From Hard Times in New York to Desolation Row

by John Henry

As one of the richest and most captivating songs in an unequalled catalogue of brilliant songs, “Desolation Row” has attracted a lot of attention from commentators on Dylan’s art. Much has been said about it, and no doubt more will be said in future. One thing that has not been noticed so far, however, is that Desolation Row marks the culmination, the end-point, of a series of songs on repressive, oppressive, soul-destroying, and downright awful places.

Around the time of his first album, New York was a place where people had to cut something, and they’d rob you with a fountain pen (“Talkin’ New York”), and as far as Dylan was concerned it was a place where they stepped on your name and tried to “get me beat” (“Hard Times in New York Town”). If New York seemed to be unwelcoming and defeating, Bear Mountain was even worse. Feeling as though he’d “climbed outa m’ casket”, the narrator wished he’d “never got up that morn” (“Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”). On Freewheelin’ “Oxford Town” represented those places you’d “Better get away from”, where “The Sun don’t shine above the ground.” But Dylan also sang at that time about “the deep hollow dungeon” of “The Walls of Red Wing”.

These early songs about God-forsaken places belong to Dylan’s apprenticeship, when he was only beginning to forge his song-writing craft. By the time we get to Bringing It All Back Home, though, some of the most outstanding songs are about diabolically awful places.

The first of these, of course, is “Maggie’s Farm”. A wonderful indictment of how modern America (representing any Western state for that matter) stifles creativity and independence. On Maggie’s Farm bland conformity is imposed not just by talk of “man and God and law”, not just by fines, but by random violence—Maggie’s Pa “puts his cigar/Out in your face just for kicks.”

An even better song, one of Dylan’s very best, perhaps because of its evocative mysteriousness, is “Gates of Eden.” The song is complex and difficult to understand, but one thing is certain, and that is that the imagery is generally scary and disorientating. The “truth just twists” here, lampposts have “iron claws”. “No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden”, and yet the only place “you will hear a laugh” is “inside the Gates of Eden.” Seeming to suggest the paradise of the Garden of Eden, the song in fact conveys a disturbing ethos of dispossession. Promises of paradise merely raise that laugh, friends are really strangers and they are all trying to resign from their fates. The narrator’s lover recounts her dreams, but these are not dreams of optimistic ambitions, their meanings are described as “ditches”, and the best way to deal with them is to fill them in by the shovelful.

But there are two other songs about dreadful places on this album. As in “Maggie’s Farm”, in both cases Dylan turns to humour and satire to paint vivid pictures of places you don’t want to be. In “On the Road Again”, the singer is once again involved with a family that seems deranged, violent, and deceitful. This is the family of the singer’s girlfriend, but when she asks why the singer doesn’t live with her, he replies, “Honey, how come you don’t move?”

America as a thoroughly awful place, again as in “Maggie’s Farm”, reappears in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” The joke, in this hugely under-rated song, is that the singer and his companions discover American before Columbus, but it is an America already populated with cops, political activists, waiters, bankers; and already established with jails, undertakers, parking restrictions and so forth. After various nightmarish adventures the singer manages to make his escape, and meeting Columbus as he’s arriving, he wishes him good luck.

This brings us to Highway 61 Revisited, but before we get to “Desolation Row”, we hear about the scary and disorienting place that Mister Jones finds himself in, in the “Ballad of a Thin Man.” There is already something crucially different here, however, from the earlier songs we’ve been looking at. In the earlier songs, the narrator or singer is the one who is appalled by the awful things going on in the places he describes. But in “Ballad” the singer seems to be part of the nightmarish cast of characters that are so profoundly upsetting Mr Jones. It is as though the singer, let us consider him to be Dylan himself, has changed sides. Where previously he has seen the places he describes as places to get away from, and the sooner the better, or as places that you shouldn’t go to, if you can avoid it, now Dylan seems to want to be among the freaks and the circus-like performers who make up the disturbing scene where the staid and conservative Mr Jones is so tormented.

