10,000 men: Bob Dylan’s fascination with nursery rhymes and its ultimate unexpected destination

By Tony Attwood

Throughout 1989 Dylan regularly explored the world of contradictions and uncertainty, the notion that the world is not as we think.   Songs such as Everything is BrokenSeries of Dreams,  Most of the Time and Man in a Long Black Coat from that year all have commentaries about the uncertainty of what on earth is going on around us.

In 1990 Dylan took this exploration into a new arena with references in his songs to nursery rhymes which also bend reality – in their case they bending the world so far that it becomes further and further disconnected from our own world.

My guess (and of course it can be no more than that) is that Dylan was taking his thinking that had caused the writing of the songs noted above, onto a stage and we get songs such as 10,000 men.

The most common point of origin that is cited for this song is the 17th century nursery rhyme, “The Grand old Duke of York”…

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

But there can be others (and indeed some of these might be the origin of the nursery rhyme).   For example in the Bible there is 1 Samuel 18:7

As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”

On this topic the New American Bible says

David returned from killing the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy and with musical instruments.   The women sang as they played, and said, “Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands.”  Then Saul became very angry, for this saying displeased him; and he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, but to me they have ascribed thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?”

Any commentary I could add to that would undoubtedly be deemed sacrilegious so I shall move on to Barak’s troops fighting against Siserato in the defeat the Canaanites referred to in Judges 4:10-14…

 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.   She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramahand Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.  She sent for Barak son of Abinoamfrom Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor.  I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”

Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”

 “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him.

Dylan, as we have found often in these reviews, certainly knows his Bible, so any of these points could be a key reference.

However there are many other sources.  It has often been suggested that the song for “Masters of War” was built on the medieval English folk song “Nottamun Town” which has the lines in it…

Sat down on a hard, hot cold frozen stone
Ten thousand stood round me yet I’s alone
Took my hat in my hand, for to keep my head warm
Ten thousand got drowned that never was born

With all these antecedents for “10,000” I thought there might be a clue within the song itself to tell us which 10,000 was on Dylan’s mind, and I went searching for another reference point.  The most singular reference comes with the line about “Oxford Blue”, and the best I got was that the The King’s Own Calgary Regiment  wore a scarlet tunic with Oxford blue facings.   Not very definitive, I admit, although it does relate to the “gonna get killed” of the first verse.

Ten thousand men on a hill
Ten thousand men on a hill
Some of ’m goin’ down, some of ’m gonna get killed

Ten thousand men dressed in oxford blue
Ten thousand men dressed in oxford blue
Drummin’ in the morning, in the evening they’ll be coming for you

A little later we get seven wives, which staying with the same approach, leads me to think of the 18th century nursery rhyme.  Dylan sings

Ten thousand men looking so lean and frail
Ten thousand men looking so lean and frail
Each one of ’m got seven wives, each one of ’m just out of jail

The nursery rhyme has it

As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits: kits, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

Of course it is hard to decide exactly where Dylan was going with this, but overall my suspicion is that when he wrote it in 1990 he was taking his “all is not as it seems” concept from the previous year and had started to focus on the largest source of songs of this nature: the traditional nursery rhyme.  He had, after all, just composed Handy Dandy and Cat’s in the Well both of which have nursery rhyme connections.   Indeed, as I said in my review of Handy Dandy, confusion is everywhere and nothing is as it seems in these songs.

But there is one more point here: where was all this going?

I think one clue comes from the fact that the only time Bob played the song in concert was on November 12, 2000.   But from 1997 to 2011 he was playing the song that came out of 10,000 men, time and time again: Cold Irons Bound.

Play one song after the other and you can hear the similarity in musical styles and approach.   And the words too suggest to me that Dylan was certainly looking back to 10,000 men when he composed “Cold Irons Bound”.

Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds
Reality has always had too many heads
Some things last longer than you think they will
There are some kind of things you can never kill

It’s you and you only I been thinking about
But you can’t see in and it’s hard lookin’ out
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

Well the fat’s in the fire and the water’s in the tank
The whiskey’s in the jar and the money’s in the bank
I tried to love and protect you because I cared
I’m gonna remember forever the joy that we shared

Finally, it seems, the nursery rhyme meets the real world, and as always with such collisions, it is not necessarily very pleasant, but with Dylan it is always insightful

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  1. Great article….on the very subject I was about to
    tackle myself….and now don’t have to….no use being Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle”D” is there? ((lol)

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