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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14 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

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