Went to see the Gypsy: Bob Dylan meets Elvis

By Tony Attwood

I bought New Morning upon its release, and thought of this song, “What an interesting piece; I wonder what it is about?”   And I suspect I’d never have really thought it was about Elvis had it not been for the fact that years later I read that Ron Cornelius, the guitarist on the album, reported that he asked Bob Dylan what ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ was about and Dylan replied that it was about going to see Elvis in Las Vegas.

But, of course it is never as simple as that.  For on 14 May 2009 the article Bob Dylan’s Late-Era, Old-Style American Individualism appeared in Rolling Stone which contradicts this whole idea.

I’m going to deal with the notion that it is about Elvis first, and then come back to the Rolling Stone article.

The big problem for me with the Elvis is a gypsy idea, is that I’d never heard of Elvis being called The Gypsy.   Now of course it is possible that the notion that Elvis was a gypsy or was called “gypsy” has circulated in the US, but never made it to the UK where I live until 2008 when a magazine in the UK that was published to promote an understanding of, and respect for, gypsy communities claimed that Elvis Presley was descended from German gypsies who emigrated to the U.S. in the early 18th century.

The problem with the argument is that a major part of such evidence as there is, is that Elvis’ mother’s side of the family contained the name Smith – which the magazine says was a common surname used by British Romanies.    Unfortunately Smith is the single most common surname in Britain today – and tracing it back to Romanies is impossible.  The blacksmiths, from which the name comes, were revered by the Vikings who ruled much of northern and eastern England in the Dark Ages (after the departure of the Roman Empire and before the Anglo Saxons fully established themselves).  The Smiths were considered the highest of the non-nobles because of their seemingly magical ability to make swords (remembering that one only passes to Valhalla if one dies with a sword in one’s hand).  Swords were vested with extraordinary power, and indeed if a man were injured by a serious sword strike, his only chance of healing (it was believed) was to get the sword that struck the blow, and destroy it.

That’s all by the way, but it explains in part why Smith is such a common name in my country.  Not from Romany origins, but from a deep veneration of the work of the blacksmiths whose secrets were handed down from father to son.

Anyway, most mainstream publications debunked the “Elvis was a gypsy” story at the time, and several cited David Altheer, a writer and researcher on gypsy culture saying, “The fact someone had gypsy in their family 300 years ago is frankly irrelevant – it does not mean you are a gypsy.”

There is one other point about tracing people as of gypsy origin in the UK, which has nothing to do with the song, but which I will throw in to complete the summary.  In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 says you must not be discriminated against because of your race – and race includes “ethnic origins”.   The courts in the UK have said that Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are protected against race discrimination because they’re ethnic groups under the Equality Act.

So, as one of the pubs that I have frequented in London found to its cost, put up the sign “No travellers” on the door, and you’ll get prosecuted.

Anyway, that’s an aside.  Now, version two – from Rolling Stone.

The first thing to take from the article is how much back stage chit chat with the elite Bob gets up to.  The President of France (Dylan asked him about how the G20 negotiations were going), Charles Aznavour (“a bit of banter”)….  And Dylan talks about who he admires in rock – mostly Chuck Berry.

And then onto Elvis…

For Dylan, the very fact that Elvis had recorded versions of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” remains mind-boggling. Dutifully, as if returning a favor, Dylan recorded Elvis’ hit “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” during both the Basement Tapes and Self-Portrait sessions.

But that was about as close as they ever got. “I never met Elvis,” Dylan says. “I never met Elvis, because I didn’t want to meet Elvis. Elvis was in his Sixties movie period, and he was just crankin’ ’em out and knockin’ ’em off, one after another. And Elvis had kind of fallen out of favor in the Sixties. He didn’t really come back until, whatever was it, ’68? I know the Beatles went to see him, and he just played with their heads. ‘Cause George [Harrison] told me about the scene. And Derek [Taylor], one of the guys who used to work for him. Elvis was truly some sort of American king. His face is even on the Statue of Liberty. And, well, like I said, I wouldn’t quite say he was ridiculed, but close.

You see, the music scene had gone past him, and nobody bought his records. Nobody young wanted to listen to him or be like him. Nobody went to see his movies, as far as I know. He just wasn’t in anybody’s mind. Two or three times we were up in Hollywood, and he had sent some of the Memphis Mafia down to where we were to bring us up to see Elvis. But none of us went. Because it seemed like a sorry thing to do. I don’t know if I would have wanted to see Elvis like that. I wanted to see the powerful, mystical Elvis that had crash-landed from a burning star onto American soil. The Elvis that was bursting with life. That’s the Elvis that inspired us to all the possibilities of life. And that Elvis was gone, had left the building.”

