Jokerman: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

Numerous reference books suggest that Jokerman is one of Dylan’s masterpieces. A great poetic adventure that encapsulates everyone and everything from Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats (1884) to… well, anything you like. All mixed with a mature and detailed reflection on Judaism, and the books of laws in the Old Testament.

Such approaches tend to ignore the fact that Dylan himself doesn’t like the piece much (see for one such interview), and the fact that when he has sung it live he has often chopped out verses seemingly at random and just thrown it in “cos the kids like it.”

Dylan’s view seems to be that it is a failed song, a song the lyrics of which he changed too often for it to work any more. As for the music, it is more complex than the old 12 bars tunes but not exactly the first movement of a string quartet.

And one thing is for sure (and is missed out in most commentaries) the music and the lyrics have nothing in common.

The music is simple, bouncy, fun, but not especially exciting or unusual but still a good tune that works, it serves as a basis for a stream of words, but not much more. For the song to work, the lyrics have to be both electrified and at one with the music, meaning they have to be bouncy and fun.

Consider for a moment the great work which apparently was recorded in time for Infidels but didn’t make the cut – “Blind Willie McTell”. Here the brooding melody and chord changes fit perfectly with the brooding lyrics, even if neither have anything to do with Blind Willie McTell. That’s fine because the man of the title has nothing to do with the song.

But in Jokerman we seem to have a bit of a muddle – a bouncy tune that has nothing to add to the feeling – except that the Jokerman is a Jokerman. Which would work if there was something jokey in the lyrics, but even from line two, “While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing” we have nothing funny. Are you going to make a joke out of “a snake in both of your fists”? I suspect not.

OK, comes the answer, he’s not that kind of Jokerman – he’s more the kind that plays a joke on the whole universe – a nasty twisted joke – a devil with an evil laugh.

Right – so where does that leave, “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune, Bird fly high by the light of the moon”?

It is all so confusing, that we look for some sort of way out. This is not surrealism, or the musical version of a Jackson Pollock, it is something quite different.

But what/

When we hear, with that same bouncy 2/4 tune which mutates into 4/4 at the chorus, that suddenly Dylan is talking about Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the books of laws in the Old Testament, we think, maybe this is going to sort it out. Dylan is laughing at the old laws – that’s what the bouncy song is about.

And here there certainly needs to be comment and a half. Leviticus is the book of the Bible that tells us to stone to death married women who have sex with another man, who tell us not to approach the house of the Lord if wearing clothes made of two or more cloths, and not to approach if our eyesight is not sound (which cuts out anyone wearing glasses). There is a lot of stuff about killing goats too.

But there is nothing on this. Not even with the wildest imagination is there anything there that offers us any insight. I am not searching for meaning any more than I am searching for meaning in Jackson Pollock, to take the example that came into my head earlier. All I am doing is looking for an insight. A way of saying yes, this is why the melody is like it is, why we have a 2/4 verse and a 4/4 chorus. Why we have a Jokerman.

I think Dylan was right in that interview – there is nothing but nothing here apart from a set of lines along a vaguely messianic theme to inappropriate music.

And that is not to remove the one great track from the album, as some would have it. Rather it is to let us look elsewhere, where the issue is entirely Israel. Neighbourhood Bully, for example, is a song that I, with my political views, am extremely unhappy with, unless I twist the meaning so much I think I leave behind anything Dylan meant. But as a work of art, it is something far more than Jokerman ever became.

I really want to understand this song, so ultimately of course the failing is mine, not Dylan’s because I can’t get to grips with it at all.  I just so wish I could.

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26 Responses to Jokerman: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

  1. ed king says:

    it’s everything and nothing at all. you cant keep a good song down even if you can’t understand the true meaning? keep them toes tapping and eyes open! jokerman! someone will figure it’ out?

  2. ellen says:

    Glad to know others experienced cpnfusion.


    What about the song’s mood? The feelings, the dreams, the atmosphere that the song conjures up for those lucky few who can simply enjoy the journey that Dylan leads us on Jokerman plays to a part of the sub-consious memory. The part of our dreams that remain just below the surface except on rare occassions. Like the tip of an iceburg remembered and revealed when inspired by a song like Jokerman!

