Dark Eyes: the meaning behind the Bob Dylan song

This review was updated in September 2016

By Tony Attwood

There is a picture on the inner sleeve of Empire Burlesque of a dark haired woman, drawn in the same style (although without the broken face) of the woman who appears on the cover of “Oh Mercy”. It is impossible to say if it is the same woman, but there is a haunting similarity.

Who is she? I am sure in some reference book there is a complete insight into this picture – but for me she is associated with the end of Empire Burlesque – the pulsating “Something’s Burning Baby”, followed by the utterly haunting “Dark Eyes”. Quite possibly the two songs are linked – I’ll follow that thought another day.

Dylan however has given us a clue, writing in Chronicles.  He says there that the idea of an acoustic song to round off Empire Burlesque had been discussed for some time, but it wasn’t until the day the LP was being completed that he managed to write it.  

He writes that he was staying in a hotel in New York, came through the lobby and went up to his room.  “As I stepped out of the elevator, a call girl was coming towards me in the hallway… She had blue circles around her eyes, black eyeliner, dark eyes… She had a beautifulness, but not for this kind of world.  Poor wretch, doomed to walk this hallway for a thousand years.”

There are real links here to Restless Farewell – for the key point about Dylan’s observation of the call girl and the story he retells from the original Irish folk song in “Farewell” is one of being trapped inside what you are, unable to change, unable to be anything other than what you are.

Returning to “Dark Eyes” after years of singing it myself in different arrangements in folk clubs (and I must admit, for my own enjoyment) it is a jolt to realise how straight is Dylan’s recording.

It’s his song, so he can decide what is done with it – but the options and possibilities with this song are enormous – the speed can vary, the power can grow, it can be strummed instead of plucked… Over the years I seem to have done everything possible to it.

But Dylan in his recording gives us the bare bones. A dead straight simple representation of beauty which goes unrecognised in a world that is far from beautiful. This song gives us image upon image upon image – and the image overall is of man dislocated from his surroundings. There are reminders of much earlier songs – of the songs of racial intolerance now retuned as man’s brutalisation of women, but it is a song for all time.

The earth is strung with lover’s pearls and all I see are dark eyes

It is a song with so many lines like that – perfectly placed in an exquisite simple musical setting.

The darkness of the occasion builds and builds with so many lines such as “I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise…”

Yes the music, like the singer as portrayed in the song, is so gentle, so simple, so calm, so utterly in contrast with the horrors that the song portrays. This is a song with lines about “the dead that rise”, about lost sons, about “nature’s beast”, and yet throughout the guitar and harmonica just walk along, calm, dignified, observing…


Oh, the French girl, she’s in paradise and a drunken man is at the wheel
Hunger pays a heavy price to the falling gods of speed and steel
Oh, time is short and the days are sweet and passion rules the arrow that flies
A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes

It is that final line of the song that sticks in the memory – for all the images of the lost, the hints that the song is about the brutalisation of women by young men with money, that final line stays long after the song is over.

But there is a criticism made that some of the lines in the song are just lines which are thrown in as random images without contributing to the whole story.  

I don’t buy that notion.  For me Dylan can often be seen writing songs that are the equivalent of semi-abstract paintings – the paintings that contain recognisable images (the church tower, the woman’s face, the shop doorway, the face of the cat… ) but they are neither a pastiche nor a recognisable part of the whole – they are the visual equivalents of random flashes of memory, thoughts and insight represented in one work of art.

Dylan does this too, and this song is a profound example.  We are not meant to put together a whole story from each of these images – they are the images we retain from each day experiencing different aspects of the world, remembering moments of our lives.

It is sung so gently – and of course my own reinterpretations might well have got it wrong.  But I think Dylan knew exactly what he was doing.

Apparently Dylan has only played this song eight times in concert and the first time was a total disaster.  Oh Bob, how could you  think it the right thing to do to keep this masterpiece so secret – even if you got it wrong the first time, surely we could be offered more than just eight goes.

There is a live version of the song here


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4 Responses to Dark Eyes: the meaning behind the Bob Dylan song

  1. Jeff Suwak says:

    This is one of my absolute favorite Dylan tunes. Obviously, with Bob, we can never be sure exactly what the hell HE meant by it, but to me, Dark Eyes is simply about artistic beauty. In this corrupt, materialistic world…this ‘political world’ as he says in another song…he still sees the dark beauty of life looking at him through the pall.

    I just discovered this site and like it much!

  2. Linda Lu says:

    Whenever I read these lyrics, there are certain phrases that remind me of Christ on the cross:
    I live in another world…the cock is crowing far away, another soldier’s deep in prayer…some mother’s child has gone astray…but I can hear another drum, beating for the dead that rise whom nature’s beast fears as they come…they tell me that revenge is sweet..where beauty goes unrecognized, all I feel is heat and flame…a French girl is in paradise (Joan of Arc, another martyr)…a million faces at my feet, but all I see are dark eyes. His suffering and love may be what goes unrecognized as he looks down from the cross.

  3. Linda Sue says:

    Linda Lu I agree with you and have since I first heard the song ….and if you factor in SLOW TRAIN A COMIN we are right …..Yes I know there is a girl with dark eyes on the cover ,,,,,but I live in another world where life and death are memorized…… come on …. it is where I live…..Jesus has DARK EYES……..

  4. Willy Carpenter says:

    Couldn’t agree more. When I first heard it today I felt Jesus close to me in the heart space and I’m not even a Christian in the normal sense of the word. Yes, the dark eyes are Him, no doubt about it. Don’t need to analyse nothin’. Dylan the muse, the poet, finds Him in the heart and gives Him to us.

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