Early Roman Kings: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

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.

Thus…

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…

One day
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.

Index to all the songs reviewed

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21 Responses to Early Roman Kings: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Sam Chianello says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLt7FCRxyY8

    Tony, I believe Ding Dong Daddy is a sexual reference. Listen to this and see if you agree. SamC

  2. TerraceArchimedes says:

    I think the line “I ain’t dead yet”is reference to Woody Guthrie who gave Dylan a card with those words written on them after they first met.

  3. Gary says:

    I enjoyed the article, so I want to correct small error. The Republic began not in 59BC but in 510BC when the last king Tarquinius was ejected by Lucius Junius Brutus (ancestor- supposedly-of Caesars assassin). It also occurred to me that the line “bring down my fiddle” could refer to the (totally untrue) story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. In a sense it could be argued that the early Julio-Claudian emperors were like early kings of Rome.

  4. Richard Dukes says:

    Let’s not over analyze Bob: He’s an American, living in the last days of America! You can’t really divorce this tune (and let me be one to admit it is the first on the album which caught my attention!) from the entirety of “Tempest”. After listening to the album through several hearings, “Scarlet Town” rose to the foremost of my attention, but always the sinking of the Titanic hung over the brink, like an iceberg.
    In “Early Roman Kings” Bob, it seems to me, is thinking of the end of an era which began in the nineteen fifties through his usual metaphorical eyes. Still, the sinking of the Titanic through the tempest of modern greed sounds like a horn throughout the recording.
    I believe this album is one of those (like ‘Blood on the Tracks’, ‘Empire Burlesque’ and ‘Freewheelin’) that will be remembered. Thanks, Bob.

  5. Ron says:

    Tony,

    Nice article Tony, but just a minor correction. The Roman Kings were a predominantly Puerto Rican (not Italian) gang who’s territory covered the area of 141st street, from St Ann’s Avenue to Cypress Avenue in the Mott Haven section of the south Bronx. I know because I was a Roman King.

    Peace out,

  6. TonyAttwood says:

    ron, thanks for that. You’ll appreciate one of my many problems in writing about things from thousands of miles away!

  7. Browny says:

    Dylan is not a historian, he creates his own world, there is no truth.

  8. Rudy Rucker says:

    Nice work on “Eartly Roman Kings” Tony. I saw Bob sing it live last night, and Googled my way to your article.
    Another couple of thoughts. The reference to the “fiddle” that will “break it wide open” makes me think of the Roman emperor Nero. Bob certainly has a fiddle in his band these days.
    I think there’s some reference to the Roman soldiers crucifying Jesus as well. “Tomorrow is Friday /We’ll see what it brings” and “I can dress up your wounds / With a blood-clotted rag”
    There’s also a Mafia thing in “You try to get away / They drag you back,” as in nobody quits the Mob.
    And, as you say, part of the song is just Dylan being glad to still be tearin’ it up. “I ain’t dead / My bell still rings”

  9. Dirk Weiss says:

    “Ding Dong Daddy” is also a reference to a song performed by both Bob Wills and Louis Armstrong back in the 30’s or thereabouts. There was also an infamous cable car conductor in San Francisco who was arrested for the crime of having 9 wives back in the 1940’s–he was referred to as “Ding Dong Daddy” in the local media.
    I always thought the references to Detroit are primarily about how the city has been abandoned and fallen on such hard times, economically speaking, over the last 10-20 years.

  10. Jim says:

    Just became familiar with this song today, watching youtube of Bob in Japan in 2016. Thanks for the thought-provoking comments.

  11. Mr Jones says:

    I cannot help but to think, every time I listen to this song, that this is about things that had happened not too long ago in Wall Street and the guys who did them.

  12. Joe Lubow says:

    Thanks for this. You really should correct the date for the end of the Republic though; instead of nearly five centuries, you’ve got the republic lasting ten years. The last Roman King, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was killed in 509 BC, and the Republic lasted from that time until either, as you say, 49 BC with the crossing of the Rubicon in , or as some texts have it, in 27 BC with the Senate granting Octavius the title of Augustus.

    I’m sure you just missed the “0” in 509.

  13. TonyAttwood says:

    Very many thanks Joe – yep, I made a typing error, and by no means the first on this site. I’ll go and change it now.

  14. ron horan says:

    one day you will ask for me
    there will be no one else
    that you will wanna see

    for me this is judgement day
    G.F.C. money makers and movers
    drug cartel Kings
    (most obviously )
    Mafia bosses

  15. Hello Tony, yes another fine analysis of a song from from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/177/Early-Roman-Kings Join us inside and listen to every version of every song.

  16. Richard Leslie says:

    When you use and cite the work of others, in this case Jeff Chang’s 2005 “Cant’ Stop, Won’t Stop,” give them a nod. Thanks

  17. TonyAttwood says:

    Richard Leslie: the source you citation is not one that I know, and so if I have quoted directly from it, then I guess it has happened because something else I was reading when working on this review mentioned it and either didn’t quote the source, or it did, and I made a mistake and lost the citation in all the coming and going that involves writing these reviews. It would be most helpful, so I can correct the situation, if you could supply details of what it is that is quoted then I can change the review and ensure that due recognition is given. It will also help me check to see how the mistake was made so if I have used a source that itself has not cited a source it used, I can ensure I don’t use them again.

