Bob Dylan’s “Drifter’s Escape”: the meanings, and the reinterpretations.

By Tony Attwood

Updated September 2018 with the addition of Thea Gilmore version at the end – if you are here, do listen.  And April 2019 to replace broken link, plus 4 March 2020 to include the Woody Guthrie reference

When John Wesley Harding was released I must admit I was disappointed with it.  A lot of the songs sounded, well (dare I say it?) unexciting.

But three songs stood out: “I’ll be your baby tonight,” “All along the watchtower,” and above all, “Drifter’s Escape,” recorded on October 17, 1967

And “Drifter’s Escape” totally bemused me.  I loved it, played it and played it, but I kept on wondered why.  What makes this song so special, so important, so amazing?

Here it is


The music of Drifter’s Escape is so simple.  Just two rotating chords and two short lines of melody, alternating.  How simple can you get?

But it works and works and works.  So again I ask why?  And how?  In a real sense the answer is explored in the Thea Gilmore version that I have added at the end – you might want to set that a-playing while you read on.  I find it helps.

First, the central theme – the drifter – is one that is central to Dylan’s muse. Dylan loves the hobo, the wanderer, and sees him as central to the traditions of American society.  Just think back to Restless Farewell, and to go further, go back to its source.

But the bottles are done And we’ve killed every one And the table’s full and overflowed And the corner sign Says it’s closing time So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road…

But now in this song the drifter is caught – trapped up somehow in a legal process he doesn’t understand and can’t comprehend.   The world is just going round and round and round – and that is the triumph of the music, that never varying pair of lines and rotating bass.  The music rotates as the drifter’s world rotates.

“Oh, help me in my weakness”
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away
“My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one
And my time it isn’t long
And I still do not know
What it was that I’ve done wrong”

Incidentally that last part comes from Woody Guthrie’s “Buffalo Skinner”:

Our trip it was a pleasant one
As we hit the Westward Row
Until we struck ol’ Boggy Creek
In old New Mexico

There is a stunning poetic beauty here, because we can picture the scene, AND comprehend what the man is feeling – the complete lack of control of his life, lack of understanding of what has happened to him.   How could it come to this?  There is no way out, the music goes around and around.

But curiously the Drifter has a friend in the courtroom – the judge.   The jury, representing the crowd outside are baying for blood.  The man is clearly set up as a fall guy.

Why is he disliked?  Because he is dirty, a traveller, ignorant, illiterate, uneducated, the wrong colour, the wrong race, with the wrong accent?  Any or all of those.  Just another dirty hobo.

But the judge knows there is a miscarriage of justice going on here.

Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
“You fail to understand,” he said
“Why must you even try?”

But the judge is powerless in the face of court process and the law.  And when even the judge can’t help against an obvious miscarriage of justice you know we are all in trouble.  And the mob is demanding blood.   We are back in the territory of, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.”

Outside, the crowd was stirring
You could hear it from the door
Inside, the judge was stepping down
While the jury cried for more

But even here in these last desperate moments, there are still a few good people around, people who care about civil rights, about dignity, about humanity, and above all perhaps, about our right to be different.

“Oh, stop that cursed jury,”
Cried the attendant and the nurse
“The trial was bad enough
But this is ten times worse”

And then Dylan has his fun.  God, or chance, or fate, or something of the kind, steps down, and intervenes.

Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while everybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

In a sense it is funny, a throw away, and (yes I admit it Heylin got it right) a 300 page novel told in 24 lines and two chords.  It is the nightmare of Kafka, surreal, inescapable, the evil power overtaking us and we just can’t get out, except by chance.  The horror dream where the world is out of control.

Maybe that is why I have loved the song from the off – it helps me come to terms with a world ruled by crazy chance.  It is not a conspiracy, it is, by and large, just one set of mistakes after another.  And why all these decades later I can come back and love it again with the Thea Gilmore re-interpretation.

And those two simple musical lines add to the horror – I am trapped, nothing changes, there is no way out, oh, actually here it is… except that the music doesn’t change.  I’m out, but still in the same world… the nightmare is eternal.