So there we are.  He told the guitarist, he told the journalist.  How do we reconcile the two?

Simple – the story in the song is about an imaginary meeting – about what it might have been like to go and see Elvis or some similar pop idol from the old days who is still churning the songs out but no longer relevant.  Which explains the invention of Elvis as the gypsy.  It is an imagination of Elvis, as per the description in the Rolling Stone article.  The traveller who moves on, but is now no longer relevant.

This explains the music too for what hits one about the music is not any sign of typical gypsy rhythms, but the fact that this is rock music, nothing else.  There are no tempo changes, no modulations of key, no booming double bass, no two string harmonies, no accordion… I could go on but you get the idea.  This is rock music, not gypsy music.

But still Dylan gives us something different and unexpected.  The song has, at one level, a standard structure known in the trade as ternary  – which basically means having an opening section, a middle section and the opening section again.   In a lot of music, especially pop, the opening section (usually called A) is repeated so what we get is this.

  • Section A
  • Section A
  • Section B
  • Section A

What makes us sit up and take notice here however is that the second verse has two extra lines in it that the first and last verse don’t have.  Listening to the piece you may not even notice this, but it just feels as if “something” happened.  What that “something” is, is not clear, but it is there.  It is unexpected, and odd.

This is by no means the first time Dylan uses such a device – the last verse of Visions of Johanna does the same thing (and if you listen carefully you can hear the bass player forgets about the extra two lines and makes a mistake, playing it as if it is a standard verse).

Added together, the extra lines and the ABA structure gives us a feeling that the song seems to keep changing – but the change is marginal.  It is a clever musical trick.

And here’s a thought.  If you start from the premise that Dylan quite often uses words just because they come to him and seem to fit (rather than because they have a deeper meaning or significance, or refer to anything), then “gypsy” could be just that.  Dylan just called the Elvis character the gypsy.  And who knows, maybe the writers of that strange 2008 British publication read that “Went to see the gypsy” was about Elvis, and so made up a weird theory about Elvis’ racial identity.

Writers eh!  Who’d trust them?

As for the story in the song, the backstage chat with “Elvis” doesn’t actually go very far…

Went to see the gypsy
Stayin’ in a big hotel
He smiled when he saw me coming
And he said, “Well, well, well”
His room was dark and crowded
Lights were low and dim
“How are you?” he said to me
I said it back to him

In terms of profundity, this ain’t much.   I remember, in my early days as a journalist, reviewing a series of books called “In his own words” for a magazine, and really feeling rather sad when I got to the Elvis Presley In His Own Words volume, because in honesty the guy didn’t seem to say much at all, and certainly not much that was at all insightful.

Then the brief non-chat is over and Dylan leaves.

I went down to the lobby
To make a small call out
A pretty dancing girl was there
And she began to shout
“Go on back to see the gypsy
He can move you from the rear
Drive you from your fear
Bring you through the mirror
He did it in Las Vegas
And he can do it here”

And that means?

One explanation is that Dylan has been reading Hesse’s Steppenwolf, the novel that looks at the personality split between humanity and aggression with a fair deal of homelessness thrown in as a side order.  I have to say I just don’t see that and I really don’t know where that takes us.  Yes, the Magic Theatre has a  giant mirror but…

So I’ll pass on the detail of the meaning and go to the “B” section – the middle part of ternary form.   Is Dylan expressing sadness for what Elvis (or who he symbolises here) was?

Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears

Certainly the last verse sees the gypsy character as being ephemeral, moving on, with no permanent mark left, and that does accord with how Dylan talks about Elvis.  No one talked about him any more, but the old Sun records were still there, and people still jived to them.

So (and this is a bit of a wild punt) Dylan goes back to listen to Elvis one more time, to see if there is anything in his more recent recordings, but finds there isn’t.

I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone
And that pretty dancing girl
She could not be found
So I watched that sun come rising
From that little Minnesota town

I love that throw away at the end.  Dylan’s not going to see the fallen, irrelevant god of an Elvis-type figure.  Elvis had become pointless, past it, nothing, whereas the kid from Minnesota still has a lot to say.  (The kid who first heard all the early Elvis music that influenced his writing, in that little town).

