By Tony Attwood
“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” from John Wesley Harding, is a song that has fascinated more commentators than most Dylan songs from this period.
Musically it is built over three ever repeating chords: G, B minor, A minor, G, although listening to some versions the A minor can be replaced with C.
I think the All Music review gives us a clue as to what many commentators believe was going on here when they say, “Clearly Dylan was attempting to write a parable of some description, with a narrative followed by a “moral” at the end of the story.” I don’t think so, but I do recognise I am in a minority in this case – and not for the first time in the 230 or so songs reviewed on this site.
The “story” itself is perverse and strange, as events happen but without any explanation, precedent or (quite often) logical consequence. As All Music continues, and as many other commentators believe, “The story, most argue, is a simple parable alluding to Jesus’ temptation by the Devil.”
Except a parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the Gospels.
This story is not simple. Yes it is utterly simple musically, but in terms of what is said, there is no simplicity.
In an interview with Sing Out! magazine Dylan comments that he really wasn’t ready to produce an album at this time, having nothing of his own that he really wanted to record. However when called upon to create the album he spoke of wanting to create songs of despair, faith in the supernatural. The model was the narrative folk song.
So we get triumphs like the Drifter’s Escape, an absolute song of the supernatural, with one musical line repeated over and over, and absolutely no worse for that. And that song, and this, meet another target Dylan set himself: songs the lyrics of which did not repeat themselves.
So, this is the supernatural, and in the supernatural people are strange, and boy is Frankie Lee a weird guy. As Heylin points out, he just about over reacts to every situation no matter how it hits him. It is all like a dream where reality gets mixed up with weird. The supernatural is everywhere screwing everything up, messing everything about.
Now to get a deeper understanding of Dylan’s thinking at this point I think it is helpful to look at the songs from around this time in the order in which they were written (as far as can be ascertained).
- This Wheel’s on Fire
- I shall be released
- Too Much of Nothing
- Tears of rage
- Quinn the Eskimo – The Mighty Quinn
- The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- Drifter’s Escape
- I dreamed I Saw St Augustine
- All along the watch tower
Starting from the first we have
If your memory serves you well we were going to meet again and wait
So I’m going to unpack all my things and sit before it gets too late
No man alive will come to you with another tale to tell
But you know that we shall meet again if your mem’ry serves you well
This is spooky stuff, especially the “No man alive” bit and the chorus which is very end-of-the-world like.
As I mentioned in my review of “I shall be released” in that song there is the belief or a desperate plea that someone else will come along and release the singer rom something – although we are not clear what. Once more the stuff of nightmares.
Moving on, “Too Much of Nothing,” the tale of TS Eliot and his wives, has the lines
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control
It’s the world gone wrong, the world is crazy, nothing makes sense any more as there is no structure, nor organisation. The same theme again, to my mind.
In Tears of Rage Dylan conjures up a character from the Mediaeval Mystery Plays – this time the thief – the passing stranger – the Wandering Jew of early English literature
Tears of rage, tears of grief
Must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so low
And life is brief
The suddenly up pops Quinn the Eskimo – another strange unreal character. More bouncy, more fun, less threatening, but still a being from another life or another time coming into our world. No explanation as to what, who, why, where. He just is.
So what links all these together in my mind is just this other worldliness – these out of nowhere beings that enter our vision, shift around a bit, leave us in doubt and wonderment, feel like a dream, and then vanish.
We are in fact facing once more the sort of characters Dylan painted in his surreal period, half seen, spooky, freaky, shadowy beings, who behave in odd ways and do odd things. The only difference is that the John Westley Harding characters are black, white and grey. Those characters were so many colours and lights it could hurt your eyes.
And it was thinking of this that made me change the quotes on the home page of the site to include the words Dylan spoke on a Theme Time Radio Hour…
“You can never tell why someone’s gonna stick something in a song. You just gotta remember that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. You can’t expect to understand everything in every song.”
So to my mind in all the songs I’ve noted above and which were written before Dylan wrote the lyrics of Frankie Lee, we always have this strange colourless world where things sort of make a bit of sense, but not enough.
Thus my approach to Frankie Lee is the same as with Drifters Escape, written a little later, and all these songs that lead up to it. We are not in a real world where everything makes sense. We are not looking at a parable, because for a parable, to be a parable, must have everything making sense with a fair degree of clarity, otherwise it doesn’t work.
And on that point, as I have confessed many times on this site but feel the need to remind you, in case you haven’t read the rest of the site, I am an atheist, so start from as biased a position as anyone who follows a religion. But for what it is worth, my thought is that a Deity or The Deity, wanted to encourage us behave in a particular way that was laid down by the Almighty, then surely He or She would be fairly clear about it. Why wrap it all up in confusion?
