; I listened to this song three times today until I was starting to get worried! I’ll just throw out a further-twisted thought here, that to me drives it even farther into Shakespearean territory:
    This she said with angry breath
    “You too shall meet the lord of death
    It was I who brought your soul to life”
    That is to say, Henry Lee is, um, her son. Just sayin’…

    1. As you said this is getting very dark, and I don’t think he is the son (I do not want to think that!),
      I think the Wife speaks metaphorically as in: When we started having sex/making love, you became alive again.

      But thanks for the interesting comment, and it really made me think, and not good thoughts 😉

      – Hallgeir

  13. Great write up. Having read the lyrics something that occurred to me was that the lines;
    “And cover your face or suffer the consequence” and
    “All husbands are good men, as all wives know”
    could be read as the husband and wife being of the Islamic faith and, after googling it 🙂 it appears that Clan Chief is a term that has at least been used at some time in that religion

    although I confess to knowing next to nothing about the history or context.

    1. That is quite interesting and I see your point. It didn’t occur to me when I wrote the post, but especially the part of covering her face could be interpreted in that direction. I will dig further into the matter 🙂

      – Hallgeir

  14. The 22nd verse complicates things:

    “You shot my husband down, you fiend” (The Wife) but is she talking to her husband here??

    “Husband? What husband? What the hell do you mean? (The Husband is confused, waht does she mean, after all he’s The Husband, and now she calls Henry Lee the husband??

    He was a man of strife, a man of sin
    I cut him down and threw him to the wind” (Henry Lee or maybe it is the Husband, after all “the man of sin” here is Henry Lee, hell, this is as good an explanation as my first one)

    – Hallgeir

  15. hi hallegir, just gotta say that after listening to the song a few more times, i think you’re absolutely right – it’s henry lee who shoots the boss, and is then stabbed by the wife. and that makes more sense of the final kiss, too – as henry lee the real betrayer of this trio – what a song . . .

    1. Hi,
      I am about 90% sure thats the story, but there’s still that 10% uncertainty, anyway, thank you for comments, and the song even gets better for me after reading all that people have to say about the song

      – Hallgeir

  16. Great article and great comments with finally a decent topical discussion rather then what we see so often on internet discussion fora, thanks to all! By the way, it reminds me of Barbara Allen and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, in other words: Nobel worthy!

  17. Thanks so much for your sagacious essay and transcription.
    See what you think, but I hear the 26th verse, 2nd line as:

    His doom was sealed, he slid to the floor

    rather than

    His tomb was sealed…

  18. Great article, which I much enjoyed. Interesting that Dyaln references a couple of lines from Isis early on in the song – and that he phrases Get up, stand up like Bob Marley. There’s a lot of looking back over his career on Tempest, methinks . . .

    It’s a great song, but I have to say I tend to the reading that it’s the Boss who kills Henry Lee first and that the wife then kills her husband , the Boss. For me, it makes more sense of verses 24 and 25 – and a much more interesting and complex reading, so that she therefore refers to Henry Lee as ‘my husband’ in verse 22, because as a true lover, he is to be seen as a ‘good man’ as in ‘all husbands are good men’ in verse 25, in contrast to the murderous boss. Overall, that also makes the denouement far more poignant – in that she kills herself then as a final acknowledgement of her role as the Boss’s wife, after touching his lips and kissing his cheek (an unexpected twisting of the usual phrase – the kissing of the cheek also referencing Judas and his betrayal of Christ, reminding us that she has betrayed this man . . .)

    But really, what does it matter? The main thing is that the song is intentionally and brilliantly ambiguous in these matters which gives us all so much more to think about.

    1. That is very interesting, I’m going to go through it again. I have actually considered it, but chose the other direction. It great that it is open for interpretation, and I agree that it is a testament to the greatness of the song.

      Thanks for great feedback!

      – Hallgeir

  19. I compeletly agree, and I also think it reminds me of the ballads of the medieval Europe.

    “Many of the songs were long and told complete stories, just as short stories, plays and novels do today. These story-songs are called ballads. Some ballads had very simple tunes and were used for dancing.” (from

    I love the fact that Dylan is able to build tension even if the music doesn’t change much through the song.

  20. And the ambiguity here is brilliant, it first appears to be a song of revenge by an angry husband who kills her wife’s lover. But a tale of a wife running away with her lover, her lover killing the husband, and a wife who then murders her lover and kills herself in repentance seems more in line with the old ballads, like “House Carpenter”: “Forsake, forsake your house carpenter
    And come away with me”

  21. I’d say the whole verse is spoken by the Boss, first to his wife then to Henry Lee, hence the “And you, sir…”

    1. I totally agree. The entire verse is spoken be the Boss. Tin Angel is a remarkable ballad & definitely one of my favorites on “Tempest.” It’s right up there with Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts & The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Two of many favorite ballads Dylan has carefully maybe even meticuously brought from prose to song. I wouldn’t call the album dark as previously reported. More like haunting to real life. It’s too early for me to pick an absolute favorite, but for me that usually means it’s full of great songs. I feel Mr. Hallgeir’s defining this song as “extremely cinematic” is a perfect description for Tin Angel & other songs on “Tempest.” It’s a truly wonderful entertaining album! Great article & thank you for the lyrics!

  22. Interesting, I heard it as the Boss killing Henry Lee and then the Wife killing the Boss, but I think you’re right: “All husbands are good men, as all wives know.” Dylan has surprised us again with these narratives and folk epics. Well done, Bob!

    1. Yeah, I heard that at first to, but after maaany runthroughs I’m 99% certain that I’ve got the dialogue right. I’m still arguing with myself about the first line in the 18th verse:

      “Do not let your passion rule (the wife???)
      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)

      What do you think? Is it the wife who tries to calm her husband down?

      – Hallgeir

  23. What a great article. I’ve not heard the song yet, I will get the album this week, but I really want to listen to Tin Angel after reading your thoughts on it. A really well written piece. Thanks for posting.

      1. Thank you!

        I was not aware of the connection, but when I read the lyrics as you suggested I clearly saw the simmilarities. There is no question about it, this must also be part of “the stew” that is Tin Angel. I started digging about the song and I need to do a revision of the post.

        This was very interesting!

        Thanks again, Barbara.

        – Hallgeir

Comments are closed.