Bob Dylan: Aeneas Visits Key West

by Larry Fyffe

Bob Dylan, singer/songwriter/musician, as previously noted, draws inspiration from the poetry of John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Frost for his song “Key West”; he also mixes in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer with lyrics from a  a blues singer:

"Love you daddy, real good daddy
Soothe me baby, move me baby"
Yes, I heard it all
Another mule is kicking in my stall
(Dave Bartholomew: Another Mule)

In the song verse below, there’s the ‘Dylanesque rhyme twist” ~ ‘all’/’stall’; ~’wall’/’all’:

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doctor said, "McKinley, death is on the wall
Say it to me, if you got something to confess"
I heard it all  -  the wireless radio
(Bob Dylan: Key West)

And from the famous ‘Canterbury Tales’:

But show me your complete confession
"No", said the sick man, "By St. Simon
I have been shivered today by my curate
I have told him of my condition
There is no further need to confess again"
(Geoffrey Chaucer: The Summoner's Tale ~ modernized)

But most noticeably, mixed in is the tale of the Aeneas heading off to found Rome, a story told by the Roman poet Virgil. Therein, the Trojan hero descends into the Underworld with his buddy, and a Sibyl prophetess as their guide, to visit Aeneas’ father to ask him for advice; Aphrodite sends doves to guide her son to the ‘golden bough’ that he breaks off to serve as a pass to Hades:

At last they reached the spot where the road divided. From the left came horrid sounds and the  clanking of chains. Aeneas halted in terror. The Sibyl, however, bade him to have no fear, but fasten boldly the golden bough on the wall that faced the crossroads. The regions to the left … punished the wicked for their misdeeds. But the the road to the right led to the Elysian Fields where Aeneas would find his father (Edith Hamilton: Mythology:Timeless Tales Of Gods  And Heroes).

In the song lyrics below, the island of Key West, at the bottom of Florida, is figuratively transformed into the Underworld of Greek/Roman mythology, and the singer/songwriter takes on the persona of Virgil’s Aeneas:

Key West is under the sun, under the radar, under the gun
You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right
Feel the sun on your skin, and the healing virtues of the wind
Key West, Key West, is the land of light
(Bob Dylan: Key West)

So interpreted, the road to the Elysian Fields lies there in Key West:

There when they arrived everything was delightful, soft green meadows, lovely groves, a delicious life-giving air, sunlight that glowed softly purple, an abode of peace and blessedness. Here dwelt the great and the good dead, heroes, poets, priests, and all who had made men remember them by helping others (Edith Hamilton: Mythology).

In the following lyrics, the Elysian Fields of the Floridian island are depicted as real, as supposed to be by the Ancients; it’s no imaginary Land of Oz:

People tell me that I'm truly blessed
Bougainvillea blooming everywhere in the spring, in the summer
Winter here is an unknown thing
Down in the flat lands, way down in Key West
(Bob Dylan: Key West)

As goes Virgil’s mythological tale, in order to leave Hades to re-enter the Upper World, Aeneas and his companions must drink the Waters Of Oblivion from the River of Forgetfulness.

So apparently it be in the underworld of Key West:

Fly away, my pretty little Miss
I don't love nobody, give me a kiss
Down in the bottom, way down in Key West
(Bob Dylan: Key West)

Dylan reworks another song of his:

Well, I went back to see about her once
Went back to straighten it out
Everybody that I talked to had seen us there
Said they didn't know who I was talking about
Well, the sun went down on me a long time ago
I've had to pull back from the door
I wish I could have spent every hour of my life
With the girl from the Red River Shore
(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

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  1. This isn’t the first time, in fact, that Dylan’s picked up on the confession passage from Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale. ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ (2006) includes the line:
    “I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again.”
    That’s always struck me as quite a neat thought – didn’t know that he stole it!

  2. McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
    Doc said to McKinley, “I can’t find that ball
    You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die”
    (Bill Monroe: White House Blues ~ traditionl/various)

  3. Without those wireless knobs
    Fats did not come in
    Without those wireless knobs
    Elvis did not come in ….
    We’d get Luxembourg
    Luxembourg and Athlone
    (Van Morrison & Duncan: Before The Days Of RocknRoll)

  4. The ‘on’ is omitted on the recording …..not an unusual happening, for sure,

  5. “Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
    Say anything you want to, I have heard it all”
    (Bob Dylan: Mississippi)

  6. Fly around my pretty little miss
    Fly around my daisy
    Fly around my pretty little miss
    You almost drive me crazy
    (Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss ~ traditonal bluegrass)

  7. See inscription on Nobel Prize medal:

    “And all those who found new arts to make man’s life more blessed or fair”
    ~ Aeneid VI: Virgil

  8. “Here Caesar ….Behold ascending to the world of light”
    (Virgil: Aeneid, Book VI)

  9. Doug Murtsch’s “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” says ” You’re a radar…”

  10. ‘Key West’ styled in the manner of a mock epic “high’ burlesque it might be said.

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