The music and meaning of Bob Dylan’s Early Roman Kings
By Tony Attwood
We’ve got three issues in the lyrics of “Early Roman Kings”. There were Kings in the earliest days of Rome, and there was a gang in the late 1960s early 70s in New York called the Roman Kings. Neither of them were ever called “Early”, but the Kings of Rome did preceed the Republic and the Empire so could possibly be considered to be Early Roman. And for those analyists of Dylan who see religious issues in his songs, we have two books of the Bible – Romans, and Kings.
I think I’ve written enough about my view on the theories that bend Dylan’s writing to religious themes all the time – these views just seem too far fetched to me – so I’ll leave them and focus on the other two options – first the New York gang, and second the origins of the city of Rome, and beyond that the Republic and the Empire. But if you want more on Dylan and religion in his later works try here.
Between 1968 and 1973 there was a huge resurgence of gang warfare in the South Bronx. These gangs didn’t have the same musical and clothing identity as their forebears in the 1950s, for by this time the Bronx was in a desperate state, and these gangs played for survival and dominance, not culture as expressed through clothes, music and style. Indeed it can be argued that the names of the gangs echoed this new reality: Ghetto Brothers, South Skulls, and of course the Roman Kings.
These gangs ruled this part of the city, and the police had lost any vestige of control in the area. The Roman Kings however should not be seen as dominant – they were just one of a number of Italian gangs particularly focussed in North Bronx and they, like the other gangs existed beyond the law taking on the shop owners, the junkies, and the other gangs.
But – and this is the key part in this era of history, if not in Dylan’s song – they were seen by some sociologists at the time and since as a positive factor in the history of New York. Although they perpetrated violence, they also brought a certain order to a part of the city that had been left to collapse by the authorities . In 1972, in a piece that shocked many, the Pete Hammill in the New York Post wrote, “The best single thing that happened on the streets of New York in the last ten years, is the reemergence of the teenage gangs … these young people are standing up for life and if their courage lasts, they will help this city to survive.”
In 1971 several of the gangs came together and agreed a truce which included the Nomads, the Roman Kings, the Black Spades and others. The New York Post covered the event, and once again wrote positively of the gangs. Indeed there are also stories in the press of the police meeting with the gang leaders and trying to work with them, rather than treat them as criminals.
The truce didn’t hold completely, but it did lead the way for a re-establishment of law in the area – although over a long period of time. And as the gangs faded away and the police re-entered the no go areas, a new youth movement was formed which incorporated the gang culture (without violence as the central characteristic) and hip hop.
But the names of the older gangs of New York lived on – even if the gangs themselves were completely reformed in style and identity, and indeed the book Hip Hop Culture names 39 separate gangs – including of course the Roman Kings.
All the early Roman kings
In their sharkskin suits
Bow ties and buttons
High top boots
suggest a hip style of clothing, and I found a commentary on Expecting Rain which says “I remember going to 149th Street and Delancey and getting stitch shirts, alpacas, patch leather jackets, Playboys, and matador pants. I remember the dudes with lizards and alligators who everyone knew afforded them because they dealt some good mota. ”
So I think what Dylan is doing here is pressing together two parts of the Roman Kings existence – the time when they were a gang involved in all out gang warfare, and a time post-truce when they were advocates of style and hip hop.
But is there anything about early Rome in this song?
The Kingdom of Rome was founded by Rumulus (supposedly) in 753BC and existed until 509BC when it was overthrown and replaced by the Republic – the Republic which gave us Cicero and was ultimately overthrown by the dictator Julius Ceaser in 49BC when he crossed the Rubicon.
During the period of the kingdom, the King was the chief magistrate and according to legend there were seven kings, all absolute monarchs controlling the Senate (which ultimately rose up and threw them out). But the twist was the Kings of Rome were actually elected by the people. None of your divine right stuff here.
Dylan’s second verse,
All the early roman kings
In the early early morn
Coming down the mountain
Distributing the corn
sounds like a reference to early Rome, in that the central issue for the city from the very start was the provision of food for the people. If the people started to go hungry there would be a revolution. Indeed the phrase “bread and circuses” relates of course to the provision of food and entertainment for the masses. Without these, it was said, the people would rise up.
The trouble is the third verse
They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers
They buy and they sell
They destroyed your city
They’ll destroy you as well
could quite possibly relate to either explanation for the song, and I think it was when I first heard this verse I reached the conclusion that the song is at least in part about the Republic of Rome. But it is also about word games and funny rhymes. However the Republic of Rome was both a centre of cultural and artistic growth, and of intrigue, and indeed it was a magnificent civilisation destroyed by intrigue and a lust for power.
As for the music, this is much easier to report that the lyrics – it is a classic blues that has been used many, many times before. Think of Bo Diddley singing “I’m a Man” or Muddy Waters singing “Mannish Boy”, or again Willie Dixon singing “Hoochie Coochie Man” in 1954.
And I guess that because of the music I want this song to be about the time before the Republic, simply because telling the history of Rome through the blues is such an amazingly odd idea. I just love the notion.
The fourth verse takes us back to some of the harsher boasting blues songs, to which the music alludes.
If you see me comin’
And you’re standing there
Wave your handkerchief
In the air
This is a reference back to 16 Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford in which he sings
If you see me comin’, better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don’t a-get you
Then the left one will
And the reference to “I ain’t dead yet” is a reference to a documentary by Richard Pryor, not that this helps us much.
But all my explorations of where this leads falls down at the end. Who, we must ask, is supposedly talking with…
You will ask for me
There’ll be no one else
That you’ll wanna see
Bring down my fiddle
Tune up my strings
I’m gonna break it wide open
Like the early roman kings
And then we have something very curious
I was up on black mountain
The day Detroit fell
They killed ’em all off
And they sent ’em to hell
This I guess relates to the Siege of Detroit, (known in the UK sometimes, but probably not in the US, as the Surrender of Detroit) in 1812. The British, with Native American assistance, were greatly outnumbered by American forces but deceived the Americans into thinking that the British force was much larger, and so forced them to surrender.
Dylan does like occasional references to the wars between Britain and America – as with Narrow Way in which he mentions the burning of the White House during the War of Independence. But quite where he is going with these references I am not at all sure.
But then Dylan adds (and here I get the feeling he is deliberately messing me about and telling me to stop trying to be so clever)..
Ding dong daddy
You’re coming up short
Gonna put you on trial
In a Sicilian court
I’ve had my fun
I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake em all down
Like the early Roman kings
In simplistic terms we are back in Italy, but now with the Mafia – who certainly weren’t around in the days of the Kingdom of Rome. Maybe he’s talking about a Mafia connection in New York.
Or maybe he’s just larking about. Maybe the key to the whole song is in those lines
I’ve had my fun
I’ve had my flings
I guess you have Bob.