Red River Shore part 3: Pretty angels all flying in a row

by Jochen Markhorst

III         Pretty angels all flying in a row

Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shooting by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark
To be where the angels fly

Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I’ve never wanted any of ’em wanting me
’Cept the girl from the Red River shore

 The song starts indeed a bit undylanesque, a bit pre-war. An opening with such an aphoristic, moralistic reflection is not uncommon with Heine or Brecht, from parables and Christian lyricism, and from antique ballads altogether, but so far Dylan deemed it too old-fashioned. True, the archaic, slightly edifying-sounding introduction “some of us…” has been used twice in his catalogue, but both times at the end of the song, in the classical way, to express an overarching, concluding moral in the final couplet. Both times also quite similar in content, by the way. Both in “Walls Of Red Wing” (Some of us’ll end up in St. Cloud Prison, and some of us’ll wind up to be lawyers and things) and in “George Jackson (Some of us are prisoners, the rest of us are guards) to proclaim the cynical message that all of us are either victims of the system or enforcers of the system.

For “Red River Shore”, Dylan moves the some of us-formula to the opening lines, but (fortunately) without a socio-critical undertone. It does foretell, though, a preachy, ethical morality; if the forthcoming lyrics turn out to be a ballad with a tragic life or love story, then we may expect some wise lesson – or so this aphoristic opening seems to promise. And then one as might be distilled from Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism, from “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Semantically it is only a small step to Dylan’s “Some of us turn off the lights and we live in the moonlight shooting by”, and in terms of content it does seem to want to express approximately the same thing: we all are in the darkness, in the gutter, miserable, but comfort is to be found in beauty, something like that.

Wilde’s aphorism, by the way, has completely detached itself from its original meaning. The quote comes from his first big hit, from his first comedy of society, from Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), is spoken by Lord Darlington and in the context of the dialogue means something like “all men are immoral bastards, but some can hide that very well behind charm”. But freed from its context, the quote gains tremendously in poetic brilliance and depth, to be overshadowed perhaps only by that other perfect quote from Lady Windermere, “I can resist everything except temptation.”

A first problem, and perhaps a first explanation of Dylan’s apparent dissatisfaction with the song, is offered by these opening lines. Some of us turn off the lights and we live in the moonlight shooting by, as he seems to be singing, or Some of us turn off the lights and we lay up in the moonlight shooting by, as it says in the official Lyrics and on the website, is both semantically and poetically a bit weird – not to say just weak. “Moonlight shooting by”? All of us have the childhood memory of the night journey back home in the car, pleasantly warm and safe in the backseat, while the light of the street lamps shoots by. But the poet probably does not want to evoke this association. Nor, we may assume, anything like the Star Wars Stormtroopers shooting with light and missing all the time.

Comparably problematic is the next, equally aphoristic, metaphor: “Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark / To be where the angels fly.” This time not only semantically and poetically, but now syntactically a confusing mess as well. “We frighten ourselves, and very much so, in order to dwell in a place where celestial beings flutter around”? – it is hard to understand this particular sequence of words in any other way. Well alright, through laborious detours and with acceptance of cheap symbolism, something like “we live a cramped life in ignorance, for fear of not being admitted to Heaven’s Kingdom,” or something like that could be extracted – but that would be a very pathetic moral to accompany the coming, sad lost-love lament about the Red River Girl.

No, it actually seems as if Dylan is seeking his 1965 form, his sound-over-meaning mode, as if Dylan tries to do “consciously what I used to do unconsciously,” as he says in 1978 Matt Damsker interview. And as he, in a variation, a few years after “Red River Shore” will repeat in the CBS “60 Minutes” special interview with Ed Bradley (2004):

BD: I don’t know how I got to write those songs.
EB: What do you mean you don’t know how?
BD: All those early songs were almost magically written. Ah… “Darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, a handmade blade, the child’s balloon…” Well, try to sit down and write something like that.