  4. clm says:

    Is it at all possible that this song is about Jeaus? Thats what I hear anyways… Hear me out its both literal and metaphorical. Obviously standing on water as a man but looking to see idol’s/ what he needs to overcome. Torn between two worlds.snake in each fist….feadom around the corner. He came when truth was lost and from alot of peoples eyes at the that time what would be the point of sacrificing yourself?
    Jokerman obviously is what people thought of Christ at that time. All tricks l,smoke and mirrors. No one could comprehend him so he was alone. Alone and knew his cause was just. Hence dancing in the dark. Then it gose on his true laws, angles. There is so much there ifvyou lestin to the frist verses literally. n

  5. Bev Freeman says:

    I searched today for an explanation of the song, because I love it and it was recently played again locally on the “Daily Dylan” on WUMB-radio. So I think of it as a stream of consciousness that relates to Ballad of the Thin Man – disillusionment, pettiness, evil, people who are superficial but wield such influence (whether with the pen or whatever). It’s angry shouting like Thin Man. I really love that Dylan hums (the oooohhooohh) – it makes me laugh.

  6. Gabriel Hylton says:

    i think hes honestly making fun of jimi hendrix. it all fits, if you really listen to jimis guitar and not his voice, theres some devilry going on. jimi was also the Sun, and pretty much sold out the world. tom petty does the same in the song “money becomes king” singing about a cat named Johnny.

  7. Truby Newby says:

    It’s all about the life and times of your average narcissistic bear. Dylan lives on the edge of the spiritual battleground of good an evil, painting songs for us. If you ain’t in it, you’re luck warm.

  8. Panama507 says:

    It’s a romantic (in the classical sense) tale about an avatar (Jesus, Buddha, Maitreya).

    “Freedom just around the corner for you (Salvation, Nirvana, Mahasamadhi) but with truth so far off, what good will it do?”
    “A friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame”
    “A woman just gave birth to prince (avatar are often described as divine royalty, as sovereign from the materialistic sufferings of unenlightened people) today and dressed him in scarlet” (“scarlet” is a reference to jesus) “He’ll put the priests in his pockets, put the blade to the heat, take the motherless children off the streets and place them at the feet of a harlot”
    “The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers” It is said that an avatar only has God=Soul/Intuition has his only guru (spiritual teacher).

    Listen to the song again and put yourself in this mindset, imagine Dylan signing in celebration/preoccupation of the future avatar, and hoping that he will indeed guide humanity out of this era of darkness and into unity and peace.

  9. Panama507 says:

    I have a hard time understanding how you conclude that the jokerman in the song is a devilish character. “fools rush in where angels fear to tread, both of their futures so full of dread, you don’t show one” (avatars may be hurt physically by others, but their spirit shows no fear)

    “you were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing” religions often coincide some great event with the birth of the avatar. The snake line refers to their prodigious childhood and natural inclination towards philosophy and intuitive understanding of great truths (all avatars teach that we are all one, all souls are one with the pure mind (God) and love conquers all)

  10. Gabrielle says:

    When I listen to jokerman I can’t help but see the jokermen as those who twist religion to serve their own purposes .. is whether it’s killing people in the name of Allah (terrorism) or killing people in the name of Christianity ( the Crusades or bombing campaigns). The jokerman is someone who uses religion to justify their own destructive selfish acts which have nothing to do with God or goodness.

  11. Bill Hogan says:

    I’ve loved this song since it came out in the 80ies – if you watch the music video that was released at the time, I think the “meaning” becomes clear – “Jokerman” is a metaphor for demagogs of an evil bent, of any and all stripes, who lead men astray with their charisma, and control them through violence:

    “manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister”

    “nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas and padlocks, Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain”

    it’s a meditation on the seductive quality such power holds for the masses, and the evil, corruption and degeneracy this power inevitably leads to:

    “false hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin, only a matter of time before night comes stepping in”

    The chorus is about darkness, and how evil revels in it:

    “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune, birds fly high by the light of the moon”

    but of course this is a poem, and it’s filled with metaphor, which is inherently ambiguous – that’s where it gets it’s power – it keeps you guessing.

    musically, the upbeat melody contrasts with the dark lyrics, creating a contrast which throws the dark lyrics into stark relief, while reinforcing the duplicitous, seductive nature of demogery. Ronald Reagan’s religious right was ascendant when the tune was penned, and no doubt effected Dylan the not so old hippie at the time deeply. Reagan appears in the video in a rather unflattering manner.

    watch the video, and I think my interpretation will make more sense to you.

