Dylan’s “Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”. An accumulation of non-sequiturs

by Jochen Markhorst

In Martin Popoff’s Judas Priest – Heavy Metal Painkillers (2007), one of the founders of the band, Al Atkins, reveals how they got that band name:

“Bruno, the bass guitarist in Judas Priest #1, came up with the idea when looking for something similar to the Black Sabbath name which we liked at the time. He got it from a Bob Dylan album called John Wesley Harding—the song was ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’. The curious moniker can be looked upon as a mild exclamation, or the duality of good and bad, Judas being a betrayer of Christ, a priest being a proponent thereof. Just on its own, the religious tone of the name carried a sort of ominous weight.”

… hitting the nail on the head. This plays out in 1969, and in those years it is trendy to invent a kind of contradictio in terminis as a band name, preferably absurd dualities. So a zeppelin is made of lead, a butterfly is made of iron and an alarm clock is made of strawberry. Metal bands are fond of religious, satanic and dark connotations, resulting in names like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Lucifer’s Friend.

Equally, Dylan the Song Poet is attracted to the alienating effect that can be caused by a loaded name. He is chased away from a nice girl by her boyfriend Achilles, a nun is called Jezebel, a neighbour Tom Paine, he marries Isis and a flirty street sweeper is called Cinderella. But even in that – endless – row of alienating names, “Judas Priest” has a special, eccentric power.

Dylan probably already knows the word combination as a civilized expletive, as a “mild exclamation”, as Al Atkins calls it; instead of taking His name in vain, like “Jesus Christ!” or “God Almighty!”, some decent Christians prefer to use the less blasphemous “Judas Priest!”. Main characters in the plays of Sam Shepard, for example (first in Operation Sidewinder from 1970, later also in Buried Child, ’78).

Language artist Dylan appreciates, just like hard rock singer Al Atkins does two years later, the inner tension and chooses to elevate the decent curse to the name of a protagonist in his ballad.

“Frankie Lee” is less traceable. Dylan’s first association is probably Lightnin’ Hopkins cousin, Frankie Lee Sims, of whom he will play “Lucy Mae Blues” and “Walkin’ With Frankie” some forty years later in Theme Time Radio Hour. And in the second instance perhaps the murderer of “Little Sadie”, Lee Brown; yes sir, my name is Lee – maybe he is even called Frankie Lee Brown.

But both associations the bard probably only has afterwards, reading back – more likely is that the artist chooses an everyday, colourless name as a contrast for that exorbitant “Judas Priest”. A Midwestern, farm boy’s name, such as “Lucy Mae” or “Bobby Jean” or “Billie Joe”. After all, in the ballad Frankie Lee is the somewhat simple loser who goes down, Judas Priest the mysterious, stable counterforce.

“The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” is the first song Dylan records for John Wesley Harding and probably the first song he writes for it. The elaboration and the length differ considerably from the other eleven songs and the song comes close to Dylan’s own understanding of a classical ballad:

“When they were singing years ago, it would be as entertainment… a fellow could sit down and sing a song for half an hour, and everybody could listen, and you could form opinions. You’d be waiting to see how it ended, what happened to this person or that person. It would be like going to a movie.”

(interview with John Cohen, summer of ’68)

Dylan thinks of epic songs, of the long, drawn-out, narrative ballads, rhyming stories to music, such as “Beowulf” and the Broadsides. The song “John Wesley Harding” was set up like that too, as he explains in ’69 to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner: “You know, a real long ballad.”

In the end most of the “ballads” on John Wesley Harding become compressed, parable-like songs of three couplets, more lyrical than epic, which have hardly any common ground with the classical ballads. Only Frankie Lee and Judas Priest still does. Somewhat, at least: it is real long. Well, quite long, anyway.

Yet even with this real long ballad, it is not so much the narrative component that dominates, but that parable character. In the same interview with John Cohen, Dylan himself is a bit shy about his knowledge of, or his click with, parables:

JC: “That’s why I gave you Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes, because those stories really get to the heart of the matter, and yet you can never really decipher them.”
BD: “Yes, but the only parables that I know are the Biblical parables. I’ve seen others. Khalil Gibran perhaps… It has a funny aspect to it – you certainly wouldn’t find it in the Bible – this type of soul. Now Mr. Kafka comes off a little closer to that.”

“A funny aspect”. Funny? That again indicates a strange sort of congeniality with Kafka. We know from the great Prague writer that he classifies some dialogues, plot twists or situations in his own work as “funny”, have been intended as a joke, situations that the average reader would qualify as lurid, uncomfortable or cruel.

In contrast to Kafka and Dylan, the Biblical parables are usually not too enigmatic, at least: not intrinsic. Jesus’ parables follow a normal cause-and-effect structure, the action and the plot are clear and logical. A sower sows his seed. Some seed grains end up on rocky soil. Those seeds will not grow and bear no fruit. The other seeds fall on good soil and will bear fruit (Luke 8). No surprises, no absurdities. Problems only arise with the interpretation of the chosen metaphor, are text external.

