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 http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/1991zollo.htm 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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65 Responses to Jokerman: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

  1. Doug Johnson says:

    The song is about a man who has incurred the judgment of God. If this man embraces the truth of his crime against God and repents, he will be set free. If he does not embrace the truth and continues as “the fool”, he will lose his soul to the devil.

  2. Buford says:

    The Jokerman is the “The Fool” of the Tarot. If the fool embraces truth and turns from his wayward ways, he will be saved. If not, he will lose his soul for all eternity.

  3. Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/334/Jokerman Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud plus so much more… including this link.

  4. Pat Daly says:

    Why spend time occupying the mind of another…enjoy the song for what it is and how you feel when you hear it.
    look at all the comments,everyone has their own meaning,Dylan himself most likely doesn’t understand it.

    …a subconsious lament,with scattered thought.

  5. TonyAttwood says:

    In answer to the opening question, “to help broaden one’s understanding”

  6. Mark Zucker says:

    It’s about the god-like power people feel they possess, and they do, but they are sick with vanity and unable to manifest their godliness in this world, and even in our most sincere and earnest endeavors we are rendered a joke by our self-absorption and lack of perspective, grinning as we risk becoming monomaniacal monsters. Humans and their myths vs. humans and their actions: It is to laugh. Darkly.

  7. Neely Lyles says:

    Jokerman is a description of a metaphorical person, (persona, if you will) that, like many of us, embodies both mildly and wildly contradictory characteristics. I believe the basis of Jokerman is that of the trickster / coyote; then so much more the oppositions of the contradictions; beauty, banality, belief, scorn, meaningless evil, exaggeration, truth, conjecture, myth, barbarism, pathos .. To quote Charles Portis, “Who knows what’s in the heart of a man?” Time, of course, is mostly meaningless.
    And Dylan’s offhand attempts to denigrate the song are just another trickster / coyote contradiction: truth, irony, and untruth live in harmony / disjunction together in this song by Loki Bob.

  8. LarryFyffe says:

    Bob Dylan goes no for the simple answer as presented by orthodox religion, ie, God Himself , the all-powerful one, can be viewed as the trickster – a sender of thunder, misery and war:

    There’s a long, long trail a-winding
    Into the land of my dreams
    Where the nightingales are singing
    And the white moon beams
    (Zo Elliot: There’s A Long, Long Trail A- Winding)

  9. Jenny says:

    Songs like Jokerman earned the Noble. Brilliant lyrics.

  10. Jason Makeig says:

    Best review of Jokerman yet … Agree with your insights and add that … The song definitely reeks of the plight of the ‘poet’ as he/she embraces extreme vanity and dystopian outcomes of human folly .. yet beautifully juxtaposes earth forces that resonate with our deeper psyche. It’s a story of the spiritual empath looking through the worlds mediocrity that causes degraded human outcomes .. love it !!!

  11. stargel says:

    I always picture Dylan finishing the outlines of a song like a painting which looks more or less like its subject, and then he spends a chunk of time applying overlays of paint on top of it, obscuring the original meaning.

    What I see in this picture is a song about a peaceful man who inexplicably exists in spite of the world around him who seeks to draw him into its violence and madness. This man could be Jesus (think there’s indications that the Joker is a reference to Jesus in other songs) but could be anyone who chooses simple existence and enjoyment over power and corruption.

  12. Ddbehar says:

    The meaning of this song is fairly straightforward. It is written in the second person to the Jokerman. He wrote it right after ending a brief period as a born again Christian and returning to his Jewish faith. The Jokerman is Jesus. The references are numerous. Here are a few:

    Standing on the water – Jesus

    Casting your bread – Jesus

    Friend to the martyr – Jesus and John the Baptist

    Friend to the woman of shame – Jesus and Mary Magdalene

    Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy…are your only teachers – Jesus was a rabbi and lived his life as a practicing Jew

    Jesus is the Jokerman because he ‘tricked’ Dylan into this faith. I know this is bound to offend some Christians but he has just left Christianity to return to Judaism. The references are unmistakable.

  13. Jochen Markhorst says:

    I’m not Christian and far from offended, but I’m afraid you’d be found guilty of cherry picking in a Dylanologist Court, Ddbehar. The lyrics comprise 463 words – you managed to trace 25 of them back to Jesus. True, these five particular fragments do seem to refer to Jesus – although four of them could refer to numerous other historical or literary personas as well.

    But this You is also “born with a snake in [his] fists”, is “going to Sodom and Gomorrah” (which were destroyed some 3000 years before Jesus was born), is taught “the law of the jungle”, has a sister “nobody there would want to marry” and apparently is clairvoyant while staring into “a fiery furnace”… metaphors, obviously, but still: it requires quite some bending over backwards to find Jesus references herein, I suppose.

    In short: your claims that “The meaning of this song is fairly straightforward” and that “The references are unmistakable” seem somewhat insubstantiable and a bit too bold.

    That being said: I can’t produce a better interpretation either. And neither can Dylan, for what it’s worth: “That’s a song that got away from me” (interview with Paul Zollo, 1991).

  14. BigTam says:

    Nobody apart from Dylan knows a) what the lyrics are really about b) how he wanted us to hear them. Like all great works of art there should be room for ambiguity and a changing perspective available. I used to skip by this song on greatest hits albums because the lyrics had no apparent meaning and the music seemed too basic for consideration. Today as i listen with a fresh pair of ears and more experienced mind, it makes me think of a sneaky social worker who pretended he had my interests at heart but who betrayed me…a kind of ‘devil in disguise’. Thanks for the post and comments which clarify that this is not only a “work of art” but a masterpiece!

