by Jochen Markhorst
Inspector Dwyer arrests her after hearing Marie Ganz addressing a group of women in Yiddish, “and her words seemed to be exciting them.” The arrest does not go down well. “Hundred or more women” go to the police station and chant that Sweet Marie should be released, but the matter is in the hands of the court now.
The Judge is remarkably lenient; Marie gets away with a suspended sentence, although she is no stranger to justice. The anarchist activist, an advocate for trade unions and women’s rights, has already been in prison before. At the age of 23, in 1914, Marie enters Standard Oil’s headquarters on Broadway and threatens, with a loaded revolver in her hand, to shoot John D. Rockefeller “down like a dog” unless he agrees to arbitrate the bloody Colorado miner’s strike. She is honest but outside the law. It costs her sixty days.
Later in life she renounces anarchism, as can be read in her strikingly well-written, highly entertaining autobiography Rebels: Into Anarchy – And Out Again (1920), in which she also tells how she is suddenly applauded as Sweet Marie during one of her many inflammatory speeches. “Whenever I appeared in public afterward it was sure to be heard shouted at me sooner or later.” She cannot explain either why the flattering prefix was attributed to her name.
It has been in the air for years, the combination Sweet and Marie. The very first female recording in history is made in 1893, under the supervision of Edison himself for his North American Phonograph Co., sung by Ada Jones and is called “Sweet Marie”.
It is the first in an endless row of Sweet Marie’s to be sung in the decades that follow. In 1907, Egbert Van Alstyne scores a hit with “’Neeth The Old Cherry Tree Sweet Marie”. A Sweet Marie awaits on the B-side of the original “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (Charles Hart, 1927). Billy Preston, Thin Lizzy, folk, hard-rock, vaudeville and punk: Sweet Marie’s are sung in all genres throughout the century. Dylan is familiar with the Van Brothers, who sang one of them in 1960. And otherwise he undoubtedly knows the ode to a sweet Marie by his great hero Hank Snow (1954), who can be heard three times in Theme Time Radio Hour (including the song Dylan already covers in 1967, “A Fool Such As I”) and who is honoured by Dylan as “one of the biggest voices in country music”.
But given the sexual allusions in “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, the direct source of inspiration is perhaps the antique, scabrous drinking song “There’s A Peter On My Skeeter, Sweet Marie.”
However, the lewd metaphors like beating my trumpet, it gets so hard and fever in my pockets, do not – fortunately – turn the song into a bawdy pub ditty. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is a high point in Dylan’s surreal poetry thanks to the multi-coloured richness of ambiguous symbolism, literary references and the absence of, as the poet calls it, contrived images, artificially conceived impressions. In the Song Talk interview (April 1991) Dylan is successfully encouraged to comment on some text fragments from his oeuvre. The yellow railroad, he reveals, is such an example of a scene that once hit him somewhere: “A blinding day when the sun was so bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind.”
Other images are at least as traceable. The six white horses walked John F. Kennedy’s bier not too long ago, white horses take the protagonist in “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” to the cold tomb and the second verse of another classic in Dylan’s repertoire, “She” ll Be Coming “Round The Mountain” reads: She’ll be driving six white horses when she comes – a year later he will sing this again in the Big Pink, as we can hear on The Complete Basement Tapes.
The most famous one-liner in the song is of course To live outside the law, you must be honest. Jonathan Lethem makes a link to the quote “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty” from the film The Lineup (1958). A more likely candidate, though, is Woody Guthrie’s gangster song “The Ballad Of Pretty Boy Floyd”: “I love a good man outside the law.”
And, not for the first time, Kafka is a contender. Perhaps an even better one. His best known parable is called Vor dem Gesetz, “Before The Law”. It tells how an honest, modest Man from the country is not admitted to the “Law” and then has to wait outside the law for the rest of his life. Traces of Kafka reading can also be found just before Sweet Marie – in “Desolation Row”, for example – and shortly after (“Drifter’s Escape” and “All Along The Watchtower”); apparently the images evoked by Kafka belong to the “images which are just in there and have got to come out,” as Dylan says immediately after that previous interview quote.