The world that Elvis embodied in his prime has gone.  Elvis is a sad character that no one takes any notice of now.  Time to go home folks.

All the songs reviewed on this site.




  1. During the 2001 “Love and Theft” Rome press conference Dylan is asked whether he ever met Elvis. He replied ‘no’, then after a long pause, added ‘that’s what I’ve been told to say’.
    But that could just be Bob teasing the journalists!

  2. I always saw the line about the sun come rising from that little Minnesota town as being about seeing Elvis in a dream when Dylan was a child and then he woke up.

  3. Rome press conference 23rd July 2001:

    Someone asks him: Did you ever meet Elvis Presley?

    -No, I never met him. That’s what I’m supposed to say.

  4. It’s a mystical song, it’s funny he refused to meet Elvis in the 60’s, the Beatles must have really did a hatchet job with childish slander, the saying goes, don’t ever meet your heroes as you may be disappointed, Bob opting for an astral type encounter, who knows, the ’78 tours, big band, black backing singers, lightning bolts on white flares, very Elvis and you claim he’s only relevant to Dylan in the early days, I think they both respected each other. Frankie and Johnny did have a Roma theme, with the Song Chessay, elvis was a good horseman but that could be his Native American, Scots, Irish blood, every country wants to claim the cultural melting pot that was Elvis!!

  5. I think you’re being a bit too literal here– who says the “I” in the song is Dylan? If you know anything about Dylan it’s never to take him at face value.

    PS if you think Elvis didn’t have a lot of interesting things to say you obviously haven’t read the Guralnick biography, which Dylan himself has blurbed saying it’s the best thing ever written on Elvis.

  6. Presley actually wore a jumpsuit in Vegas called the Gypsy suit, may be relevant, maybe not. His ability to cross genre’s in his singing could be the meaning of it too, regardless, great song.

  7. Awkward non-conversations and disappointing revelations (nothing was delivered) are great Dylan moments for me and maybe for him as well. Consider his youthful encounter with the wrestler Gorgeous George–“a mighty spirit” young Bob thought, or imagined, or imagined he thought.

  8. There’s a lady they call the Gypsy/
    She can look in the future/
    And drive away all your fears/
    If you only believe the Gypsy/
    She could tell at a glance/
    That my heart was full of tears/
    ….But I’ll go there again/
    ‘Cause I want to believe the Gypsy/
    That my lover is true/
    And will come back to me some day.
    (Ink Spots)

  9. Dylan, relativity’s Einstein disguished as Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, pouches some of the King’s rhymes(in a big hotel rather than a quaint caravan): fears and tears.

    “Drive you from your fear/
    Bring you through the mirror/
    He did it in Las Vegas/
    And he can do it here/

    Outside the lights were shining on the river of
    (Dylan: Went To See The Gypsy)

    Note the theft of rhyme from the following: pains/

    “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/
    My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk/
    Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains.”
    (John Keats: Ode To A Nightingale)

    “Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain/
    Behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain”
    (Bob Dylan: Not Dark Yet)

    Meanwhile, Erroll Flynn Maid Marian behind the curtains.

  10. My choice of the word ‘pouches’ is a deliberate pun on ‘poaches’ to go along with the memories in the ‘trunk’ of Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row.’

  11. Franklee, it could Dylan, disguised as the sleepy
    young biblical Samuel who keep thinking it’s Eli(Elvis) who keeps calling him when in fact it’s
    God Himself.

  12. Really…. the invisible wish to remain invisible… we believe everyday… do we not.. in what … we .. do not always…. see? must we ALWAYS have all the answers? Times r changing. Hate and tolerance is at all time high. Fear is growing for those of us that see and are different. Yes, Elvis was half Romichile on his Mother’s side. Most Romiciles are very talented in the Arts and some of us have the sight, real… gifts passed down. You will always see a Romichile.. surrounded by family and friends though… always. no matter who they are and no matter where they are or how successful they get.. they will want their … own… family and friends near them … HOME… is your OWN FAMILY and FRIENDS as far as ROMICHILES are concerned ALWAYS.