So, stylistically at most, this somewhat strange opening to “Red River Shore” is still Dylanesque in a way. We see a familiar stylistic feature, the surprising metaphor, the stylistic device that Dylan seems to use more consciously as the years go by. The poetic brilliance of a metaphor like to be where the angels fly may be debatable – and rigid Christian interpreters probably deny that it is meant metaphorically at all. And maybe a playful Dylan is only incorporating a playful nod to the Meat Puppets song played so smashingly by Nirvana in 1994 during the MTV Unplugged session, “Lakes Of Fire”;

Where do bad folks go when they die?
They don't go to heaven where the angels fly
They go to the lake of fire and fry
Won't see them again 'till the fourth of July
I knew a lady who came from Duluth
Bit by a dog with a rabid tooth
She went to her grave just a little too soon
And flew away howling on the yellow moon

… but the flying angels metaphor is surprising anyway. With the same surprising power as the whole world got me pinned up against the fence in “‘Til I Fell In Love With You”, for example, or my soul has turned into steel in “Not Dark Yet”. Or, for that matter, shadowing a silver spoon. But without the relevance that the metaphors in these other Time Out Of Mind songs have. At least, a bridge to the following Pretty maids all in a row lined up outside my cabin door is completely opaque.

In June 2020, when Douglas Brinkley interviews Dylan for the New York Times and asks about the Eagles reference in “Murder Most Foul”, the pretty maids-verse retroactively takes on a different connotation;

Your mention of Don Henley and Glenn Frey on “Murder Most Foul” came off as a bit of a surprise to me. What Eagles songs do you enjoy the most?

“New Kid in Town,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” That could be one of the best songs ever.

Until that remarkable outpouring in 2020, the verse seemed an unspectacular derivation – from the eighteenth-century nursery rhyme “Mary” perhaps;

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

… but a connection with Joe Walsh’s atypical contribution to Hotel California seemed a bit absurd. And still isn’t too obvious, really. Melancholy is a common denominator, but the line to “Red River Shore” is not much thicker than that. Which doesn’t matter to Walsh, of course. Two months after that New York Times interview, fellow composer Joe Vitale tells Rolling Stone what an impression Dylan’s words make:

“Coming from Bob Dylan, it doesn’t get any better than that. I called Joe immediately. And he goes, ‘I know what you’re calling about.’ I said, ‘This is so cool, Joe.’ He was excited, too. He thought that was really cool. I printed out that article and framed it.”

It was like, Joe means to say, to be where the angels fly.

To be continued. Next up Red River Shore part 4: I got a gal named Sue


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. Caught once again in the bright headlights of ‘It’s sound over meaning”, Jochen demands there be a clear Structuralist meaning to the lyrics or there’s none at all (because he can’t fathom any).

    A literary artist, through his imagination (rather than his rational mind)can impose an emotional state on to the world outside.

    A motif that can easily be taken as the “meaning ” of the song above~ akin to Poe’s poem: “Alone”).

  2. From the lightning in the sky
    A it passed me flying by
    From the thunder, and the storm
    (When the rest of heaven was blue)
    Of a demon in my view

    …you can have your sound and meaning to go with it too

  3. All of us have childhood memories of streetlamps shooting by???
    Streets??? ..lamps???
    Must’ve been some of them there new-fangled whatsyamacallits!

  4. I really like these ‘Untold’ peregrinations, but there’s a terrible tendency to explain away any difficulty with understanding the lyrics by stating that Bob has just written meaningless drivel. A strange attitude from committed Dylan fans! I’m not claiming to be right, but I have always taken Red River Shore as one of Bob’s songs about his relationship to the music/muse. The opening it seems to me refers to the true artist’s need to ‘scare ourselves to death in the dark’ in order to reach the places ‘where the angels fly’. The ‘girl’ is the music that ‘I’ll always adore’ and ‘should always be with me’. At the time of writing ‘the sun went down on me a long time ago’, but he’s still searching hoping ‘the hills will give me a song’. Fortunately for Bob and for us, he did rediscover his muse and he still has it. Possibly all very fanciful, but surely preferable to dismissing one of his most lovely songs as a ‘confusing mess’ that chooses to ignore coherence for ‘sound over meaning.’

  5. Yes, that’s the way I too take the song on the level regarding aritistic creativity.

    A baroque conceit is supposed to be expansive, even seemingly paradoxical, ie ‘odd’, so for a critic to call such comparations nonrevalent or odd is…… well ….odd.

  6. Thanks Patrick, a substantive response is always appreciated. And deserves a serious answer.

    I really hope I don’t give the impression that I “explain away any difficulty with understanding the lyrics by stating that Bob has just written meaningless drivel”. That’s about 2000 light years away from my appreciation of Dylan’s songs.

