Dirt Road Blues (1997) part 5: The purple piper plays his tune


by Jochen Markhorst

V          The purple piper plays his tune

’Til there’s nothing left to see, ’til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed

Fans anyway, but there are some more serious music journalists and historians as well who consider In The Court Of The Crimson King, King Crimson’s debut album from 1969, to be the big bang of prog rock. Which is debatable, of course, and ultimately mainly a matter of definition. The Moody Blues had already released Days Of The Future Passed two years earlier, and The Nice, with The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1968), also deserve the label “Patriarchs of Prog Rock”. But we can probably all agree that In The Court Of The Crimson King is a milestone, one of the Pillars Of Creation under the classical/symphonic rock that evolved from the psychedelic rock.

The whole album consists of five marble songs, and the three crown jewels are “21st Century Schizoid Man”, “Epitaph” with the beautiful, Rimbaudesque refrain Confusion will be my epitaph / As I crawl a cracked and broken path and as a finale the namesake of the album, the stately, overwhelming, mellotron-driven “In The Court Of The Crimson King”. A monumental song, a crowd favourite to which King Crimson, in all its manifestations, always remains faithful and which, more than fifty years later (e.g. December 2021 in Japan), is still on the set list.


Robert Fripp, the genius who actually is King Crimson on his own, usually has a somewhat mythical story to tell about the song in interviews and retrospectives. “The name King Crimson is a synonym for Beelzebub, which is an anglicized form of the Arabic phrase B’il Sabab. This means literally the man with an aim and is the recognizable quality of King Crimson,” he says in the booklet for Frame by Frame: The Essential King Crimson Box Set (1991).

The man who should know, the poet and songwriter Peter Sinfield, lyricist and sort of fifth King Crimson member on that smashing debut, casually dismisses Fripp’s pompous interpretations. “It isn’t the devil, it isn’t Beelzebub, but it’s… arrogant, and it’s got a feeling of darkness about it, and Gothic.” In the same fascinating Japanese TV documentary Song To Soul (2011), Sinfield recalls: “It was a sort of Bob Dylan song [plays air guitar and sings “on soft gray mornings widows cry”], it was like that.” Composer Ian MacDonald confirms: “He had written it in a sort of folky, Donovan-esque, early Bob Dylan style. A little folksy song. But essentially I threw out his music [laughs apologetically].” With which Sinfield can only agree: “It had to be better than what I had. Mine was three chords, not-very-good Bob Dylan, you know. Except the lyrics were interesting in their Gothic way.” And elsewhere he characterises his lyrics as “a pastiche of images from Dylan, the Bible, and some of my favourite sci-fi and fantasy novels.”

It is not the first time Sinfield mentions Dylan as a source of inspiration. In 2007, Sinfield is interviewed by Paul Henderson for Louder:

“It was originally a sort of Bob Dylan song, if you can imagine that”, says Sinfield. “Ian took it and rewrote the music. He’d studied harmony, he’d studied orchestration, so his references were not just The Beatles, but also big, sweeping things like Stravinsky, Mahler, things that were emotional. And that would come out. That track did take quite a while to pull together.”

“In The Court Of The Crimson King” is a masterpiece that shines 2000 light years away from Dylan’s oeuvre, but “a sort of Bob Dylan song” is perfectly understandable if you only look at the lyrics. “The purple piper plays his tune”, “The cracked brass bells will ring”, “The pattern juggler lifts his hand”, “The yellow jester does not play / But gently pulls the strings”… the music archaeologists who, five hundred years from now, dig up this song will no doubt label it as mid to late 20th century, probably B. Dylan.

