She Belongs To Me (1965) part III: Walking in darkness

Previously in this series

by Jochen Markhorst

III         Walking in darkness


The third verse illustrates, almost in so many words, that the title should actually be read as “I Belong To Her” or at least as “She Belongs To No One”;

She never stumbles
She’s got no place to fall
She’s nobody’s child
The Law can’t touch her at all

Choice of words suggests that Odetta’s “Stranger Here” contributed not only to number 5 of Side A, “Outlaw Blues”, but even more so to “She Belongs To Me” –

Ain't it hard to stumble
When you got no place to fall
Stranger here
Stranger everywhere
I would go home
But honey I'm a stranger

… though Harry Belafonte’s arrangement of the song might be a better candidate. As with the next song on Bringing It All Back Home, “Maggie’s Farm”, which owes the opening words to Belafonte’s performance of “Diamond Joe” (“Ain’t gonna work in the country / And neither on Forester’s farm”), the similarity is too remarkable to be coincidental. Harry’s version is called “The Way That I Feel” and has largely the same words:

It sure is hard to stumble down 
    when you ain't got no place to fall
Seems like in the whole wide world I ain't got no place at all
Well I'm feeling like a stranger here
I feel like a stranger everywhere

It can be found on the beautiful album Belafonte Sings The Blues (1958), of which the track list alone suggests that Dylan cherishes this album. It contains, for example, “Cotton Fields”, the song Dylan declares being his personal Big Bang, in his Nobel Prize speech:

“And somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cottonfields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.”

Furthermore, “Mary Ann” and “Sinner’s Prayers”, of which echoes will descend later in Dylan’s “If You Ever Go To Houston” (Together Through Life, 2009); “One For My Baby”, the most quoted song in Dylan’s oeuvre (quotations and paraphrases from this song can be heard in at least six Dylan songs); and especially “Fare Thee Well”, or also “Dink’s Song”, which is on Dylan’s repertoire as well. The King Of Calypso’s version, by the way, is a crushingly beautiful version.

Nobody’s child” and “The Law can’t touch her” reinforce the image of the untouchable lady who certainly does not belong to anyone.

The expression nobody’s child is quite unusual in the art of song. Dylan may know it from the antique “Limehouse Blues”, the old jazz standard that could be found in his record case in the bluegrass performance of Reno and Smiley (1954);

Oh, Limehouse kid
Goin' the way
That the rest of them did
Poor broken blossom
And nobody's child
Haunting and taunting
You're just kind of wild.

But more likely Dylan knows it as a song title; one of his heroes, Hank Snow, recorded it in 1949 and with the Traveling Wilbury’s Dylan will record it in 1990. It may also have been a suggestion by George Harrison, though; in 1961 The Beatles, as an accompaniment band, record “Nobody’s Child” with Tony Sheridan (released in 1964 as a B-side for “Ain’t She Sweet”) – without Harrison, so maybe George felt a need to catch up.

Being “outside the law” appears in many songs, even in amorous contexts (such as in Al Hibbler’s “You Will Be Mine”, 1955; But a woman in love, she’s above the law), but remarkable here is Dylan writing the word “Law” with a capital. No mistake; from the first edition of Writings & Drawings, in all editions of Lyrics, and on the site, law is capitalised. The connotation is Biblical, or more specifically; the five books of Moses, which the Jews call the “Torah” – “the Law”, so with a capital letter, or “the Law of Moses”, the most important books of the Jewish religion.

It is a deliberate action, writing with a capital letter, and the Jewish Dylan, who did have lessons from a rabbi in the run-up to his bar mitzvah, undoubtedly knows the meaning of the word Law with a capital letter. It does not lead, however, to a subsequent, unambiguous conclusion regarding the lady described in this verse. A shiksa, a non-Jewish woman, would be obvious, but the opposite is more attractive: Jewish, but so independent and self-willed that even Moses’ authority is not acknowledged by her.

