Farewell Angelina: the hidden meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Using my rough and ready chronological approach to Dylan’s writing, 1964 ended with

These songs focus overall on the notion of nothing being quite what it seems.  I don’t want to love you, I want to be your friend.  What you are searching for isn’t missing.  I’ve been travelling in the wrong direction eternally.  They promise paradise, but offer the opposite.  I’m fine – the world is just falling apart.  Just go, just stay, you decide.

I am not trying to say that Dylan was consciously writing about such things, but rather that he was driven by this background vision that the world we see in front of us, or portrayed by the media, or through “common sense” is not the world as it is.  The world is not fixed; it all depends how you see it.

To me, Farewell Angelina which followed the list above, at the end of 1964 or the start of 1965, is the summation of this journey into the two worlds – the world of the everyday, and the explanation of what is going on underneath.  And it is, for me, an absolute masterpiece of this journey of exploration.

But generally speaking many, many people have been misled when they come to the song, either because of the lines that have become famous, or because they only know the Joan Baez version.

Consider the opening lines

Farewell Angelina the bells of the crown
Are being stolen by bandits I must follow the sound

and then

There’s no need for anger, there’s no need for blame
There’s nothing to prove, everything’s still the same

These are among the best known lines of any Dylan song that he has not released on a mainstream album.

But on the other hand I suspect the lines

The machine guns are roaring the puppets heave rocks
The fiends nail time bombs to the hands of the clocks

are among the least well known, and that if spoken in a manner that hides the rocking gentle sameness that pervades the Baez recording, many people who know the song would not recall these are from Angelina.

Indeed, Farewell Angelina is a contradiction.  A gentle love song that seems turn into a critique on terrorism – considered as part of Bringing it all Back Home when the recording sessions began.  As such it would have been the perfect half-way house between Love Minus Zero and Gates of Eden, for its theme is once more, nothing is what it seems.  From “My love she speaks like silence” to Eden being anything but heaven.

I have wondered over the years, since I first realised that Farewell was a song intended for Bringing it All Back Home but then quickly dropped, why this was so.  After all, although Outlaw Blues has a contribution to the theme that life is not what it seems (Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’, I just might tell you the truth, seems to get close to the overall message,) Angelina takes us much further.

So it can’t be that Dylan thought Angelina didn’t fit the album, nor can it be that he found it impossible to sing.

But the one recording we have of Dylan singing it from the Bootleg 1-3 album isn’t really very inspirational.  And this is curious; Dylan has written this amazing piece of music which is jam-packed full of possibility and intrigue, and he sings it as a dirge.

For years I listened to other people singing the song, always thinking, “no, this really can be so much more – don’t you see what is going on here”, and never being able to find someone who could do justice to the piece.  Indeed most certainly my own attempts and those with a band got nowhere near to what I could hear in my head.  But then, we were hardly experts.

And that is where I would have had to leave it until I found a version by an unknown artist on You Tube.   Now I must step with caution here because the comments on that site about this version are very very negative, not to say abusive, (partly because the person who put up the piece suggests it was being sung by Dylan).   And of course you may share their views that this recording is a second rate re-working.   All I can do is disagree and explain why.

To me this version is as revelatory as Jimi Hendrix taking Watchtower somewhere new.  The guitarist isn’t of the Hendrix standard, I am not saying that.  It is just that somehow this singer/guitarist has got inside the song and realised just what is happening to the lyrics as they progress.

This version has the most remarkable combination of voice and guitar accompaniment.   The prominence of the descending bass is something that neither Dylan nor Baez picked up, and very few people who try to sing the song today deliver any of that accompaniment.  Mind you the guitarist is very good and with this extraordinary guitar patterns combined with the delicacy in the voice at times, he makes total sense of the contrasting lines.

If you listen to this recording and just focus on how the artist entangles the horrors and delicacy of the song I hope you might hear what I hear in terms of the possibilities.

The key contrast here is that where the singer is jagged and edgy, bringing us the horror of what he is describing, the Baez version is mostly tiddly-pom,  (hardly a technical musical term, but if you listen and focus on the guitar, I hope you will see what I mean), and cut down in length, which doesn’t help us grasp the changing visions that are painted.