It is this same switch of outlook, this same change in desires, that we see in “Desolation Row”. At a first, perhaps superficial, listen “Desolation Row” might give the impression that this Desolation Row is another of these places to get away from, or to avoid going to. After all, let’s face it, Desolation Row does not sound like a good address. If we follow the lyrics, however, it is easy to see that Desolation Row is the place to be. We discover at the end of the first verse that the singer is looking out “From Desolation Row”—he seems to be looking out from there to the even worse place where they are selling postcards of a lynching, and the riot squad is restlessly, and ominously, looking for something to do. Contrary to what we might expect, there’s a “carnival tonight/On Desolation Row”, and Ophelia, a troubled soul if ever there was one, spends her time looking into Desolation Row, not trying to escape from it. Similarly, Einstein used to play the violin on Desolation Row.

Dr Filth and “his nurse, some local loser”, who is “in charge of the cyanide hole”, are not on Desolation Row but outside it. You can only hear their patients play on their penny whistles, “If you lean your head out far enough/From Desolation Row.” Casanova is punished for going to Desolation Row, so we can assume he is punished in the world beyond Desolation Row, that place which is obviously worse than Desolation Row. We learn in the next verse that people try to escape to Desolation Row—again, it seems to be better than whatever is outside. At the end of the song, the singer seems to have lost his place in Desolation Row, but he still yearns to be back there. “Don’t send me no more letters”, he sings, “unless you mail them/From Desolation Row.” A letter from there, presumably, would remind him of the place to which he wants to get back.

So, what are we to make of this—a series of songs, about places to avoid and why, which eventually give way to a magnificent final song, “Desolation Row” about a place which, for all its faults, seems to be preferable to the places and their inhabitants which surround it? It is important to note, of course, that Desolation Row cannot be perfect. Dylan didn’t call the song “Paradise Row”, and the name “Desolation Row” clearly gives the impression of being a depressing and unpleasant place to be. And yet, it seems to be surrounded by even worse places. Where the earlier songs of this kind all suggest the places being sung about are places you need to escape from, Desolation Row is somewhere you want to escape to. And, if you are exiled from it, as the singer seems to be in the last verse, you might want to be reminded of it by receiving letters only from there.

We can only speculate, of course, but it seems as though Dylan the songwriter has learned valuable lessons between those initial hard times in New York and Desolation Row. When he first came to New York, naïve but full of ambition, he must have experienced many knock-backs which led him to write these songs. At first, he associated the set-backs with specific recognisable places but later wrote instead of more abstract representations of repressive places, as he moved from New York and Maggie’s Farm, to a house where “there’s fist fights in the kitchen”, and on to the Gates of Eden. In the early songs Dylan sees it as his role to draw a moral conclusion. In “Talking New York” he seems to place himself above those without much food on their table, who therefore use their knives and forks to cut something else—the narrator’s cue to leave New York. Similarly, in “Hard Times in New York”, the narrator proudly boasts he’ll be able to leave New York “still standin’ on my feet” in spite of everything the people of New York throw at him. Dylan writes as though it is possible to maintain separation from the place you are in, to be unaffected by it, to rise above its horrors while remaining unchanged by it.

By the time we get to “Ballad of a Thin Man”, however, Dylan knows better. He now recognises that he himself is part of the place, part of the action of the place, for good or ill. It is now Mr Jones who is trying to hold himself aloof from what is going on around him, while the narrator of the song is one of his tormentors, pointing relentlessly to Mr Jones’s inability to understand what is happening in this frightening place. The message of the song is now much more subtle and sophisticated. Although nothing is made explicit, the separation of the narrator from Mr Jones; the one an observer and commentator on what’s happening, the other a would-be innocent visitor who is trying to stay standing on his feet, gives the sense that Mr Jones is actually learning from this dreadful experience. While the narrators in the early New York songs talk of leaving town with their integrity unaffected by their bad experiences, we get the sense that Mr Jones gradually becomes one of the weirdos that so frightened him to begin with. At the beginning he feels himself to be different from those around him: “Oh my God/Am I here all alone?” By the end, however, he walks into the room like a camel—he puts his eyes in his pockets and his nose on the ground—as weird as anyone else there. So weird, in fact, that now the narrator says “There ought to be a law/Against you coming around.”