  15. Martin Hill says:

    I’ve pondered this song for many years. Is it about Jesus, The Devil or Judaism? The Album seems to be about Bob’s disenchantment with Christianity and his exploration of his Jewish faith. The sleeve shows this, its not a Christian site in the background but Temple Mount’ Is the hill he stands on Calvary? Leta’s have a look at the lyrics
    ‘Standing on the Water Casting Your Bread’- References two of Jesus’s miracles
    ‘While the eyes of the idol with the Iron Head are glowing’ -A reference to the book of Daniel.
    ‘Distant Ships Sailing into the Mist’ – Dont know unless it is a reference to the SS Exodus bringing Jews to Israel
    ‘You were born with a snake in both of your fista while a hurricane was blowing’ The State of Israel was founded in war against enemies on both sides trying to strangle it at birth.
    ‘Freedom Just Around the Corner from You’ The Jews were promised a homeland by the Balfour Declaration
    ‘But with truth so far off what good would it do’ – Like the Kurds the British renounced their promises to give them a homeland
    ‘So Swiftly the Sun Sets in the Sky’ -possibly the post war dissolution of the British Empire on ‘which the sun never sets’
    ‘You Rise up and say goodbye to no one’ Jews emigrated to Israel from places where they were persecuted
    ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ – A tarot image. Though discouraged by the British and Americans the Jews flocked to Palestine though it was a powderkeg.
    ‘Both of the Futures so full of dread you don’t show why’ – Could mean 1) Migrating to Israel or staying where they were led to uncertain futures. 2) The fall of Israel would have led to the destruction of the Jewish population of Palestine, the victory lead to a future full of conflict. or 3) The terrible fate of the Palestinians that Israel does nothing to resolve
    ‘Shedding off one more layer of skin ‘ Superficially a Satanic reference. but possibly yet another role the Jews have had to adopt – a nation state.
    ‘Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within’ A reference to the centuries of persection and genocide the Jews have faced.
    ‘You’re a man of the mountains you can walk on the clouds’ Old testament references to Moses and the prophets?
    ‘Manipulator of Ccrowds, your a dream twister’ – A Hitler reference? More likely to Joseph and perhaps Moses.
    ‘Your Going to Sodom and Gamorah but what do you care’ The old testament cities are now in the state of Israel and the Israelis have worked into making desert lands fertile
    ‘Aint nobody there would want to marry your sister’ Superficially a reference to the myths that these cities were destroyed for the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. There are probably other allusions I haven’t spotted yet.
    ‘Friend to the Martyr, a friend to the Woman of Shame’- Probably a reference to Jesus, perhaps to David or Soloman, or to the martydom of Jews and to their women being referereed to as whores.
    ‘You look into the Fiery Furnce, see the rich man without any time’ Double reference 1) The book of Daniel and the ‘Fourth man in the Fire’ and to the Holocaust, the names and property of the Jews were taken from them before they were sent to the gas chambers and then the ovens
    ‘Well the Book of Levticus and Deuteromony, the law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers’ – References the ancient Jewish laws and customs, the fact that Israel has to fight to survive or the Jews will be driven into the sea.
    ‘Michaelangelo indeed could have carved out your features’ A reference to David as King of the Jews, whose most famous image is that of Michaelangelo’s David
    ‘In the Smoke of the Twilight on a milk white steed’The Smoke of war? In the Book of Revelation’ The Rider of the White Horse was associated with Victory
    ‘Resting in the Fields far from the turbulent Space: Half asleep neath the stars with a smalldog licking your face’ – There is Tarot imagry here but it is probably a reference to David in his former life as a shepherd.
    ‘Well the Rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame’ The terrorist and the pogroms of the past
    ‘Preacherman seeks the same’ Probably another reference to Jesus’s miracles but could bet the calls for Holy War against, Israel, the years of Christian persection of Jews, the Inquisition.
    ‘Who gets there first is uncertain’ – The future is uncertain.
    Nightsticks, water cannon, tear gas, padlocks, molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain’ The tragedy of continuing unrest – Israeli clampdowns vs Palestinian unrest
    False hearted Judges dying in the webs that they spin’ This could be anything. There are many interpretations as to who the false heated judges could be, I could give half a dozen possibilities, but it is a referrence to corruption and injustice
    ‘Only a matter of time till night comes stepping in’ – The present situation seems to point to disaster
    ‘Its a shadowy World, skies are slippery grey’ Another warning of an approaching storm.
    ‘A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet. The birth of Christ or the Anti- Christ or the Jewish Messiah. Scarlet – the colour of royalty.
    He’ll put the Priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat -He will control priests, he’ll prepare for War.
    Take the Motherless children off the street and place them at the foot of a harlot’ This would seem to be ‘the Whore of Babylon whos is robed in Scarlet, thus a connection to the Anti-Christ.It could also be a reference to Jesus ‘give your children unto me’ and perhaps Mary of Magdala -falsely accused by the Church of being a prostitute.
    Oh Jokerman you know what he wants, Oh Jokerman you don’t show any response’ This could be the Jewish rejection of Christianity.
    So we have several references to Judaism and the State of Israel, to the Messiah -with references to Jesus or the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the Jews. In Jewish tradition the coming of the Messiah follows the return of the Jews to Israel. Perhaps Dylan is linking this with the Christian belief in the Anti Christ. Perhaps he is saying that the empowerment of the Jews will be seen as a threat to Christianity and cause a rise in anti-semitism. But all these are just supposition.

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