Cat’s in the well: Dylan’s games with nursery rhymes



By Tony Attwood

For many admirers of his work, Bob Dylan ended the 1980s on a high with a series of compositions written in 1989 and which continue to resonate deeply.   Songs such as

As so often in Dylan’s career we might say that if that was the peak of another writer’s output, he would be much admired for that alone.  For Dylan it was just another year.

And yet there was clearly lurking within him at the time, a temptation to try other arenas, as with, for example, “TV Talking Song” – a song composed between the two very much more sombre “Where teardrops falls” and “Most of the Time”.

So perhaps we should not be too surprised that when Bob took up his pen again in 1990, he was off again in another direction, as the opening songs of the decade (Handy Dandy, and Cat’s in the Well) show.   This was the start of a new exploration – of taking old phrases and nursery rhymes and turning them into something else.

For me, much of the time it didn’t work – but as I have point out before, if Dylan had been a visual artist he would have had a sketch book for such ideas – and we’d now appreciate them as sketches not the real deal.  But with Dylan every time it doesn’t reach his highest levels he is criticised.   But then as Dylan himself said in October 2016, “Everything worth doing takes time. You have to write a hundred bad songs before you write one good one. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things that you might not be prepared for. Like it or not, you are in this alone and have to follow your own star.”

Certainly at the start of this new decade Dylan was following his own star, and in “Cat’s in the Well” he clearly found some significance, playing the song just one short of 300 times in concert between February 1992 and October 2010.

It is a song that showed us just how far Dylan had moved on from telling us all that we can be saved from eternal damnation by recognising the Lord, to a much more desperate vision of reality.

For as we hear the lines pile up with

The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war


Goodnight, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all

we know this is the end, but without any sign of redemption and salvation.  This time, we’ve all had it.  The Masters of War are sitting in the captain’s tower, the Hard Rain is falling, and Hollis Brown has shot his family.

As such there is not much of the nursery rhyme left – and yet those ancient nursery rhymes are themselves so often full of horrors and nightmares – and elements of these horrors are kept.  Indeed the mere fact that they have survived (at least in English culture – I can’t speak for the rest of the world) tells us how deeply they resonate with our psychology.

And now with Dylan the cat is mingled up with the wolf while the world’s being slaughtered, there’s a horse, a bull, the dogs…

There are also Biblical references here, and it is easy to translate each animal into some significant coherent religious message, but I am not at all sure that’s the right translation.  Maybe the “dogs” are the unholy people who have not heard God’s message, as some suggest, but I simply don’t hear that.

Instead, I get the feeling that this is the other side of Man Gave Names to all the Animals.  It’s not the snake one should be afraid of, it is the whole bloody man-made mess.

So maybe it is a reference back to Revelations 20:8, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.  

Or maybe it is just despair at the utter stupidity of mankind (and, according to other comments from Bob at the time, the whole stupid music industry.)

But let’s consider the cat, and the well. 

The image of the cat in the well goes way back in English literature and so resonates very deeply within many who have a passing knowledge of earlier songs and stories.  In one of the earliest references John Lant, the organist of Winchester Cathedral in 1580, wrote “Jacke boy, ho boy newes, the cat is in the well, let us ring now for her Knell, ding dong ding dong Bell.”    So we are getting on for 500 years of cats in wells.  It’s an image that really seems to strike a chord.

Within 20 years the lyrics were in print as a four part canon (a song for four voices in which all four voices sing the same melody, but each starts a set number of beats after the one before, somewhat like a round).  

The phrase ‘Ding, dong, bell’ was thus clearly established as a recognised catch phrase and by the 17th century, everyone in England would have known it.  It turns up several times in Shakespeare, in particular (given Dylan’s seeming fascination with the play) in “The Tempest” (Act 1 Scene II), Sea nymphs hourly ring his knellHark! Now I hear them – Ding, dong, bell,” and Merchant of Venice, Act III Scene II, “Let us all ring fancy’s knell; I’ll begin it – Ding, dong, bell.”

By the 18th century we had a name for the boy who threw the cat in the well – the nasty Johnny Green also sometimes called Johnny Fin, and the morality was added with “What a bad boy was that, To kill a pussy cat, Who never did any harm, But played with the mice in his father’s barn.”   So cats can kill mice, but boys can’t kill cats.  That’s how it goes.

Dylan however wants none of this reasoning and rescuing business.  It’s all over for the cat – he’s down the well, and the wolf is looking down wondering how to get down there and eat the creature.  Meanwhile the lady’s sleeping and

The world’s being slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace

In short, we’re screwed.

Musically this is a 12 bar blues in B flat with a middle 8 based on a much more unusual chord sequence of G minor, E flat, B flat, which helps keep the song buzzing along – because those two line middle 8 are so unexpected.

So the nursery rhyme comes to an end, we’ve messed up, and as he told us at the end of the previous year, everything is broken.

Goodnight, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all.

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  1. The Cat’s in the Well: A hopeless situation. The end of the world. The last song of the album. This album is the most apocalyptic of Dylans. Nursery rhymes??? You miss the point, and that is part of the point. We miss the point, almost always.


    DING dong bell,
    The cat is in the well.
    Who put her in
    Little Johnny Green.

    What a naughty boy was that,

    To drown poor pussy cat,

    Who never did him any harm,

    And kill’d the mice in his father’s barn.

    – Gammer Gurton’s garland, or, The nursery Parnassus : a choice collection of pretty songs and verses for the amusement of all little good children who can neither read nor run
    by Ritson, Joseph, 1752-1803

    Published 1866
    Topics Nursery rhymes

  2. The woman of his dreams is with him, and the wolves and thiefs have no chance anymore, they can not come close.

  3. ‘The world’s being slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace’
    Similar with:
    ‘I used to care, but things have changed.’
    ‘Goodnight, my love, may the lord have mercy on us all’ is all he can say in his happy mood of the moment.

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