The point is, that the frightening, repressive, and disorientating things that happen to us, whenever we find ourselves in a new and unfamiliar place, become part of our experience and therefore make us who we are. Dylan wouldn’t be the man he is today if he hadn’t endured those hard times in New York; he wouldn’t be who he is if he hadn’t had to metaphorically scrub the floors on Maggie’s Farm. Suffering and frustration are all part of life in this veil of tears, and we cannot remain unchanged as we endure them. In the end these adversities make us who we are. “Desolation Row” is the song where Dylan finally acknowledges that.

Before going any further, it is worth noting that “Desolation Row” marks the end of this preoccupation with place in some of Dylan’s songs. There’s no similar song on Blonde on Blonde. “Stuck inside of Mobile” may sound as though it is a song about Mobile, but if we read the lyrics we can see that they do not focus on any particular place—Mobile only appears in the repeated refrain at the end of each verse. “I Shall Be Released” says little or nothing about the place from which the singer will be released. Although “All Along the Watchtower” begins with the famous line: “There must be some way out of here”, we hear no more about this place. The thief, responding to this comment by the joker, does not go on to discuss the problems of the place but talks instead about life and fate. Try as you might, after “Desolation Row”, you can’t find a song by Dylan which is focussed on a place which is in itself portrayed as a dreadful place, a place to get away from. Even “Scarlet Town” doesn’t fit the bill.

So, “Desolation Row” is Dylan’s final brilliant statement that bad places can be the making of us—living in them and through them forges us in the fires of adversity and helps us to endure whatever worse places we might find ourselves in. The narrator and his lady, in the first verse, do not hide but look out; later the narrator talks of leaning your head out to hear Dr Filth’s patients. The song seems to tell us about what is going on beyond Desolation Row, but with an address like that, we can safely assume things are no better on the Row itself. Like the narrator we too are looking out from Desolation Row; we are all part of it, our personal development takes place within it, and inexorably it becomes part of our make-up—it is the making of us. The whole world is Desolation Row. We might think that being there is awful, and we might think of it as somewhere to get away from, but in the end living there shapes us and makes us who we are. So, if someone says to us “You’re in the wrong place my friend/You better leave”, we shouldn’t listen, but should continue to muddle through on Desolation Row. When Dylan saw that, he switched tack, and wrote “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Desolation Row”, two songs which acknowledged that although we might find ourselves in bad places where bad things happen to us, in the end they forge our personalities and make us who we are. “Desolation Row” was Dylan’s final magnificent word on this, and he never again wrote a song focussed on the iniquities of a particular place. But no doubt, like the rest of us, he continued to look out from Desolation Row.


Other articles by John Henry

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  1. Yes okay but does not the narrator’s lover make no attempt to shovel her dreams, whatever you suppose them to be, into the ditch of what each one means, rather than to suggest it’d be the best thing for her to do as you claim?
    I find your comment at that juncture a bit confusing.

  2. I’m just trying to bring out the fact that the imagery in the song is largely negative. Normally we ‘d expect a line like “my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams” to be followed by something like comments about a nice house with a white picket fence, or whatever. Something to be desired. But Dylan undermines that by saying that the meaning of these dreams constitute a ditch. He brilliantly adds to the disorientation by not talking about a normal attempt to interpret these dreams, by, say, simply talking about them, but instead he uses this amazing phrase: “to shovel the glimpse into the ditch…” It’s a difficult and obscure comment, but it reinforces the idea that these dreams are concerned with something ditch-like, and the narrator thinks they need to be filled in quickly (by the shovelful) to avoid thinking anymore about them–but his lover doesn’t attempt to do that. This in turn gives us the impression that the lover doesn’t share the narrator’s sense that these ditches need to be filled in–the lover is satisfied with these appalling ditch-like dreams.

  3. Thanks a bunch for being thoughtful enough to reply to my comment.

    Your article is interesting and well-written and with most of it I agree with.

    But your ‘Gates’ bit is based on the supposition that her dreams are negative ones rather than about white picket fences behind which the Beave and his daddy and mommy happily live….neither of which may be the case….we do not know and we’re not told.

    Perhaps that makes her an ideal lover because she’s satisfied, true like ice, like fire without the need to look for meaning in her dreams.

    ie, the dream-song is in and of itself a lovely work of art, an Eden, a thing of beauty, a joy forever?

    And Dylan’s just telling us ditch-digging ‘dylanologists’ to shove(l) off like Mr. Jones? (lol)

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