It is of course possible to see a parallel here between Dylan’s own image of himself as a drifter in personal and musical terms, and the way the world treated him.  Dylan’s drifting has none of the pejorative terms that we associate with drifting, not at all.  It is drifting as in a choice – a chosen way of moving along.  “Gotta keep moving, blues falling down like hail.”

Of course many in our society prefer the fixed and known.  As when the folk fans didn’t like it when he turned to rock n roll, and now, what were the fans of Blonde on Blonde going to make of this album?  Shock, horror, Dylan’s gone Old Testament.

But change is always an option especially for the artist.  It is part of what makes us what we are.  Dylan drifts, but out of positive choice.

For me, as I got to grips with my love of the song on the release of the album and coming back to it again now, there is a duality here that I love.  Dylan has no faith in the mob – I can’t think of any moment in any song in which he does feel the crowd is right.
At the same time he has this deep feeling for the individual – the right of the individual to do his thing – while endlessly thinking of the way the social, political and economic system can and will always let people down.

This is in fact Hollis Brown finding his way out.  Hollis Brown found no escape except through murder and suicide.  But the drifter finds that chance forced him (probably) into poverty, and onto the road, but now chance gets him out of poverty and into a new escape.

Famously, Dylan never played “Drifter’s Escape” at a concert – and as I said in the original review of  this song “most likely because it would be impossible to do anything with the song other than sing it straight as on the album – without losing the context of what it was about.”  But that was before I heard Thea Gilmore take it on with such aplomb.

But when Dylan did perform it in 1992, after the Rodney King trial, he was ready to change the meaning to make it fit the new judicial political situation.  Indeed, I suspect some people who have come to the song since 1992 and not known about its origins may well have thought that Dylan was writing about Rodney King.  (May I add before I go on, what I am writing below is a very brief summary, and I am sure that it is far from an accurate precis.  It is here just to give an immediate context – you can of course look up the full details on any one of a thousand web sites).

Rodney King, I should explain, particularly if you are not an American citizen (the story inevitably made less impact in the UK, where I live) was a construction worker who having been involved in a car chase with the police was beaten by police officers upon his arrest.  The beating was filmed.

The trial of the police officers took place amid very heightened tensions in Los Angeles and the outcome of finding the officers not guilty created further intense problems and rioting.  In later trials two of the four officers were found guilty and two were again found not guilty.

Interestingly, despite its musical simplicity, some other artists have taken up the song and performed it, and for a while Dylan himself even played it as an opening song on tour.

You might also like the Patti Smith version on You Tube (Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International) which I find very attractive.


Then there is Hendrix



but that link is here, just in case it helps.  It is not a recommendation.  Neither is the Joan Baez version on Baez sings Dylan.  I really can’t imagine what she, or her musical director, was thinking about.  Of all the alternative versions Patti Smith remained the only one that really gets to the heart of the matter in my view until Jochen pointed out the version below.

And here is the one just has just knocked me out.  Very many thanks to Jochen Markhorst  for mentioning it in his review of John Wesley Harding

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+ Dylan compositions reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains 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 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.


  1. Dylan tears into the Bible to demonstrate he’s not going to suffer Jesus’ fate.
    Before dogma sets in, Biblical stories are open to interpretation.
    A Jesus supporter smites a servant of the High Priests, Jesus gets arrrested, takes the ‘fifth’ but smart mouths the magistrate, who wanting to wash his hands of the whole thing, dresses Jesus up as ‘King of the Jews”, tricking the previously reluctant crowd to go along with the self-interests of the Priests. In the end, everyone gets to be a participant in God’s initial plan(like the story of Eli and Samuel). God works in mysterious ways, that’s for sure.

  2. You got it good, however you made a huge sophomoric blunder… you fail to understand why must you even try? The judge’s tear is not a real one, tis’ but a crocodile tear. He’s no friend to the drifter. Hell no, he is Judge Elihu Smails, “I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn’t want to do it. I felt I owed it to them.”

    Otherwise, good work breaking it down.

