Bob Dylan Obliquely: Rough And Rowdy Ways (Part II)

By Larry Fyffe

The previous article in this series appears here: Bob Dylan Obliquely: Rough And Rowdy

Dylan’s “Rough And Rowdy Ways” compilation of songs takes its title from the lyrics below:

But I can't give up my good old rough and rowdy ways

(Jimmy Rodgers: My Rough And Rowdy Ways ~ Rodgers/McWilliams)

Edward Taylor, a Puritan preacher in America during its colonial days, writes poetry in secret that features the conceits and darkness of the Baroque style; however, Taylor pens some rather unpuritan colourful and florid lines in a style that later becomes known as Rococo:

Shall not thy rose my garden fresh perfume
Shall not they beauty my dull heart assail
Shall not they golden gleams run through this gloom?

(Edward Taylor: The Reflection)

In Dylan’s “rough and rowdy” songs, there be Taylor-like figurative language that compares the great outdoors to a cathedral of light rather than an unadorned church with uncomfortable pews:

People tell me that I'm truly blessed
Bougainvillea blooming in the summer, in the spring
Winter here is an unknown thing

(Bob Dylan: Key West)

In ancient mythology, according to Virgil, those in the Underworld must drink from the River Of Forgetfulness in order to return to  the world above. Postmodernist Judaic folklorist Steve Stern writes a novel with disreputable characters in it:

For this generation, half of my soul belongs to you, 
   and the other half to another,
whom you must seek out"

(Steve Stern: The Angel Of Forgetfuness”)

In song lyrics mentioned  below, that novel is alluded to.

According to his poetry, Eward Taylor desires to have some rough and rowdy ways himself:

Was ever heart like mine? So bad, black, vile?
Is any devil blacker?  Or can hel
Produce it's match?  It is the very soil
Where Satan reads his charms, and sets his spell

(Edward Taylor: Still I Complain, I Am Complaining Still)

Likewise, such dark thoughts are expressed by the singer/songwriter:

Red Cadillac, and a black moustache
Rings on my fingers that sparkle and flash
Tell me, what's next? What shall we do?
Half my soul, baby, belongs to you

(Bob Dylan: I Contain Multitudes)

Indeed, “Ed The Knife” Taylor confesses to himself that though he is an Elect-seeking Puritan on the outside, not so much is he that on the inside:

Nay, muster up your thoughts, and take the pole
Of what walk in the entry of your soul
Which if you do, you certainly will find
With robbers, cutthroats, thieves it's mostly lined

(Edward Taylor: The Accusation Of The Inward Man)

Black-humored though they be, a sentiment hyperbolically displayed by the narrator in the following song lyrics:

Pink petal-pushers, red blue jeans
All the pretty maids, and all the old queens
I carry four pistols, and two large knives

(Bob Dylan: I Contain Multitudes)

Depending, of course, on the translation sourced, direct allusions to Virgil’s tale of the left-and-right pathed Underworld be there in “Rough And Rowdy Ways”:

Let now thy visionary glance look long
On this thy race, the Romans that be thine
Here Caesar .... ascends to the world of light!

(Virgil: Aeneid, Book VI)


You stay to the left, you lean to the right
Feel the sunlight on your skin, and the healing virtues of the wind
Key West, Key West is the land of light

(Bob Dylan: Key West)

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  1. Isn’t there also some kind of contradiction going on here:
    ‘Key West is under the sun, under the radar, under the gun
    You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right’
    Possibly that Key West is also a place to which morally dubious individuals can escape as it is (1) not a place which is in the news or perhaps not thought of as being a ‘key’ player in the federation of states ‘under the radar’ (2) not necessarily in line with federal legislation regarding criminality and law ‘under the gun’ , and (3) a place where political interests are ruled by the right-wing ‘lean to the right’.
    Interestingly ,the early history of Key West was formed by Jewish smugglers (pirates ?).
    ‘Long before Miami was on the map, Key West had Florida’s largest economy and an influential Jewish community. Jews who settled here as peddlers in the nineteenth century joined a bilingual and progressive city that became the launching pad for the revolution that toppled the Spanish Empire in Cuba. As dozens of local Jews collaborated with José Martí’s rebels, they built relationships that supported thriving Jewish communities in Key West and Havana at the turn of the twentieth century. During the 1920s, when anti- immigration hysteria swept the United States, Key West’s Jews resisted the immigration quotas and established “the southernmost terminal of the Jewish underground,” smuggling Jewish aliens in small boats across the Florida Straits to safety in Key West. But these and other Jewish exploits were kept secret as Ku Klux Klan leaders infiltrated local law enforcement and government. Many Jews left Key West during the 1930s and their stories were ignored or forgotten by the mythmakers that reinvented Key West as a tourist mecca.’
    Arlo Haskell, The Jews of Key West(Sandpaper Pr, 2017)

  2. Very interesting …. Dylan often mixes fact with fiction ….reminds one of Bogart in ‘Casablanca’ movie.

  3. In ‘Mother of Muses’ Dylan hints how memory/ history is an indispensable part of the creative process. There are several ‘Key Wests’, all waiting to be exposed in this song.

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