In line with this is the other striking capital letter, the capital letter in Dylan’s instructive art confession in the liner notes: I am about t sketch You a picture. From a linguistic point of view this is only correct as reverential capitalisation, only if the writer wants to refer to God. In this case, at this point in Dylan’s career, it is more likely that the poet uses it ironically, but Christian Dylanologists, a not insignificant faction of the dogged key-seekers, will gladly see it as a profession of faith. “All my creations are at the service of Your glory,” something like that.

The fourth stanza, then, is the verse with the famous Baez trigger.

She wears an Egyptian ring
That sparkles before she speaks
She’s a hypnotist collector
You are a walking antique

… officially a Baez reference since Robert Shelton’s 1986 book, No Direction Home – The Life & Music Of Bob Dylan:

“I looked down at Joan’s Egyptian ring. “Is that a little gift from a pharaoh in Cairo?” Joan laughed: “Yes, it’s the funniest thing. The fact of the matter is that… Well, that’s supposed to be a secret. Anyway, it’s in the song.”

But Shelton, in addition to all the enviable contacts and with all his talent, also demonstrates in his Dylan interviews a susceptibility to red herrings and is quite keen on assumed hidden codes. Dylan seems to enjoy sending him into the woods, and Baez is not averse to pulling a prank either, as we know. At any rate, in her autobiography she does reveal that Dylan is far from attentive and never gives presents. Except for that one time:

“I told Sara that I’d never found Bob to be much at giving gifts, but that he had once bought me a green corduroy coat, and had told me to keep a lovely blue nightgown from the Woodstock house. “Oh!” said Sara, “that’s where it went!””

… which, incidentally, is consistent with the testimonies of other women in Dylan’s life. Ruth Tyrangiel goes public in 1994 with a lawsuit against Dylan. She alleges to have had a relationship with Dylan for seventeen years, from 1974 to 1991, claiming five million dollars in a so-called palimony lawsuit. She declares that in those seventeen years she had received a gift twice: one time a rose, another time a tangerine.

Okay, a little weird, but still: both Tyrangiel’s statement and Baez’s revelation make it all the more unlikely that Dylan would ever have gifted something as precious and symbolic as a ring to Baez. Nevertheless, it is of course quite possible that a sparkling ring on Baez’ hand is one of those images which are just in there and have got to come out. And it gives the lyrics an attractive mystical sheen, just like the continuation with the beautiful catachreses, with the unknown word combinations “hypnotist collector” and “walking antique”. Code crackers then find explanations like “Joan Baez is the frontwoman of naive political folkies, lying at her feet like hypnotised sheep”.

No, then perhaps John Cale does have a better point. In 2004, when he is a guest on the legendary BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, the programme in which the guest has to choose the eight records he would take with him to a life on a desert island, the Velvet Underground co-founder’s first choice is “She Belongs To Me”. The record is introduced with Cale’s stories about his arrival in New York, Andy Warhol and his Factory, and the “screen tests” to which each Factory guest had to submit.

“Bob Dylan. Anybody who came by had to sit for a screentest, as it was called. And he was the only one who got up and walked off. Everybody else sat there for six minutes, but after about two he said, that’s it, I’m …”

“We better have your first record, ’cause it’s him, isn’t it. Why did you want to take this one?”

“Well, everybody was looking sideways at Bob because they were astonished at all this power that was coming out of his lyrics. And we knew that Nico had just come down to be a member of the band and she used to hang out with Bob in Woodstock. So when this song came along everybody looked at each other and said, wait a minute, this is about somebody we know.”

Photographs from that time do confirm that Nico usually wears large, flashy rings with mystical symbols and antique looking shapes. As on the cover of her debut album Chelsea Girl (1967, with Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” on it). And from Nico, the frontwoman of the avant-garde, one indeed can say: She’s an artist, she don’t look back.

In conclusion, the guest, the castaway, must appoint the special one from the eight favourites, the one he’d pick if he had only been allowed to choose one song.

“Now, John, if you could only take one of those eight records – which one would you take?”
“I think I’d take the Bob Dylan.”
She Belongs To Me…”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“For remembering Nico too, hm?”
“No, it’s more of Bob and…. the rusty voice of his, that’s really… A lot of character in it.”


 To be continued. Next up: She Belongs To Me part IV: Marie is only six years old

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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