This is not only because of those Dylanesque images like purple pipers and cracked brass bells, but also because of Sinfield’s perceptibility to sound, a sensitivity he shares with Dylan and which he developed through Dylan in the first place. He explains it, better than Dylan ever did, on the basis of the refrain-line in the court of the Crimson King:

“What you have are the noises, the sounds of the words, like crowds, queue, jokers… ‘k’, ‘k’, ‘k’, do you see? You get this sharp cracking sound, and then it softens again…what is very important, even if you don’t pick up on it, is the feel of these hard sounds, even if you don’t understand the words, that there is something going on here – it was quite intentional to cause this effect – Bob Dylan admits to doing the same – it’s like playing games, but the games you play with the noises, the sounds and the syllables, and especially the consonants in this example, should keep the listener right there, suspended – it’s all in the way these are constructed.”

… more clearly than Dylan put it in that famous “thin wild mercury sound” interview with Rosenbaum, 1977 (“It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They… they punctuate it”), or during that wonderful 1965 press conference in San Francisco (“The whole total sound of the words, what’s really going down is… it either happens or it doesn’t happen, you know”). And similarly, in Chronicles, Dylan doesn’t get much further than saying that it may affect him like that (“you get tripped out on the sound of the words alone”), but he doesn’t quite succeed in explaining it as vividly as Sinfield does.

However, the artistic congeniality is there. And we see it, for example, in the third verse of Dylan’s “Dirt Road Blues”, in that special word combination shattered chains, the combination Sinfield used in 1969 for the opening lines:

The rusted chains of prison moons
Are shattered by the sun.
I walk a road, horizons change
The tournament's begun.

“Shattered” is pretty much only used in songwriting for shattered dreams or a shattered heart anyway (“Confessin’ The Blues”, “The Curse Of An Aching Heart”, “You Are My Sunshine”, “There Goes My Everything”, “One By One”… the list is endless, culminating in the Stones’ 1978 “Shattered”). And “chains” are usually chains of love, and get broken or get tighter, or can’t loosen, or bind me, or have to be taken from my heart, and are rarely strong enough to hold me – but shattered they never are, except by Dylan and his disciple Sinfield. Both poets undoubtedly being guided by the sound affinity of the palatal consonants [sh] and [ch].

The difference, not surprisingly, lies in the poetic eloquence. Sinfield’s pièce de résistance still breathes the influence of psychedelia and contents itself with quasi-deep images like “prison moons” and “I wait outside the pilgrim’s door with insufficient schemes”, with “a load of words that half mean something,” as the British prog rock legend guitarist Richard Sinclair puts it.

Dylan, on the other hand, upholds the Holy Trinity of Rhyme, Rhythm & Reason; “I’m gonna walk down that dirt road ’til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed”… the yellow jester most certainly does not play. He walks a road and horizons change.

To be continued. Next up: Dirt Road Blues part 6


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



  1. The Sound School of Dylanology forever repeating Dylan’s comments on sound and words as though he means that any meaning words possess are scrubbed away, and then by looking backwards from “The Court of King Crimson” , say, to the “Gates of Eden” – “The rusted chains of prison moons”/”With a time-rusted compass blade” – to illustrate the premise is to indulge in slight-of-hand duplicity.

    Out-Dylaning Dylan does not make the Crimsom song meaningless because words take on a life of their own that readers or listeners thereto can unfurl to find a unity of one sort or another – in the theme of both songs.

    You don’t have to be a Structuralist to know which way the words are flowing.

  2. For example ” the purple piper’ is not only an alliteration, but likely an admission on the part of the songwriter that Dylan’s Baroque style is being embellished ( purpled) up to one that’s Rococo,.

  3. That is, Dylan’s Baroque diction style of conceits, not in choice of music; Crimson mixes both – leaning toward the ornate Rococo in diction, the blackness of Baroque in music; DM Stith goes completely Baroque in his version of Gates.

  4. Could it be that the ‘yellow jester” in Crimson refers to Bob Dylan.

    Yellow bile is associated with fire and anger, from the old ‘psychological’ theory of ‘humours’ that are related to the ‘elements’ of earth, wind, water, and fire,

  5. Yellow bile is associated with sumner, black bile is linked to earth, autumn, and sadness.

    Crimson blood with wind (air), spring and optimism.

    That is to say, words come laden with meaning from history.

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