But there is one more point that I would like to raise.  I have seen a number of commentaries that seek to explore the meaning of the lyrics of this song line by line.  As with so many Dylan songs I don’t think that works.  I feel that as with the other songs of this writing spell, Dylan is developing a theme – a contrast between the love of two people and the lunacy of the world around us.

It is a difficult if not near impossible concept to put across in a song, but analysing line by line doesn’t actually get anywhere near the overall meaning, which as with other songs by Dylan from the era relates in part to the fact that it is not the world that we see that influences us, it is the way that we see the world.

So for me (and of course this is just my view, as always) when one commentator says

“The jacks and the queens forsake the court-yard” (those who are important in the business of making music and lyrics are heading off after the bells); “fifty-two gypsies now file past the guard in the space where the deuce and the ace once ran wild” (nothing to stop the listeners from leaving, as well; the “deuce and the ace” running wild in the same space is symbolic of the lowest and the highest having joined together in the music that they both had made together — folk music really was a common denominator in America, the singer singing of the common man/woman)…”

I really don’t think this is the right way to appreciate the song.  The metaphors and images have multiple meaning, but it is the overall effect that is the most important thing – and that is why different musical interpretations matter – each is struggling to find a way to handle such an overwhelming mix of images and ideas.

What we also have here is an early exploration of the multiplicity of characters that populate Dylan’s songs from later in 1965.  After all it was only a matter of months before Dylan was writing Tombstone Blues, Desolation Row, Rolling Stone and the like, packed with people and situations.  This is, if you like, the crossing point between those later character-filled songs and “All I really want to do”.   The Farewell is now attached to a realisation of what is going on in the crazy world beyond, the friendship offer of “All I really want to do” is now let go.

So where a commentator asks,

Who on earth would shoot tin cans with a double-barrel? Only those who need to get up close, take a broad, sweeping aim and fire away — loudly and to the point. The electrification of music has certainly accomplished this.

I think that tries to delve too deeply into the image.  It is a bit like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting and asking why that black line is there.   Or asking the person in the picture at the top of this web site is walking on the right side of the road.   Of course you can find a meaning, but in truth, that’s just how it is.

Musically the song is not one you would expect to deal with the complex issue of leaving while the world is falling apart.  It just rocks on chords between C and F major 7 (a very rare chord for Dylan to use) all the way through until the last couple of lines where the music changes but remains highly conventional.

It is this challenge of the same rotating chords all the way through as the lyrics take off in all directions, that the You Tube version I have mentioned above, tackles by breaking the chords apart.  It is a very clever and interesting solution.

But what still makes the song so difficult to consider in a version that is truthful to all the lyrics Dylan wrote for it, is that while the lyrics are most certainly utterly modern, the song is anything but.  I’ve seen several claims to have traced the original, but I think “Farewell To Tarwathie” is one of the closest.  Indeed Heylin mentions this source, and for once I must agree with him.

It is the song of a man on a whaling boat sailing out of north east Scotland for Greenland.

The excellent “Just another tune” website provides this music

1. "Farewell To Tarwathie", as sung and recorded by Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd, text and tune also available in: Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl (ed.), The Singing Island. A Collection Of English And Scots Folksongs, London 1960, No.56, p. 63

The lyrics (in case the text above is hard to read) are provided as

Fareweel to Tarwathie, adieu Mormond Hill,
And the dear land of Crimmond, I’ll bid you fareweel;
I’m bound out for Greenland and ready to sail,
In hopes to find riches in hunting the whale.

Indeed if you can hold Dylan’s song in your head you can almost certainly sing these lines to the song.  And it is not just that the lines fit the music, but there is an essence of the unknown and the uncertain that comes from Angelina, which is to be found here…

Our ship is well rigged and she’s ready to sail,
Our crew, they are anxious to follow the whale,
Where the icebergs do float and the stormy winds blaw,
Where the land and the ocean is covered wi’ snow.

The cold coast of Greenland is barren and bare,
No seed-time nor harvest is ever known there,
And the birds here sing sweetly on mountain and dale,
But there isn’t a birdie to sing to the whale.

Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger published the song in 1960 in  The Singing Island. A Collection of English and Scots Folksongs, number 56.

And so to Dylan, with a song that is mysterious and wild from the off.  There are no explanations, and no reason to find them.  We are in a mysterious world where strange creatures stalk the night, and strange events happen.