So if Dylan wanted Frankie Lee or any other song to be clearly a religious tract or sermon, or parable, why hide the message in something as confusing as this song?
The concluding verse of Frankie Lee – sums it all up. “The moral of this story, the moral of this song/Is simply that one should never be where one does not belong.” And the closest I can get to understanding why that has some broad implication is, “Yes, if you get caught in the wrong dream, you’re screwed, until you wake up.”
For me, in Frankie Lee and in all the other songs written around this time, Dylan was exploring an interesting scenery where nothing quite makes sense. Indeed you could say, it all builds up to All Along the Watchtower where (to summarise) everyone is trapped inside looking out on a world they can’t quite grasp.
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”
That for me is the message of much of the album. In effect Dylan created here a subset of his own work – the songs of confusion. Songs of the shadows, songs of uncertainty. Songs of the supernatural, songs of the dreamland where nothing is quite real enough to hold onto. (Actually I quite like Songs of the Shadows as a phrase, although Songs of The Dreamland is probably more accurate).
So for me, the song does not encapsulate “the eternal struggle for souls by Satan, and his method’s to do so,” as one Christian commentator put it. I don’t think Judas Priest is Satan. Instead I would slightly change the words of Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox’ psychoanalyst in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (one of my all time favourite works of art): “Judas Priest’s just this guy, you know”.
In the religious interpretation
Judas Priest quickly pounces at his prey’s vulnerability, presenting the money and then presenting him with a lie: That Frankie’s acceptance will be a gain for him, while a loss for Satan.
Well, ok if that is the interpretation that works for you. But, the virtue of this being not the eternal battle of good and evil, but visions of and from the supernatural and the dreamscape that has been explored by lyricists, dramatists and novelists through the centuries, is that this explanation fits with a) what Dylan himself said and b) what he was saying in all the songs around this time.
Yes Frankie’s loss could be his soul, but this explanation makes the song monosemantic where the other songs Dylan was writing at the time were all anything but monosemantic.
So I acknowledge that every line and every phrase can be interpreted to a religious meaning, and if you find that reasonable, who am I to counter that? Rather I am just saying, I think there is a much simpler explanation which also happens to be in tune with what Dylan himself said.
And since as part of the work for my degrees I studied scientific method, I tend to follow Occam’s razor – the ‘law of parsimony’ – the problem-solving principle which says, “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”
Thus the “big house” as “bright as any sun” could be a house of ill repute, and it could be bright because “Satan can appear as an Angel of Light” and it could relate to “ancient Sun worship”. Or it could just be an image from a dream.
In the sort of approach expounded by Anthony Scaduto, John Wesley Harding is no longer a gunslinger but a symbol of Christ. From song to song the symbolism grows until “All Along the Watchtower” takes us to the Book of Revelations and the Second Coming.
But it is still simpler to say these are just excursions into storyland. Just journeys.
And by way of supporting evidence consider the fact that that Dylan wrote the words very quickly, added the music in a matter of moments after, and spoke often about not being ready to record this album. And then ask…
Could Dylan have constructed such a complex world as Scaduto outlines in a matter of days, with so many carefully interwoven images? Or did he have a generalised theme of the supernatural in mind?
Or could it be as Barney Hoskyns said in “Across the Great Divide”, “At least two songs on John Wesley Harding, ‘Dear Landlord’ & ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest’, were veiled attacks on Grossman…”
And I throw this in here, to make the point that with enough lyrics at your disposal, you can make up any explanation you like.
Albert Grossman: the manager with the reputation for aggressiveness in his business affairs based, as others have put it, in his “faith in his own aesthetic judgements,” (which I once heard misquoted in a recording studio in the 70s as “faith in his own aesthetic juggernauts”.
So, overall there are two issues here.
The first is the question of the interpretation that you think is right. I argue that Dylan’s work at this time is like a partially abstract painting – there are seemingly real people and events portrayed, but the overall context is curious, misty, uncertain, disconnected, incomplete. It needs to be seen as a whole.
Others argue that the message is religious and that it can be understood by an examination of it line by line.
We put forward our arguments – I cite the MusiCares speech, and Dylan’s general decision not to comment too deeply on meanings in support of my view, feeling that if he had a strong message he’d come out and tell us, as indeed he did with, for example, “Gotta Serve Somebody”. After all, why hide the message when its important?
I also argue that when things are uncertain, taking the simplest explanation is generally the best. Others argue from their point of view.
The second is, does it matter? Does it matter who Frankie Lee and Judas Priest are, were or represent?
Of course if Dylan is preaching, if he wanted us to follow a line of belief, then yes it matters to him, and if we want to understand the overall theme, it matters.
But I would say that as with much modern art in all its forms, often it doesn’t matter. It is the overall feeling that matters. If we watch a biographical film or read a biography, it matters. If we watch a film which takes a historical character and is very free with its telling of the character’s story, it matters far less; it is entertainment.