Dylan’s lyrics on John Wesley Harding follow Kafka’s narrative style: the problems start text-internally. Actions, dialogues and plot turns evade everyday expectations and patterns. A traveler asking the way is laughed at by the police officer (Gib’s auf!). A gentleman who wants to leave is stopped by his servant, who demands to know where his lordship thinks he is going (Der Aufbruch). When Gregor’s parents bump into a monstrous giant insect in their son’s bedroom, they do not think: what is this beast doing here, where is our son? Bizarrely, they think: dear God, our son has turned into a beetle (Die Verwandlung).

Because of Kafka’s factual, recording style, the reader at first does not notice the illogic in the opponents’ actions – thus making the evoked anxiety elusive and all the more nerve-wracking.

In “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” Dylan applies the same technique. Just like with Kafka, the logic derails right from the start. Frankie Lee needs money, his friend Judas Priest pulls out a roll of banknotes. But then: Judas puts the money “on a footstool just above the plotted plains.” A bizarre, unreal location determination. Next, Frankie’s actions are disconcerting. Word choice and the continuation of the dialogue suggest that it is important which of the ten-dollar banknotes Frankie will choose now. “Make a choice,” says Judas. Frankie assumes a thoughtful pose (“put his fingers to his chin”), but is unable to choose as long as Judas is watching. Judas is lenient and willing to wait somewhere else, but again underlines that he has some concern regarding which specific banknotes Frankie chooses: “You’d better hurry up and choose which of those bills you want” – as if one ten-dollar bill is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’.

This psychedelic above the plotted plains is still Dylanesque. It is comparable to illogical location indications such as inside of Mobile, or up on Housing Project Hill, or along the watchtower, or underneath the apple suckling tree – locations that can only be found on the map of La La Land, due to semantics or incorrect prepositions.

Kafkaesque, however, is the consequence with which the incongruence (the apparent importance of the “right” banknotes) by both protagonists is maintained as an obviousness. It clashes with the sense of reality of the reader / listener, thus creating discomfort.

The following verses deepen this discomfort by assigning “improper” qualifications to the dialogue. Judas says that he will wait for Frankie Lee later on, in “Eternity”. “Eternity?” Frankie asks, with “a voice as cold as ice”

A voice as cold as ice? Words can be “cold”, a look, even a character, but a “cold voice” should be something like an unfriendly, unsympathetic voice – Darth Vader, something like that. And also in terms of content unfitting. “Surprised” or “amused” or “shocked” – those are qualifications that would match the tone of Frankie’s verification question, not “unfriendly”.

“Cold” would at least content-wise be appropriate to the following response from Frankie. “Yes, Eternity,” says Judas, “though you might call it ‘Paradise’.”

That does sound a little condescending, and Frankie’s reply is accordingly defensive: “I don’t call it anything” – this time he does not sound “cold” however, but rather says it “with a smile”.

After that, it only gets more tumultuous. Frankie is sitting there on his own, presumably staring at that roll of banknotes, and feels “low and mean” for unclear reasons. A stranger does not just come in, no, he “bursts upon the scene” and approaches Frankie with the wondrous question whether he is “Frankie the gambler, whose father is deceased” – if so: one Priest calls for him, a little down the road. Surprisingly, Frankie replies that he “recalls this Priest very well” – as if it had been years since he last saw him – to add immediately: “In fact, he just left my sight.” Peculiar way to express that someone has just left the room, even more curious after the previous communication that he has not yet forgotten Priest.

On the narrative level, the poet has shifted up a gear again. The derailments are no longer from one sentence to the next, but even within one and the same sentence it starts to grind, logic is lost. Frankie speaks this ambivalent sentence with – incomprehensible – “fear”. To which the stranger replies, just as inconceivably, “as quiet as a mouse” (“Yes, that’s the one”).

We are halfway through, a stylistical rollover is ahead, with this accelerated sequence of incongruities. Time for a breather, for a fermate. The poet Dylan feels that too. The seventh verse is on a substantive level driven and hectic, but syntactically “calm”; Frankie’s actions follow a recognizable logic and a normal pattern (he panics, drops everything, runs in the right direction and finds Judas). The dialogue then is coherent – Frankie’s question is appropriate (“What kind of house is this?”), Judas’ answer is surprising, but not unrealistic (“This is not a house, but a home”).

After the fermate we can return to Full Kafka Mode. In couplets 8, 9 and 10 the mismatches tumble over each other again. On Judas’ quasi-ambiguous, little spectacular correction that he is not standing in front of a house, but in front of a home, a trembling Frankie “loses all control over everything he has made” while the “mission bells” sound.

The dreamlike, Kafkaesque atmosphere now being evoked is enhanced by the shadowy, unreal shifts in time and place. In couplets 6 and 7 it is suggested that Frankie and Judas see each other again and converse in the strange house, but in couplet 8 they are suddenly back on the street in front of that same house. It seems to be a brothel – the description (“bright as a sun”) refers to the most famous brothel in art history, The House Of The Rising Sun and behind the twenty-four windows are twenty-four ladies.