  18. Spence says:

    I think the first half of the song deals with tyrannical self-interested people, while the second half is from the perspective of liberty. I think the message is that liberty will prevail in the end. It could be interpreted as relating to the state of America, being dominated by large capitalists and the struggle of the common people against rising inequality.

    In the first half of the song, The Roman Kings could be akin to greedy and materialist people. The freedom of the people suffers under their dominance.

    In verse one, the kings drive spikes in and create trains/industry. They have suits and bury themselves in coffins in their fancy top hats. Similar to how kings would be buried with their riches. They clearly value wealth and industry. The nails in the coffin line could be interpreted that they are burying themselves, sowing seeds of their own destruction with their greed.

    Fly by night is to avoid responsibility. The bird could be the American eagle of freedom. The kings are telling freedom to fly away, to avoid responsibility to the people, just like they are.

    The next verse has the kings distributing the wealth, but wealth they control. The kings also collect taxes besides distributing the corn. They will race through the forest and down the track on their trains. They control all of the land from up on the mountain, and there is no escape from their control.

    Tomorrow is Friday could be the death of Jesus, as a death of goodwill and the dominance of greed/sin. It could also reference black Friday and materialism.

    The next verse continues materialist themes, with them being smugglers, buying and selling. They will destroy YOUR city seems to reference the common people. These greedy people will destroy the ideal democratic polis. The one king is bigger than all men put together, as in the power of the people is not being realized. Although the people could be stronger, the will of one is currently overriding it.

    The women go crazy for the kings shows how culture idolizes materialism, and people who achieve it, above all else.

    So in the first half of the song we see materialist and greedy kings have control of the land, at the expense of freedom and liberty. The American bird has flown away

    The second half of the song appears to be from the perspective of liberty. Significantly the perspective has changed from 3rd person to 1st.

    Liberty isn’t dead, her bell still rings. Although the situation is bad, she has her fingers crossed. Just like the kings do, because they know things could change. Liberty says to wave a flag if you see her coming, because she is powerful and can beat the kings. She will make love to anyone. She takes care of people with bloody rags. She has been taking care of people in their struggles a long time.

    She can kill powerful leaders, strip them of life. One day they will ask for freedom but won’t get it. Nero was a tyrannical emperor. He increased taxes and starving people revolted. He ended up killing himself, and there is the legend of him playing the fiddle while Rome burned. Liberty says it is her fiddle. Nero was killed because the people weren’t free and rebelled. Now in America the people aren’t doing so well. She is stringing up her fiddle and is going to break the whole thing wide open in rebellion.

    The fiddle could also reference Dylan as a messenger for liberty. He is playing the fiddle and singing the song of the time, making the call for liberty.

    Black mountain is a dirty mountain of tar sands waste in Detroit. Which could add to the materialist imagery. But this story seems to have broken in 2013, after Tempest. In the siege of Detroit in 1812 the Americans outnumbered the British, but surrendered due to deception and fear. Liberty was there and watched this happen. This could reference how the people outnumber the kings but are not acting, and have let them take over. Ding dong daddy is an old song with a narrator that sells drugs and is violent. If a ding dong daddy is another name for the greedy king, Liberty is saying that the king is coming up short. Liberty will put the king on trial in a Sicilian court, possibly a mafia reference. Where the mob will rise up and kill the king.

    I’ve had my fun/flings could be how people have been distracted and just enjoying the pleasures of the materialist culture, while neglecting democratic goals. But now it is time to shake down the kings.

    So in the second half we see that although the Kings run the show, Liberty isn’t dead. Liberty has been watching while the Kings took over, but is now ready to shake things up.

  19. Spence says:

    Alternatively the second half change in perspective could be from a 3rd person description of the kings of society, to a 1st person perspective from the king him/herself. In this way, the second half would be 1st person boasting by the king about their dominance. And in this way Liberty would never be a part of the song. It would be a more pessimistic view. Only Dylan knows :p

  20. steven cleaves says:

    The idea that Dylan is writing a specific chronological history is way off the mark. He’s ‘a poet and he knows it ‘ weaving many lines into a coherent theme of man’s……..fill in the blank

  21. David Kingston says:

    The song refers to many things – old historical kings right through to today’s greedy investment bankers. Bob’s songs transcend time and space, and to try to affix some sort of coherent “meaning” truly cheapens them. I hear different things every time I hear them. I thought we got past the “decoding his true message” stuff decades ago……

    Read Chronicles, and once you understand what Bob learned about collapsing time and space within in his canvas work, you’ll understand that he also doesn’t treat song lyrics in a linear way, and nor should we. It’s a mug’s game.

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