To me, if someone tells me that Johanna in Visions is based on a certain real life person, it generally doesn’t matter too much, because what really gets me about that song are the shadows and suggestions. I don’t really mind what Johanna really felt; it is the shadows and light that engage me so strongly.
But because I don’t find deep life-affirming religious meanings in the message, I look to explain what I do find.
I find the accompaniments (called “sparse and austere” in some quarters) part of the picture that is painted for me. It is open and empty, black and white, pen and ink. That helps give me my picture of what is going on in these Songs of the Shadows. No psychedelia here. Just black and white and shades of grey.
So can statements like, “Could Everyman (Frankie Lee) be the listener & the tempter/deceiver (Judas Priest) be Dylan?” really be true, when Dylan has repeatedly said, he was just a “song & dance man.” He sings about jugglers and clowns in earlier days but times have changed because the jugglers and clowns had lots of colour. Now the characters are of a different type. Black and white suits them better, not just because they are history, but because in the end “nothing is revealed.”
Who is the good guy? Who are we supposed to have sympathy for? What do we make of the man who watches another die without doing anything? This is where the greyness is, in the uncertainty of it all. With Jugglers and Clowns it is all colour. With God and Satan, the world is black and white. Here it is grey.
Maybe I’m too stupid to understand, or maybe it doesn’t translate readily from American into English but the whole ending about, “So when you see your neighbour carryin’ something/Help him with his load/And don’t go mistaking Paradise/For that home across the road,” contains no powerful message for me. Yes, it is good to help others if you can. Yes, the world that someone else has might look wonderful, but usually it’s got its own issues, just like yours.
OK, I think I knew that.
And so the difference between me and the people who really want to put a meaning into each and every Dylan song is that they think it is important to find a deeper meaning, while I don’t. I don’t find meaning in Jackson Pollock – I love the paintings for what they are. I don’t find meaning in Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. I know why he wrote them, but I don’t find meaning there – or at least not a meaning I can put in words. I find the jagged edges of The Rite of Spring stimulating, difficult, and well, edgy, but I don’t find a meaning there. I love these works for what they are, for their direct expression into my brain, and the same is true for me with Dylan. Whereas Pollock tells me stories that can’t be expressed in words, Dylan tells me stories that can only be expressed in music and words – but not the words that spell out a story.
So when one commentator says, “By calling his destination “Eternity”, JP is suggesting that he plans on staying there forever,” my answer is “no he isn’t. He’s calling his destination “Eternity”.”
Anyway, here’s another theory: “The story is a parable for Dylan’s own experiences in making the switch from folk to rock. Bob Dylan himself is Judas Priest, the righteous betrayer of the folk movement. The folk movement whom JP betrays is Frankie Lee. The destination that JP pursues is the glory of rock-and-roll, which terrifies FL. The passing neighbor boy that tells FL about JP’s endeavors and paints them in a negative light could be the media. FL’s father who’s deceased could represent Woodie Guthrie, the father of the folk movement who at passed away just several years before this song was written. The similarities to Dylan’s own situation are endless.”
At least the author of the theory, which appears on the Blogging in the Wind site does say, unlike many others who have pontificated on the song, “Of course, the theory that is imposed on the structure of the tale is just that – a theory. It is just a guess for what this strange story of friends, betrayal, and glory could represent. The reason why this theory is so good, in my humble opinion, is simply that it exists. It exists for a song that I was ready to give up on.”
The blog with the title, “Every Bob Dylan song” (a bit of a misnomer, but it is good value, and does review a log of songs) comments that the author gets “the creeping sense that Dylan may just have been making this up as he was going along.”
And yes that could well be so – a bit like a fair degree of modern visual art. I also like the bit of this review where the writer says, “there aren’t too many songs in which you could make the debate that Dylan is actively having a laugh at the people listening to this song.”
Certainly as I said at the start (and it seems appropriate to say again at the end) musically the music goes round and round and round over the same chords of G, B minor and A minor, over and over and over again. There’s no melody and no chord sequence. Just the words, and we can argue forever over the words.
But let me finish with a very personal memory.
Before settling on a career as a writer I worked as a musician in the theatre in London for four years, and as musicians we often had a less than wholesome regard for those who wrote our music and the lines our comrades on stage had to say.
One of our eternal jokes was that when the author found his plot was stagnating, he’d introduce a mysterious stranger onto the set to beef things up a bit. When I first heard this song with its line, “just then a passing stranger, Burst upon the scene,” I really did burst out laughing, thinking “oh Bob, you’ve watched those same second rate plays too.”
For me that is the key line – it’s a story of random events without a meaning. But if you find a meaning in this song, that’s fine too. We can both be right, most of the time.
The only difference between me and the writers with a theology to push is that I can say we can both be right.