In line with the fanning richness of images of a masterpiece such as “Desolation Row” is also the manifestation of the Persian drunkard. Dylan winks at Omar Khayýam (1048-1123), the brilliant mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and especially the poet of a thousand quatrains, the Rubáiyát, which, thanks to Edward FitzGerald’s translation, has penetrated the English linguistic area. In those quatrains, Khaýyam often praises the joys of excessive wine use (“The scent of wine rising from my grave will be so strong that it will intoxicate passers-by”), and a quatrain like
I have heard people say
that those who love wine are damned.
That can’t be true, that clearly is a lie.
For if lovers of wine and love are bound for hell,
heaven would be quite empty!
… earns him the not entirely misplaced, but somewhat irreverent nickname: The Persian Drunkard.
The poetic power is equalled by the music. Which has been fine-tuned pretty quickly, as we can learn from The Bootleg Series 12 – The Cutting Edge (2015). The rehearsal already has everything; the driving bass, the piano and organ part and most of all: the phenomenal drumming by Kenny Buttrey (1945-2004), one of the Great Unsung Heroes from Blonde On Blonde. In the final, slightly faster take, he surpasses his previous contributions. Especially from the “Persian” verse and the subsequent instrumental interlude – with an unleashed Dylan on harmonica – in which Buttrey degrades The Who’s Keith Moon to a toddler with a frying pan.
Pretty much every cover honours him, and rightly so – the drive and passion can be heard in the hardly differing but very infectious copies by The Flamin’ Groovies (1979)…
… the cheerful punks Jason And The Scorchers (1984), veteran Rab Noakes (2011) and the sympathetic Dylan tributers Klaassen & Van Dijk (2015). Even with the more civilized Al “Year Of The Cat” Stewart, echoes of the Nashville Cat still resonate.
Nor are tempo, rhythm and drive that adventurous with the two prettiest covers: the inevitable Old Crow Medicine Show on their unsurpassed 50 Years Of Blonde On Blonde (2016), and the one by C.J. Chenier on the catchy collector Blues On Blonde On Blonde (2003), scoring bonus points for the distinctive instrumentation. The zydeco star, son of King Of Zydeco Clifton Chenier, lays down the merry tune on his very swinging, jumping accordion. Absolutely sweet.
Considering the remarkable covers of songs like “Love Minus Zero” and especially “Here Comes The Sun”, the long overdue release of Cockney Rebel’s performance is something to pray for. In a particularly entertaining, blatantly subjective fan contribution to The Gonzo Daily of April 6, 2013, England’s national treasure Steve Harley is quoted:
“We often talked about our own tastes in music – particularly Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan, and [he] told me how – in the days before Cockney Rebel had got their first record contract – they had recorded some demos, mostly of their own songs but also Bob Dylan’s glorious Absolutely Sweet Marie.”
It is a song “that could have been made for Harley’s nasal, estuarine drawl, and all tour I had been badgering him to try his hand at singing it again.” But to the frustration of editor Jon Downes, who as a devoted fan follows his idol throughout England, Harley refuses for years to play the song on stage.
Until that one Friday night in Aberdeen, where the amiable Harley allows a few loyal fans, including Jon, to attend the sound check. “Then Steve started to sing…
Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can't jump it Sometimes it gets so hard, you see I'm just sitting here beating on my trumpet, with all these promises you left for me"
…Steve Harley was singing Absolutely Sweet Marie just for us.”
Downes expresses his memories of that magical moment in delightful, eloquent one-liners (To paraphrase PG Wodehouse, the sight of me dancing is enough to make one re-evaluate the concept of man as the pinnacle of God’s creation, but dance I did) and finishes off with an overwhelming, William Blakean finale:
“As the band thundered to a climax and I spun around and around like a gyroscope on methedrine, I could see the dark waters before me parting and the great head and neck of an antediluvian creature looming up before me with its eyes ablaze and its mouth open.”
Sweet Marie’s words really “seemed to be exciting them”.
Footnote: Jochen working in the Netherlands found a recording of this song by C.J. Chenier on the internet at
but Tony in the UK couldn’t locate that song at that point. Jochen reckons its a Brexit thing. Either way it might be worth trying it to see if you can find the recording