Equally unreal is the subsequent time warp. In Frankie Lee’s reality, sixteen days and nights seem to pass, in which he runs an apparently exhausting and ultimately fatal, orgasmic marathon through that brothel, but Judas, apparently in a different time zone, is still waiting at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to receive him on Day Seventeen.

Just like in couplet 6, the poet is now gearing up again; from couplet 10 the logic does not crash from one line to the other, but within one and the same line:

No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest

“Nobody said anything” would be a normal stage direction for this sad scene, but Dylan nuances: “No one tried to say a thing,” while Frankie Lee’s corpse is being carried “out in jest”. “In jest”? Would it have been more serious, more appropriate, to leave the corpse lying there in the brothel?

No time to reflect thereon; the next enigmatic plot turn again forces away any confusion hereon. Out of nowhere appears “the little neighbor boy” who is also “guilty”, but this loaded addition does not get the chance to resonate either, being already drowned out by the intriguing exit of the neighbour boy: “Nothing is revealed,” he mumbles, under his breath, on top of that – and in passing, the poet thus smuggles in two of Kafka’s main themes (guilt and concealment).

In accordance though with Biblical parables is the coda – an explicit interpretation, or in this case: a moral. However, that only concerns the form, of course. The content is “normally” Dylanesque, or Kafkaesque, but in any case inscrutable:

The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

The poet opens his epilogue with a run of the mill greeting card wisdom (‘know your place, remember who you are, stay where you belong”). The subsequent wisdom begins with “so”, thus promising a conclusion – which does not come. “If your neighbor is carrying something, help him with his load” is not a conclusion from the above, in fact: that “morality” teaches, quite on the contrary, to not go to your neighbour, but to stay “where you belong”.

The last sentence then opens with “And”, suggesting a listing, an addition to the previous appeal to help the neighbour, but alas: again there is no substantive relationship. “And don’t confuse Paradise with that home across the road.”

True to form, the moral of “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” is a moral lesson not linked to the little that is told.

Inscrutable, all in all, and that has been a deliberate, strategic choice by the Bard. In stylistic terms, he cheats with incorrect, and therefore confusing, prepositions and conjunctions, and illogical adjectives and adverbs.

In terms of content, he also interlaces the “ballad” with suggestive, symbolic power insinuating accents that force interpretation attempts into distant blind alleys. Biblical of course, by naming Judas Priest, by the capitalization of Paradise and Eternity, by insinuating number symbolism (sixteen symbolizing ‘Love’, seventeen ‘Victory’ and twenty-four ‘Priesthood’ – a seasoned Dylanologist should be able to deduce some heads and tails out of it) and through the paraphrases. Remarkable idioms such as foolish pride, foaming at the mouth and helping with load can all be found in the Book of Books.

Smoke curtains and fog clouds. Masked and anonymous. A classical ballad, an epic poem with a beginning and an end and a real narrative like “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is merely suggested, but evaporates behind an accumulation of non-sequiturs, misleading stage directions and irrelevant details … masterfully disguised as a dramatic novella full of Kafkaesque clarity.

The accompanying music is unambiguously simple. A basic, unadorned chord scheme with just three chords (G-Bm-Am) that is repeated from start to finish without variation (Dylan plays with capo, as with almost every song on John Wesley Harding, so in fact it is in C), bass and drums. The only excess is provided by two short, beautiful, harmonica solos.

But in spite of the undeniable beauty and inviting simplicity, length and uniformity seem to deter the colleagues. There are virtually no covers by artists from the higher divisions. Dozens by YouTube amateurs, usually low-quality labours of love by white, spectacled men in their fifties, and in addition a few perfunctory ones by tribute bands – all negligible too.

Obviously, Thea Gilmore cannot escape the song on her beautiful tribute project, the integral performance of John Wesley Harding (2011). Her rendition is beautiful.


Gilmore artificially adds excitement by raising the tempo and the arrangement, to which she steadily adds instruments, but above all: by cheating with the chord scheme. The seventh verse, the textual pause for breath, is turned into a bridge and that is actually a particularly successful find. It had done Dylan’s original well, too.

In 1987 Dylan plays the song with Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia then takes the song back to the studio of his musical friend David Bromberg in the early nineties. Bromberg releases most of his recordings with Garcia only after Jerry’s death. Their “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” is therefore not released until 2004, on the tasteful, acoustic collection Been All Around The World.

The men also opt for minimalist instrumentation, but more ornamented (Bromberg lets his mandolin flutter around the melody and the words). The true stronghold is Garcia’s hypnotic talk-singing, that more than Dylan’s words seems to tell a mysterious, moving and exciting story.

Still, it remains only suggestion, of course.

The final cover is not yet available and must be produced by Judas Priest, obviously. The guys are capable; their cover of Joan Baez’s melancholic ode to Dylan “Diamonds And Rust” (on Sin After Sin, 1977) is amazingly respectful and equally attractive – and after that name choice the second time the British metal band skims Bob Dylan. That cover will come, eventually.





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