Breedloves's Folk Songs




“Desolation Row” is a 1965 song written and sung by Bob Dylan. It was recorded on August 4, 1965 and released as the closing track of Dylan’s sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited. It has been noted for its length (11:21) and surreal lyrics in which Dylan weaves characters from history, fiction, the Bible and his own invention into a series of vignettes that suggest entropy and urban chaos. “Desolation Row” is often ranked as one of Dylan’s greatest compositions.

When asked where “Desolation Row” was located, at a TV press conference in San Francisco on December 3, 1965, Dylan replied: “Oh, that’s some place in Mexico, it’s across the border. It’s noted for its Coke factory.” Al Kooper, who played electric guitar on the first recordings of “Desolation Row”, suggested that it was located on a stretch of Eighth Avenue, Manhattan, “an area infested with whore houses, sleazy bars and porno supermarkets totally beyond renovation or redemption”. Polizzotti suggests that both the inspiration and title of the song may have come from Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac, and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.

“Desolation Row” has been described as Dylan’s most ambitious work up to that date. In the New Oxford Companion to Music, Gammond described “Desolation Row” as an example of Dylan’s work that achieved a “high level of poetical lyricism.” Clinton Heylin notes that Dylan is writing a song as long as traditional folk ballads, such as “Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves”, and in that classic ballad metre, but without any linear narrative thread. When he reviewed the Highway 61 Revisited album for The Daily Telegraph in 1965, the English poet Philip Larkin described the song as a “marathon”, with an “enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words”.

For Andy Gill the song is “an 11-minute epic of entropy, which takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters, some historical (Einstein, Nero), some biblical (Noah, Cain and Abel), some fictional (Ophelia, Romeo, Cinderella), some literary (T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), and some who fit into none of the above categories, notably Dr. Filth and his dubious nurse.”

When Jann Wenner asked Dylan in 1969 whether Allen Ginsberg had influenced his songs, Dylan replied: “I think he did at a certain period. That period of… ‘Desolation Row,’ that kind of New York type period, when all the songs were just city songs. His poetry is city poetry. Sounds like the city.”

The south-western flavored acoustic guitar backing and eclecticism of the imagery led Polizzotti to describe “Desolation Row” as the “ultimate cowboy song, the ‘Home On The Range’ of the frightening territory that was mid-sixties America”. In the penultimate verse the passengers on the Titanic are “shouting ‘Which Side Are You On?'”, a slogan of left-wing politics, so, for Robert Shelton, one of the targets of this song is “simpleminded political commitment. What difference which side you’re on if you’re sailing on the Titanic?” In an interview with USA Today on September 10, 2001, the day before the release of his album Love and Theft, Dylan claimed that the song “is a minstrel song through and through. I saw some ragtag minstrel show in blackface at the carnivals when I was growing up, and it had an effect on me, just as much as seeing the lady with four legs.”

The song opens with a report that “they’re selling postcards of the hanging”, and notes “the circus is in town”. Polizzotti, and other critics, have connected this song with the lynching of three black men in Duluth. The men were employed by a traveling circus and had been accused of raping a white woman. On the night of June 15, 1920, they were removed from custody and hanged on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. Photos of the lynching were sold as postcards. Duluth was Bob Dylan’s birthplace. Dylan’s father, Abram Zimmerman, was eight years old at the time of the lynchings, and lived only two blocks from the scene. Abram Zimmerman passed the story on to his son.

Rolling Stone ranked the song as number 187 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging

They’re painting the passports brown

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors

The circus is in town

Here comes the blind commissioner

They’ve got him in a trance

One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker

The other is in his pants

And the riot squad they’re restless

They need somewhere to go

As Lady and I look out tonight

From Desolation Row.


Cinderella, she seems so easy

“It takes one to know one,” she smiles

And puts her hands in her back pockets

Bette Davis style

And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning,

“You belong to Me I Believe.”

And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend

You’d better leave.”

And the only sound that’s left

After the ambulances go

Is Cinderella sweeping up

On Desolation Row.


Now the moon is almost hidden

The stars are beginning to hide

The fortune-telling lady

Has even taken all her things inside

All except for Cain and Abel

And the hunchback of Notre Dame

Everybody is making love

Or else expecting rain

And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing

He’s getting ready for the show

He’s going to the carnival tonight

On Desolation Row.


Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window

For her I feel so afraid

On her twenty-second birthday

She already is an old maid

To her, death is quite romantic

She wears an iron vest

Her profession’s her religion

Her sin is her lifelessness

And though her eyes are fixed upon

Noah’s great rainbow

She spends her time peeking

Into Desolation Row.


Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood

With his memories in a trunk

Passed this way an hour ago

With his friend, a jealous monk

NOW, he looked so immaculately frightful

As he bummed a cigarette

Then he went off sniffing drainpipes

And reciting the alphabet

You would not think to look at him

But he was famous long ago

For playing the electric violin

On Desolation Row.


Dr. Filth, he keeps his world

Inside of a leather cup

But all his sexless patients

They ARE trying to blow it up

Now his nurse, some local loser

She’s in charge of the cyanide hole

And she also keeps the cards that read

“Have Mercy on His Soul”

They all play on the penny whistle

You can hear them blow

If you lean your head out far enough


From Desolation Row.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains

They’re getting ready for the feast

The Phantom of the Opera

In a perfect image of a priest

They are spoon-feeding Casanova

To get him to feel more assured

Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence

After poisoning him with words

And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls

“Get outta here if you don’t know”

Casanova is just being punished for going

To Desolation Row.


At midnight all the agents

And the superhuman crew

Come out and round up everyone

That knows more than they do

Then they bring them to the factory

Where the heart-attack machine

Is strapped across their shoulders

And then the kerosene

Is brought down from the castles

By insurance men who go

Check to see that nobody is escaping

To Desolation Row.


Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn

Everybody’s shouting

“Which side are you on?”

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot

Fighting in the captain’s tower

While calypso singers laugh at them

And fishermen hold flowers

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody has to think too much

About Desolation Row.


Yes, I received your letter yesterday

About the time the door knob broke

When you asked me how I was doing

Or was that some kind of joke?

All these people that you mention

Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame

I had to rearrange their faces

And give them all another name

Right now I can’t read too good

Don’t send me no more letters no

Not unless you mail them

From Desolation Row.


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