Updated 13 Nov 2017 with links to other versions of the song – I really hope you try them if you have not heard them before – they offer a completely different set of insights into the song. Reading my commentary first is optional.
By Tony Attwood
The song is upbeat, and the organist makes mistakes (playing I-IV at the end of the harmonica solo in the intro before Dylan starts singing instead of holding the tonic, forgetting to play during the “Staring at the butterfly” line)… Yet he has the simplest of parts to play – so why wasn’t it re-recorded or over dubbed? Ah – because Bob doesn’t do that!
And thinking of that, and the fact that the song is about gambling, made me think Bob himself likes to gamble with the outcome. (Incidentally if you do, do take a look at UK casinos).
But back to the song, certainly Dylan’s voice is absolutely spot on for the song. The chords are primarily I, IV, and V, there’s a nice descending bass line at the end, and the bass player is perfection – ok it is not a complex bass line but it requires tenacity and determination to keep going through this length of song, and he delivers.
So, what to make of it all?
The story almost makes sense but no, it doesn’t. Every time you try to make it mean something it slips through your hands and means something else.
And yet actually it is not that difficult as some of the reviews have suggested. The notion of interwoven characters who act in ways that we can’t quite understand, as if they are flitting in and out of each other’s lives sometimes touching our lives without our ever quite knowing what they do, why they do it, and who they are, is a theme of Dylan’s.
Indeed we get darker versions of this with the songs of disdain – Like a Rolling Stone, Can you please crawl out your window?, Positively Fourth Street, etc etc. You know the person in each song, but only in part. You never quite know why.
What Dylan has done here is stripped away the disdain (the bouncy melody makes the characters actually seem quite nice even though one of them is a hanging judge, one is a bank robber…) and given us multiple comic book characters rather than the one central person of Rolling Stone, 4th Street etc.
But this is not new. The song that developed this theme first time around was Visions of Johanna in which the essence of Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost is never resolved. Indeed it is a noticeable parallel between “Visions” and Lily, Rosemary etc that not only are there three characters, but also two of the three have names while the third is known by a title (Jack of Hearts / Little Boy Lost).
In both cases the existence of some sort of story line tempts us to assume that there is a sense that moves naturally through time, but it never works. There is a sequence, but…
No, as a total song you have to stretch the imagination to make it make sense, and in fact that is the brilliance of the song; it is a song that gives hints which send the mind spinning without actually giving us explanations.
But we also need to consider the context of the album on which it appears. Remember also the lack of logical sequence in Tangled up in blue which starts the album, and the sudden confusion between “he” and “I” in Simple Twist of Fate Or the sudden use of a very non-blues lyric in “Meet me in the Morning” after a totally blues approach up to that point.
Indeed the whole album reeks of confusion disguised as straightforwardness. We think we are getting the hang of things, and then Dylan throws in something that knocks us off balance.
The Jack of Hearts is a bank robber recently come into town, Lily and Rosemary have parts to play in the unfolding drama, and unlike Johanna we get some other characters, Big Jim owning a diamond mine etc.
But that brings up another issue. Let us pause for a moment to consider diamond mines. I’ve always placed the song in the Wild West – the whole lawlessness of the story makes me feel this is so. But where are the diamond mines in the wild west – or come to that anywhere else in the US?
In fact there have only ever been two diamond mines in the US. A small mine that operated between 1996 and 2002 (Kelsey Lake Diamond Mine near Fort Collins, Colorado) and Crater of Diamonds near Murfreesboro, Arkansas which was worked at the start of the 20th century but is now a tourist attraction where you can pay a fee to dig and see what you can find.
Dylan would not have known of Kelsey Lake mine but might have known about the Arkansas mine. Duluth, Minnesota where Dylan was born, is 1000 miles away, so it is not a local reference. The chances are it is not a reference to any diamond mine in real life – just a story line.
Indeed this reference to the non-existent mine should tell us all that the story does not make sense in terms of the real world – for if the mine is not there, then why should the characters or the story be considered in a real-world form either?
What we get in the first verse tells us that this is a shimmering half representation of life, just like Visions.
The festival was over, the boys were all planning for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drilling in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gambling wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts
Just consider, “Anyone with any sense had already left town” – put another way “you are not going to find any sense here.”
So there is no point in trying to understand what, “Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts” means in reality. It is not reality, it is just an image. Playing cards and life reflecting each other, somehow, although we can’t quite get how, it is a shimmering film.
Indeed in this non-world, when we come to the third verse, it is interesting that Big Jim owned not just the USA’s only diamond mine, he “owned the town’s only diamond mine”. As if there might be two!
But in saying that we cannot take sense from the story, we should not ignore the character of the Jack of Hearts – the sort of mythological man who can see off everyone. A Harlequin, a joker, a man who moves from the playing cards into real life and back, so that even Jim can’t handle him. The central character moves off the cards and into the room and out again. It doesn’t make sense, it is not meant to make sense.
The existence of the line, “But she’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts” reinforces the fact – he’s not real, he’s just an image, a wandering man, the drifter, the Mysterious Stranger – a commonplace device in contemporary literature and media. And so it has always been, for in mediaeval literature, we had the Wandering Jew. The point is not to answer the question, “who is this man?”; the point is to ask the question.
It is an approach that is reinforced by the fact that the Jack of Hearts ambiguously turns up at the end of lines…
No, nothing ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts
She was gazing to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts
Down the hallway footsteps were coming for the Jack of Hearts
There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts
And from the missing verse (missing from Blood on the Tracks that is)
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts
and as we approach the end…
The only person on the scene missing was the Jack of Hearts
In many senses the issue of confused identities, confused time, and the stranger who comes in and out of our lives is the theme of Blood on the Tracks. Tangled up in Blues and Simple Twist of Fate both echo this totally. Just think how close in terms of being outside of the touchable world, the woman is in Twist of Fate:
A saxophone some place far off played
As she was walking by the arcade
As the light burst through a beat-up shade where he was waking up,
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate
And then again consider Tangled up in Blue. If you want a contemporary Drifter who comes in and out of our lives and who is endlessly enigmatic consider:
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
In the real, real world who does that?
Thus we see Dylan’s techniques for giving us half-images of the world which he uses on Blood on the Tracks. He confuses people, he mixes up the story, characters come and go, and the sequence of events through time is not adhered to. In short it is a picture drawn in words and music, but always, always, we have the mysterious outsider who comes into our life and turns the whole thing upside down.
That’s just how it goes.
It has only ever been played once live on stage – in 1976.
Here’s the acoustic version
And Joan Baez
You might also enjoy
- Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts: revealing the source of this and other Dylan songs (Part I).
- Bob Dylan And Damon Runyon: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts And Other Songs (Part II)
- Source Of Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts (Part III)
What else is on the site
1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here. A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.