  13. Per live recordings and studio sessions, Elvis referred to Bob Dylan a couple of times – In Vegas, he would complain of “Vegas Throat” which required singers to drink quite a bit of water (or a new product at the time: Gatorade). Elvis, while reaching for a drink on stage would sometimes quip “My throat feels like Bob Dylan slept in it.” On another occasion, during a recording session for “Its Only Love”, and between takes Elvis sings a few lines of “I Shall be Released.” Although very brief – its Epic music. Solemn version. Like striking gold – and expecting more to be found. After stunning those in attendance with the short rendition, Elvis simply, but with total understanding, said “Dylan” as if no one knew exactly what had just happened. Not sure why Dylan would not come clean about meeting Elvis, if it indeed took place. Springsteen, who loved Elvis, also chose not to meet him… He felt that the meeting would not live up to his expectations – which is a loss for both stars. I do enjoy “Went to See the Gypsy” but view it more as a dream. Springsteen’s “Bye Bye Johnny” is darker.

  14. Complete myth and devoid of research to think Elvis was irrelevant after 1955-58. He was one of the biggest and most successful touring acts from 69-77 and still had major hits post the 50s. Suspicious Minds and Burning Love to name a few not to mention his ever improving voice which pumped out some startlingly powerful performances until the end.

  15. I wondered if it could be God, mother Mary and Jesus, the three characters in the song: the gypsy, the dancing girl, and the narrator. The narrator understands that he has to make his own way in the image of the gypsy/God, and the dancing girl/mother Mary helps him get there with compassion, unexpected, and perhaps, undeserved. He moves through their anticipations, as well as his, to come up with a new day.

  16. Elvis was the ‘gypsy’ because of the rhinestone bling studded clothes he wore onstage in Las Vegas. The song is also an imaginary encounter with the King.

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  19. Not to question what Dylan told Ron Cornelius, but a song, especially a Bob Dylan song, can be about more than one thing or one person. When Dylan gave his Grammy Awards acceptance speech in 1999, on winning the best album of the year for Time Out of Mind, he made this remark: “… when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him … and he looked at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was … with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way”.

    Buddy Holly’s Duluth National Guard Armory concert, referenced by Dylan, took place on January 31, 1959. Holly was scheduled to come back to Minnesota a few days later, for a concert in Moorhead, but in the early morning of February 3, the little four-seat chartered plane he was in crashed shortly after takeoff in Clear Lake, Iowa. The fuselage burst apart on impact, and the bodies of Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper were thrown clear of the wreckage.

    It was nearly early dawn, the gypsy’s door was open wide, but the gypsy was gone.

    Outside the lights were shining
    On the river of tears
    I watched them from the distance
    With music in my ears

  20. Elvis did not ‘record’ “Blowin’ in The Wind”. There are two home performances of the song from 1966 (probably June), along with other songs (It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie, What Now My Love, Five Hundred Miles) but these are simply Elvis and his friends singing into a cassette recorder. There are also two versions of “Don’t Think Twice” – from May 16 and 17th 1971, the first over 9 minutes long from May 17th 71, and the second, nearly 11 and a half minutes; the first was edited to a 2 min 45 second version for release, even though it was never intended to be even recorded, as both versions are informal ‘jams’ Elvis used to warm-up in the studio. At the same session (during which Elvis was suffering a heavy cold, and, apparently, angry at having to record Christmas songs at a time when he was a big fan of Peter, Paul and Mary) on May 21st, Elvis sang a snippet of “I Shall Be Released” during recording “It’s Only Love” – a tantalising glimpse of what might have been…The only proper recording of a Dylan song by Elvis is “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”, recorded May 26th 1966 – a masterful performance, yet unforgivably released as a so-called ‘bonus’ song on the Spinout soundtrack album. Tragic that two such geniuses, the greatest interpreter of a song ever, and the greatest songwriter in popular music, didn’t collaborate – even if there were once rumours they did / or were intending to in May 71 (when Elvis sang “Don’t Think Twice”).

  21. Is Dylan using that cut-up technique he borrowed from William Burroughs?

    “Went to see the Gypsy…”

    “I went to see the gypsy…”, I Almost Lost My Mind

    “Staying in a big hotel…”

    “Joshua gone Barbados
    Staying in a big hotel…”, “Joshua Gone Barbados

    “He said, “Well, Well, Well…”

    “Well, Well, Well
    Who’s that a-calling…”, “Well, Well, Well”

  22. I think the whole Elvis idea is a stretch. Except for the Las Vegas line, there’s really no reference. It could easily be The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the pretty gypsy dancing girl) or Lewis Carroll (through the looking glass). It’s just a dreamtime song, one about missed opportunities. He never makes his call, the gypsy vanishes, the girl too. All he’s left with is the song, and Hibbing, and the river of tears.

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