Walls of Red Wing: the meanings and origins of Bob Dylan’s song

by Tony Attwood

For me, “Walls of Red Wing” is a plodding protest song about the fact that whether you end up rich and famous or locked up in a prison, or indeed a reform centre for naughty school boys, is as much a matter of chance as anything else.

I think what has made it attractive to some Dylan fans is the fact that a) he sang it autobiographically a few times in his early performances (the official site suggest just three times, but others seem to think he played it more often and b) it could actually be autobiographical.

So was Dylan shut up in a remand centre for 12 to 17 year olds?  Sorting that out is the sort of thing I will willingly leave to Heylin, and his answer is ambiguous.

Certainly Dylan did have a time in his teenage years when he seemed not to be around much, and this is exactly the sort of story that Larry Haugen needed to put in his book “Red Wing, a Year and a Day”.  There’s also an account of what could be Dylan’s time in a school for naughty kids in a document from Sue Rotolo’s collection.

But it is all pretty sketchy, and knowing how able Dylan was to invent a past for himself to fit his rambling lifestyle, and to identify with his heroes of yesteryear, I am personally not convinced (not that my view matters of course).

The song is pretty much based on “Only a hobo” and the Scottish ballad “The road and the miles to Dundee”, but it is the opening lines of Dylan’s song which make it so determindly plodding:

Oh, the age of the inmates
I remember quite freely:
No younger than twelve
No older ’n seventeen
Thrown in like bandits
And cast off like criminals
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

The problem for me is that although Dylan is saying “I remember quite freely” there is no real personal engagement and emotion that comes across in the song.  The beat just goes on and on, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 and so on.  It is hard to put much emotion into something so plodding, which allows for no variation, no blues, no swing, no off-beat, and no exciting melody, any of which can make the folk-blues-rock tradition become alive.

It is of course a reflection of the youths who were held in Red Wing

Too weary to talk
And too tired to sing

and the fact that there is no hope of salvation beyond pure chance.

To his absolute credit Dylan does tackle the hardest of subject matters for any song: abuse…

It’s many a guard
That stands around smilin’
Holdin’ his club
Like he was a king
Hopin’ to get you
Behind a wood pilin’
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

But in the end the pure fatalism, the giving in to whatever life throws at you, doesn’t allow much else to happen in the song.

Oh, some of us’ll end up
In St. Cloud Prison
And some of us’ll wind up
To be lawyers and things
And some of us’ll stand up
To meet you on your crossroads
From inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

Compare the delivery with Only a Hobo and you’ll see that Bob could do much more with this material

 

But more to the point, if you listen to this version of The Road and the Miles to Dundee below, you’ll hear how it is possible to put more life into the song.  So my guess is  that Bob did want the piece to be as depressing and doom laden as possible it was all part of his experimentation.   However I feel that at this stage of his writing he didn’t have the experience to pull it off.  It was not far away as the list of other songs written at this time shows, so to my mind this was just an experiment in doom that didn’t quite work.

One can say, yes it is meant to be depressing, but writing a depressing song and making us want to listen, is quite a skill, and Bob just didn’t get it right, in my estimation.

Here’s the “Road and the miles”

I don’t think this was on the Corries album “Strings and Things” so if you are thinking of getting an album of Corries songs, it is worth checking which song is where.  If you find this enjoyable, leave it running – it’s really worth it just to be reminded of what the Corries could do.

The general agreement is that Dylan wrote Red Wing at the time shown in this list:

If this is right (and there is some suggestion that the song was actually written earlier) it is strange because there is such a mastery of the medium in the songs around this one, that Red Wing seems very out of place.  Which is probably the main reason to think it was written earlier.

But Bob was forever the experimenter, so it is possible this positioning is right.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on 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.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

 

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2 Responses to Walls of Red Wing: the meanings and origins of Bob Dylan’s song

  1. Kieran says:

    It’s not a great song but he was mooching around pilfering and myth-making, and writing great lines, and generally behaving like an old fogey folk singer, and this early period of his work is brilliant, imho. He’s forming himself, and winging it, and he wrote dozens of folk songs like this around then – some you’ve listed above – and they’re almost like a whole other body of work, within his early stuff. Glad you discussed this one!

  2. Tor Lindbloom says:

    I love the last stanza of this song, and I do not see any fatalism in the young speaker connecting with the others in his situation and looking towards their lives and future possibilities once out of Red Wing.

    While the phrase “wind up” may seem a bit fatalistic, I think the point made by the speaker here is that he and his fellow juvenile delinquents are not bound by fate at all, or by the low expectations that society has of them. Yes, he admits that some will continue to be incarcerated, but others will break out of this cycle and go so far as to become leading members of society. Then the speaker warns the listener that shutting out these young people, underestimating or ignoring them would be a mistake, since some will “meet you on your crossroads,” which could be taken as a veiled threat, but also simply can be an expression of a great truth, that we never know who might play an important role in our lives, so it is best to never be dismissive of anyone.

    Quite a powerful (and even inspirational) ending to the song.

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