    I do, however, have little appreciation for the tendency to see his lyrics as laboriously scrambled riddles. Preferably autobiographical, too. A tendency that has been prevalent for about sixty years, I’m afraid. Crypto-analysts then search for keys and find that Louise is “actually” Joan Baez, that the you in “Dirge” is his heroin addiction, and that the Red River girl is “actually” his music – to name but three examples.

    I think this kind of alleged code-cracking does not do justice to his Nobel Prize-winning poetry. It is just too simple and, frankly, too childish. I don’t think Dylan is a diarist with a compulsive need to encrypt his observations and his feelings. The “I” is not “I, Dylan”. I think his best works have a value comparable to Renoir’s masterpieces or Rilke’s finest poems; Dylan is a great artist who expresses impressions lyrically in his songs – melancholy, desolation, rage, happiness in love, fear… in short: the Great Feelings, which can only be poignantly expressed, depicted and musically voiced by Great Artists. And additionally Dylan also writes plenty of epic, narrative songs – songs that tell a story, usually beautifully worded. Again with words and images that touch us.

    The Very Big Songs hover in between, I think – “Desolation Row”, “Hard Rain”, “Visions Of Johanna”, Shelter From The Storm”… songs that suggest a narrative, but really do express impressions poetically.

    Dylan doesn’t always hit the mark, though. I regularly analyse a song line by line, and I do come across the occasional “filler”. A line, or a word combination, or just the rhyme word, that seems to be chosen just for the sound. Nothing wrong with that, I think, and quite normal too; even Renoir, Mozart and Rilke sometimes have to fill an open spot on the canvas, in a score or in a poem. And then, just like Dylan, they sometimes misfire. With an image that is simply weak. Or a word combination that evokes other images than intended. Also very common, and also something that happens to all great artists (Beethoven’s scores are notorious).

    There are, however, Dylan fans who find such an observation annoying. Both the observation that he sometimes resorts to “filler” and the observation that occasionally, there is also a less successful verse. I don’t know why that is considered so annoying. But that’s how it is. Larry (above), for example, does hit out every time I dare to suggest that a word has been chosen for its sound, and does not contribute to the expressiveness of the content. And he is certainly not the only one.

    “Red River Shore”, to return to the subject, seems to be limping. I suspect that’s why Dylan has let the song down so ruthlessly – there are too many weak moments in too many verses, and I strongly suspect that it was only around the seventh verse that Dylan got the idea (or a new idea) of where he wanted to go with the song. The last verse does seem – by far – the strongest and most inspired to me. Ah merde – I’m jumping ahead to the next parts of this series (13 parts). I’ll stop.

    Equally intriguing, by the way. I am, after all, fascinated by the songs – why do they touch us, how does a Nobel prize winning poet produce his Nobel prize winning lyrics, which perception may have lead to what particular image, what happens in the creative part of his brain. Still: I suspect that Dylan is human – not every word wells up from a divine fountain of wisdom or creativity, or has the depth of ancient aphorisms.

    Anyway – thank you for your detailed response and apologies for this terribly long-winded answer. Got a bit carried away there.

    Groeten uit Utrecht,

  7. Red River Shore- a great song through and through…..

    Jochen has long been berating those who search for meaning in Dylan songs, and finally when they’ve had enough,and hit back, it is he who is offended.

    The problem of course is that Jochen decides he is the divine judge of which lyrics
    are to be considered inferior and weak, , and then points to silly so-called ‘decoders’ of ‘riddlers’ (as straw dogs) as if words by their metaphoical nature do not carry meaning(s) in and of themselves.

    He places the cart before the horse, and then calls the horse stupid.

    Worst of all Jochen “suspects” ( without any proof) that Dylan is a human, a mere one at that, and, can you believe it, that he is mortal!

  8. Not only is Jochen provided by the Court with a Devil’s Advocate to defend his blasphemy against Dylan, if his confession of guilt sounds sincere he’ll be given a glass of poison to drink before he’s set afire at the stake.

    My goodness, what else does he expect!

  9. Word associations are flying everywhere, but, for example, as some autobiography-bent analysts do “Louise” is equated with Joan Baez in “Visions” – “Louisanna” (lol), maybe – whereas “Johanna” is variant of Joan if one wanted to go down that path.

    But to assert one has the inside track on meaning or non-meaning of song, or a part thereof, is a bit pretentious when the insertion of a “could be that..,” would be
    the humble thing to do.

  10. Out -out are the lights – all out …
    While the angels all pallid and wan
    Upraising, unveiling, affirming
    The play is the tragedy of man
    And the hero is the conqueror worm

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