  12. JmarkW says:

    Gabrielle and Bill Hogan, both your responses are significant for me. I believe Gabrielle’s contribution explains the line that is a summation of the question
    ‘Oh Jokerman – you know what he wants. Oh Jokerman you don’t show any response’
    i.e deep down the corrupt person (as he sees himself) is concerned about his corruptness. .inmo.
    Bill Hogan talks of the video. I read a story of its production. Apparently when the song was given to the director in Mr D’s presence, the director reeled of various historical points. It was a time ago I read the thing, memory fails for specifics. But Babylon and its time frame featured, I’m sure

  13. Jim says:

    I enjoyed reading this, but don’t tie yourself into such knots. Just enjoy the song. The arrangement is unlike anything anybody thinks of when they think of Dylan, and he reaffirms himself as a master of interesting phrasing in this song. The chorus is hard to love, but the rest of the song is impossible to hate.

  14. Simeon says:

    It’s about the Tambourine Man, but a spiritual version. The song has always made me think of Jesus, Muhammed, Carlos Castenada -tricksters who overturn the exsisting social order and destabilize cultures. It’s a song about the fundamental anti-social unwholesomeness of the spiritual impulse, but at the same time articulates it’s irresistible, trancendent beauty. I don’t think the up beat melody is an any contradiction to the lyrics. This is a loving ode to the role mystical experience and spiritual charisma play as ecstatic engines of social and personal, ecstatic, revolutionary transformation.
    Or not. That’s just what it sounds like to me. I can’t quote the lyrics or anything.

  15. veda dreher says:

    i think this song is about the wins and losses that people face also the fear and happiness that is in our life this song is also about the joy and anguish that we face everyday.

    again this is my opinion, we all have them ,
    don’t judge because we all have our own opinions and that is OK.

  16. Robert Anthony Grimes says:

    Typical Dylan piece – poetic; binary – Everything has a binary condition. Everything is either ‘This or That’ ‘Big or Small’ ‘Good or Evil’ ‘Black or White’ JOKERMAN…either you’re leading people to Christ or…you’re not.

  17. Marc Winer says:

    It’s just the plain nonstop energy of this song that keeps me a-comin’ back to it. I’m willing to go only just so far trying to figure out Dylan verses – I much more enjoy all the very presence of the forced imagery and tangled effects they trigger in me.

  18. Cathy Shoemaker says:

    I just bought my first Dillion CD at age 60. Always through life, I’ve know that he was an icon and sang along to his songs via other artists- Indigo Girls- Tangled up in Blue. Never has a song penetrated my soul like Jokerman. Don’t really need to analyze what he meant- but the beauty of his artistry is what it means to me and you. I think that is the gift of an artist- to light a spark- out there in the universe. I think of me and the nightingale’s song. It’s pure-the lyrics-touch another human beings soul- in another time and space. Sure, you can analyze the lyrics word for word and speculate on his intention and meaning. I am just in awe of the comments and analysis of the lyrics- but the song – it touches my soul and when I listen to him belting out those words- my heart does something very personal. Been through Bob’s home town, Hibbing’s, MN many times and sang out Tangled up Blue with traveling companions with distant emotion. The beauty of an artist is how it can reach the human soul- what a wondrous thing. To each of us out there in this cyber world- listening to the old poets, feeling the depths of it all, in the winter of our lives- has a profound effect. This song is sweet honey to my aging ears.

  19. Scott in Tucson says:

    You’re on dangerous ground looking for Authorial Intent with Uncle Bob, admittedly, but I think you can get a lot closer than many of the attempts in this comment thread. I’m not saying I know exactly what Bob is saying but I think there’s some clarity to be had that’s not that complicated or complex.
    This album came after three straightforwardly-faith-imbued, and controversial-amongst-long-time-fans, records. He’s not sidestepping controversy with Infidels; in a way he’s digging in his heels, as is his nature. It’s an extension of the former three but is taking in the complexities of his Jewish backround, people and the faith that remains -he has not turned his back on Judaism but knows that Christianity and Judaism are necessarily folded in on each other, according to some/many (THERE’S the controversy). Also, there was an ‘incident’ where he went to his son’s bar-mitzvah in Jerusalem (google it), donned a yarmulke while observing the ceremony and photos were published in the press. Various factions had interpretations of Why. (I will here contend that Bob Dylan does NOT like to be pigeonholed.)
    This album is borne out of all of this. You can look up the Rolling Stone Interview that accompanied the album; in it Bob is typically dodgy but also fairly declarative. Great stuff.
    The source material for this song is, I hate to tell you if it offends, [strictly] biblical -along with references to the headlines of the day. Almost all of the imagery is directly lifted from Old and New Testaments, mostly Old. I promise you -you do not need a special teacher, book, concordance or theory -just a bible and google. Directly lifted. With apologies, Interpretation which includes other religious figures will prove to be projection upon inspection.
    My take is that the subject of the album and this song is Peace For Israel, both as a nation and as a people and as individuals; political peace, social peace, spiritual peace, security to live and security to exist. It’s all right there. Mostly Peace for the heart. The “jokerman” is Israel. I think this is correct and works with the references, the imagery and the circumstances; it has sufficient explanatory power to be seriously considered.
    Lastly I’ll reference the only mention of a ‘nightingale’ in the bible, in Song of Solomon 2:12:

    The flowers have already appeared in the land; The time has arrived for pruning the vines, And the voice of the nightingale has been heard in our land.

    Apparently the word means ‘singing bird’ and has often been translated ‘turtledove’, etc.
    Bob wants his people to have a future.
    Have a great one.

  20. Matthew C Mondschein says:

    Atta boy Joe , same sentiment

  21. Charles says:

    I must contend that BOB DYLAN IS THE JOKERMAN.

    This is a song about living your whole life as an idiot – as a Jokerman.

    The biblical references in some areas are ironic and to set the scene.

    “Standing on the waters casting your bread
    While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing”
    –> You think your way is proper but there is clearly something else going on.

    “Freedom just around the corner for you
    But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?.”
    –> You live your whole life navigating politically and it’s working, but it’s so ridiculous it’s not what you wanted anyway.

    “So swiftly the sun sets in the sky,
    You rise up and say goodbye to no one”
    -> Once again you slept in to 6pm and avoided everyone as you crept out of the house.

    “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”
    –> You will leap at the chance to take drugs and use prostitutes, ‘angels’ (not jokerpeople) avoid those situations.

    “Shedding off one more layer of skin,
    Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within”
    –> You fucked up again and you have to deal with it. Keep moving before you feel worse about it

    “You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds,
    Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister”
    –> You are fucking legendary. (Hint of sarcasm here perhaps)

    “You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
    But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister”
    –> You’ve been to all the notorious hot spots but they don’t do anything for you. Nobody likes your crew either.

    “Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
    The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers”
    –> You have some guidelines but you have learned by navigating through a tough life.

    “In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed,
    Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features
    Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space,
    Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face”
    –> People think you’re epic and beautiful but you enjoy spending your time away from everything.

    After this it starts to get very cryptic and I don’t think it has anything to do with him anymore. Maybe a take on society?

    –> You think your way is proper but there is clearly something else going on.
    –> You live your whole life navigating politically and it’s working, but it’s so ridiculous it’s not what you wanted anyway.
    -> Once again you slept in to 6pm and avoided everyone as you crept out of the house.
    –> You will leap at the chance to take drugs and use prostitutes, but ‘angels’ (not jokerpeople) would avoid those situations.
    –> You fucked up again and you have to deal with it. Keep moving before you feel worse about it
    –> You are fucking legendary. (Hint of sarcasm here perhaps)
    –> You’ve been to all the notorious hot spots but they don’t do anything for you.
    Nobody likes your crew either.
    –> You have some guidelines but you have learned by navigating through a tough life.
    –> People think you’re epic and beautiful but you enjoy spending your time away from everything.

    This is a song about going through life as an idiot – as a Jokerman.

  22. Fergus Nicoll says:

    I’ve read through all these interesting and intelligent comments and am surprised that nobody’s said anything about Dylan’s internal rhyming scheme: AABCCBDD. So clever and intricate. So I think the structure has driven the quite wonderful and consistently surprising lyric – meaning that ‘meaning’ is secondary. Anyway, Bob’s well known as a magpie of ideas, he sucks them in and blurts them out, in this song in De Luxe quantities.

  23. Viktor says:

    I love this song but can’t help to imagine lyrics is nothing more than utter gibbirish, making people go crazy analyse what it means.
    It means “nothing”.
    Hence “Jokerman”

  24. Martin McColgan says:

    I always thought it was about Reagan.

  25. Patricia Sykes says:

    I think this song is about Death itself, which is the Jokerman, and our desire for immortality, with all our imperfections and beliefs.

  26. Guido von der Warth says:

    I disagree with Charles definition of what jokerman is: he isn t an idiot
    There are two ingredients of the Joker : is he good or evil ?
    and as a playingcard , the mighty one , but he didn`t play it
    instead Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune…
    …and Jokerman you don!t show any response
    Dylan converted 79 , Dylan had acted , Dylan showed response , Jokerman isn! Dylan

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