Farewell Angelina
The bells of the crown
Are being stolen by bandits
I must follow the sound
The triangle tingles
And the trumpets play slow
Farewell Angelina
The sky is on fire
And I must go

It is a modern day song of leaving, with occasional elements of the original whaling song, telling us that leaving is just what happens as part of this odd world of disconnected images slips away from the past into a dark future.  A table by the edge of the sea?  Yes, there it is.  The meaning?  Who knows.  Maybe none.

There’s no need for anger
There’s no need for blame
There’s nothing to prove
Ev’rything’s still the same
Just a table standing empty
By the edge of the sea
Farewell Angelina
The sky is trembling
And I must leave

And the characters come tumbling in – or rather tumbling out.  We don’t know who they are.  Like the circus act on the cover of the Doors classic album “Strange Days” they just are there.

The jacks and the queens
Have forsaked the courtyard
Fifty-two gypsies
Now file past the guards
In the space where the deuce
And the ace once ran wild
Farewell Angelina
The sky is folding
I’ll see you in a while

And the character role continues and continues and the world slowly reaches its dealthly conclusion.   We have no explanation, except that the world is changing.  It just goes on this way…

See the cross-eyed pirates sitting
Perched in the sun
Shooting tin cans
With a sawed-off shotgun
And the neighbours they clap
And they cheer with each blast
Farewell Angelina
The sky’s changing colour
And I must leave fast

Even nature can’t make out what is going on amidst this chaos.  No one can decipher, except to say the world is falling apart, and I really can’t take much more of this…

King Kong, little elves
On the rooftops they dance
Valentino-type tangos
While the makeup man’s hands
Shut the eyes of the dead
Not to embarrass anyone
Farewell Angelina
The sky is embarrassed
And I must be gone

Perhaps one can say that the world is falling apart in war time, or that the unknown strangeness of Greenland and the whales is replaced by the weirdness of a world in which the Vietnam war can happen.

The machine guns are roaring
The puppets heave rocks
The fiends nail time bombs
To the hands of the clocks
Call me any name you like
I will never deny it
Farewell Angelina
The sky is erupting
I must go where it’s quiet

It is, for me, as masterpiece always just a step away from realisation in performance.   Even if you don’t find the version that I located on YouTube to be interesting, I still hope you see what I mean.  There is far more in this song than the Dylan and Baez versions allow to escape.

All the songs reviewed on the site

Dylan songs in chronological order.

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9 Responses to Farewell Angelina: the hidden meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. wardo says:

    Wonderful commentary of a wonderful song. Personally, I always thought he didn’t put it on the album because he dropped his pick before the last verse, and didn’t feel like starting again.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says:

    Fine commentary indeed, and thanks for the link to the unknown singer on YouTube. That was a great rendition of a great (if neglected) classic from Dylan’s most creative period. Only two other renditions I’ve heard seem to do it justice. Not Dylan’s, sadly, but Joan Baez’s spare rendition, and the more explosive, instrumented version from John Mellencamp. I’ve always found this song to be one of the most evocative of Dylan’s creations.

  3. Ralph Hitchens says:

    By the way, I’m less sure than you are about a link to the old folk song, Farewell to Tarwathie, than you are. It’s always seemed to me to be Bob Dylan’s anticipation of the chaos that characterized the mid-60s into the 1970s. Civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, mirrored overseas to some degree. Didn’t the world change, and didn’t a prescient Dylan see it coming? And want to withdraw from it?

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Ralph, I do think that is a fair point. Thanks for adding that.

  5. Minko says:

    I always see a duality here. It’s as if Dylan wants to lead the show, and, at the same time, wants to withdraw from it, as pointed out by Ralph. Unlike Desolation Row, Dylan is not committing himself into the chaos and wants a ‘bloody’ escape from the madness. It kind of anticipates his exile from the madcap years predating the motorcycle accident.

  6. Gary McWhirter says:

    I agree that the unknown performer is delightful. However, I can scarcely believe that no one mentioned what is to me the definitive version -Tim O’Brien (from Red on Blond.)

  7. Sam the Sham says:

    This might be my favourite Dylan song and I think I owe it to everyone to explain what the song means.