  3. I’ve been a christian most of my life. As then and still now I see this song as the story of Jesus suffering and death. I still understand that everyone will read as they will.their are so many points in the lurks, I really don’t understand why others don’t see that. oh I take that back… if people knew the bible,,, I’ll give just the words of most of the song that guild my understanding. the attendent and the nurse????? just then a bolt of litening tore the cort house all apart?????. the drifter did excape.???? the judge washing his hands????the crowd, the crewsifixion,?????.. dylon is trying to get people to think for themselves. if interested read your bible. hopefully theirs one out there that will. I’m not use to commenting. God bless you all

  4. i disagree on the role the judge plays. He does not say “you fail to understand”. Instead he says ” you would fail to understand””. There is a big difference. Now the judge denies him ( the drifter) the capacity to understand so he takes a very arrogant stand against him : he leaves him allone.
    this judge is the enemy, iot the friend.

  5. Dylan seems to be imagining himself as Hank Williams or Luke the Drifter. On JWH the song follows Frankie Lee and Judas Priest which to me sounds, in parts, like a Luke the Drifter song with its moral lesson in the last verse.

  6. the trouble is Bert that the official website of Dylan – which is the closest thing we have to a definitive text says

    Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
    A tear came to his eye
    “You fail to understand,” he said
    “Why must you even try?”

    As I understand it, the lyrics to songs at this time were taken from Dylan’s lyric sheets, so I don’t think they were just listening and didn’t hear – as I understand it they copied the lyrics from Bob’s own notes.

  7. There’s nothing definitive about the texts on Dylan’s official website, and no point in referring to them to settle textual issues. Their relation to the words as sung, or to the words as Dylan wrote them, is a mystery and a mess. Some of the texts probably do come from Dylan himself, perhaps from his notebooks, perhaps from lyric sheets he provided. But they might be quite different from what he actually decided to sing. Others most certainly do not come from him; they’re transcriptions by somebody else. He approved them, in the sense that he let them be posted, but he clearly didn’t help with them. The only definitive text is what he happens to sing in a given performance of a given song. But it’s definitive only for that performance, and doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on other performances. For example: On the album version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” the version of the song that all other versions refer back to, he sings “You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you.” But on later takes during the same session, it’s “when they all came down to do tricks for you”; and that’s the way he’s done it in performance ever since. So what’s the definitive lyric? For another example: On the New York version of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” it’s a cold revolver that clicks. On the Minneapolis version, I’m fairly sure it’s a Colt revolver. The lyrics on come from the New York version, even though it’s never been officially released. Are those lyrics definitive? If I’m right about that word being “Colt,” is that word NOT definitive, even though it’s on the official recording of the song? And if someone wanted to show that I’m wrong, that it’s “cold” in both of them, could they use the printed lyrics to prove it?

    In any case, my ears tell me that what the judge says isn’t “You fail to understand” OR “You would fail to understand.” It’s “You’d fail to understand.” Parse away.

  8. I don’t know about you, but I have had my eyes shut for a fraction of a second while driving tired. Maybe you haven’t had that happen, but my guess is that sometime in decades of driving you’ve had something happen where somebody could have been killed. (Maybe you never even noticed that it happened, which wouldn’t change the point.) In which case, you are EXACTLY as guilty, in your chosen actions, as Percy’s friend. But by mere luck, you didn’t cause that kind of accident. So, should you turn yourself in now for a 99-year sentence? Even if you are one of the very few who never had such an incident, should every one of the many millions of people who have had them do so?

  9. But they cried out the more
    Saying, “Let him be crucified”
    (Matthew 27:23)

  10. At the time of Jesus’ death, I believe the Temple was “rent in two”. When I first heard these lyrics in the early 70’s, I was in my early 20’s and was a BIG fan of Dylan. When I head those lyrics, my first thought was about “Luke, The Drifter”. I was also a HUGE fan of Hank Williams and had all his albums. I thought about the Drifter and his plight. He had done something that others thought was wrong, yet he didn’t understand what it was, and neither did I. I thought how many times I have made mistakes and escaped (a friend, parents, baby sitters, teachers, police, a boss, etc.) under the radar and the relief I felt. It didn’t just have to be a legal matter. Now I am in my 70’s and wonder what my life would have been like if I had NOT escaped so many times. I guess there is something to mercy, a bolt out of the blue, sometimes. Thank you for this article.

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