Bob Dylan: Lord Thomas, Lady Brown, Fair Eleanor, And The Tin Angel

Bob Dylan: Lord Thomas, Lady Brown, Fair Eleanor, And The Tin Angel

by Larry Fyffe

The fact that the Untold Offices in London are left in a dismal, unkempt state at the end of each workday turns out to be a blessing in disguise. While straightening up a desk in the Archives Department, a cleaning lady uncovers a notebook that, at one time, belongs to Bob Dylan.

The notebook reveals a heretofore unknown source (as well as others sources already known) Dylan uses to inspire the dark lyrics in his Gothic ballad ‘Tin Angel’ – the tragic, traditional ballad ‘Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor’. Therein, Lord Thomas and Eleanor are in love, but his mother insists that her son marry Lady Brown because she’s got money.

In ‘Tin Angel’, the wife of the Boss rides off with the Chief of a Scottish clan:

You got something to tell me, tell it to me, man
Come to the point as straight as you can
‘Old Henry Lee, Chief of the clan
Came riding through the woods and took her hand’
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

As he often does, Dylan re-arranges the faces of the characters in the plot and gives them new names. In the original ballad, fair Eleanor (not the Boss) rides off in search of the missing loved one:

She clothed herself in gallant attire
And her merry men all was seen
And as she rode through every place
They took her to be a queen
(Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor)

That same ballad, Bob Dylan alludes to in another one of his narrative songs:

Rosemary combed her hair and took
a carriage into town
She slipped in through the side door, looking
like a queen without a crown
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts)

There’s a second reference to ‘Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor’ in ‘The Jack Of Hearts’ saga – Unfaithful to his wife Rosemary, ‘Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back’:

This Brown girl had a little penknife
Which was both keen and sharp
And betwixt the short ribs and long
She pricked fair Eleanor to the heart
(Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor)

Now back to ‘Tin Angel’ – Seems Henry gets knifed in the heart by the wife of the Boss after the Chief of the clan kills her husband. Note the tribute paid to the old ballad that I call the ‘Dylanesque end-rhyme twist’ – ‘knee’/ ‘see ‘ – when Henry threatens the wife of the Boss:

I’d have given you the stars and the planets too
But what good would these things do?
Bow your heart if not your knee
Or never again this world, you’ll see
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

Henry Lee, and fair Eleanor suffer the same fate, and same end-rhyme:

‘Oh art thou blind, Lord Thomas’, said she
‘Or can’t thou not very well see
Oh dost thou not see my own heart’s blood
Run trickling down my knee?’
(Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor).

The Chief disparages the Boss as an inferior – for his being a mere member of the clan:

‘Oh my dear you must be blind
He’s a gutless ape with a worthless mind’
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

With his sword, Lord Thomas cuts off Lady Brown’s head; then kills himself:

Oh dig my grave, Lord Thomas replied
Dig it both wide and deep
And lay fair Eleanor by my side
And the Brown girl at my feet
(Lord Thomas And Fair Eleanor)

The wife of the Boss kills herself too. It’s assonance everywhere, and a tragic tale of a love triangle:

She touched his lips and kissed his cheek
He tried to speak, but his breath was weak
‘You died for me, now I’ll die for you’
She put the blade to her heart, and she
ran it through
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

Bringing it all back home to Scarlet Town:

O father, father, come dig my grave
Dig it wide and narrow
Poor William died for me today
I’ll die for him tomorrow
(Bob Dylan: Barbara Allen – traditional)

And so ends Dylan’s sad song:

All three lovers together in a heap
Thrown into the grave, forever to sleep
Funeral torches blazed away
Through the town and the village
all night and all day
(Bob Dylan: Tin Angel)

What else is on the site?

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains links to reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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.

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3 Responses to Bob Dylan: Lord Thomas, Lady Brown, Fair Eleanor, And The Tin Angel

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    * ……this world you’ll see …… no comma

    **Dylan does not make it all that clear who is disparaging whom …the Boss could well be insulting Henry

    The reference is to Poe’s ‘Murders In the Rue Morgue’ in which an orangutan turns out to be the killer -‘gutless ape”

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Likewise, the Boss could well be threatening his wife – “I’d have given you the stars…”

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    Well, you got something to say, speak now or hold your peace (Bob Dylan: Summer Days)

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