    “Farewell Angelina – Essentially the beginning of a goodbye love letter from the dead.
    The bells of the crown – The bells are a metaphor for a reason to start a war but bells are also musical which ties into the next sentence.
    Are being stolen by bandits – Again the reason for war. The bandits are the other side who started the war.
    I must follow the sound – The sound is of a funeral march
    The triangle tingles – A musical reference to a funeral march
    And the trumpet play slow – A musical reference to a funeral march
    Farewell Angelina –
    The sky is on fire – The war is starting
    And I must go

    There’s no need for anger -Let’s enjoy our final time together
    There’s no need for blame – The decision wasn’t up to me. Let’s not fight during my last moments with you
    There’s nothing to prove – We know we love each other. We don’t need to say it
    Everything’s still the same – At this point in time, nothing has chanced
    Just a table standing empty – However our future metaphorical table is empty. Because he will be dying.
    By the edge of the sea – The sea represents time as well as the fact the war is over in Europe where he takes a ship
    Farewell Angelina –
    The sky is trembling – The personification of his feeling onto the sky
    And I must leave – But this is his duty

    The jacks and queens -metaphor for politicians
    Have forsaken the courtyard – the are making the decisions. Forsake is a negative word
    Fifty-two gypsies Now file past the guards – cards are a metaphor for gambling. We can assume the soldiers are the gypsies practicing in front of the gards
    In the space where the deuce And the ace once ran wild. He is saying in the past the card game of choice was Ace and Deuce Wild. What he is saying is gambling has always taken place here.
    Farewell Angelina –
    The sky is folding – Again personification of the sky with a another card metaphor when he uses the word folding. Folding is the disbelief that the sky is in or god for the horror.
    I’ll see you in a while – This is likely in reference to that he will see her in heaven.

    See the cross-eyed pirates sitting – Dylan is establishing that people at home are pirates a negative connotation
    Perched in the sun – To them the war is bliss
    Shooting tin cans – Essentially they are enjoying war. We saw people excited in WWI for the prospect of war
    With a sawed-off shotgun – A sawed off shot gun would show their low class.
    And the neighbors they clap – Again excitement for war
    And they cheer with each blast – People at home love war
    Farewell Angelina
    The sky’s changing color – A new somber mood
    And I must leave fast – He just left

    King Kong, little elves – We all have an image in our head how king kong is being attacked by planes etc on a building.
    On the rooftops they dance – King Kong is on a rooftop they are all dancing a euphimism for fighting
    Valentino-type tangos – This is another dance metaphor for fighting.
    While the make-up man’s hands -hand to hand combat
    Shut the eyes of the dead – One of Dylan’s best lyrics ever. What Dylan is saying here is that people are dying in war but he feels bad for the dead. He wants to shut their eyes so they are not embarrassed to have died for such a useless purpose.
    Not to embarrass anyone – The dead would be embarrassed if they saw this.
    Farewell Angelina –
    The sky is embarrassed – God and everyone is embarrassed
    And I must be gone – He is already there so this means he knows he will die.

    The camouflaged parrot, he flutters from fear -camouflage is a metaphor for someone in the army. Typically people in the army wear camouflage gear.
    A parrot repeats what is told of them. Therefore army soldiers are camouflaged parrots according to Dylan.
    When something he doesn’t know about suddenly appears – The parrot is the guy singing the song. Someone appears out of nowhere. AKA some enemy soldiers appears
    What cannot be imitated perfect must die – His training wasn’t perfect and he will die here
    Farewell Angelina, the sky is flooding over and I must go where it is dry – Could be a reference to blood and getting out of the battle. Basically his corporal will take him out and he is in the hospital. Or sky flooding over could be the fact the sky is getting darker and he is getting closer to death.

    The machine guns are roaring – battle continues
    The puppets heave rocks – Before they were parrots who repeat now the soldiers are puppets controlled by higher powers. Rocks can be grenades or bombs.
    The fiends nail time bombs – A time bomb would be in reference to the length of time to die
    To the hands of the clocks -I think Dylan is saying that the soldiers are clocks AKA they have a lifespan. Also I think a clock could be in reference to a tombstone.
    Call me any name you like – His lover can say anything to him now
    I will never deny it – He can’t defend himself because he is dead.
    Farewell Angelina –
    The sky is erupting – War is terrible
    I must go where it’s quiet – Rest in Peace

  8. Brian Iverson says:

    John Mellencamp’s version of this song is almost stunning.

  9. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/187/Farewell-Angelina (Additional Information)

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