Early Roman Kings: The lyrics AND the music

By Tony Attwood

This series of articles (along with an earlier series “The meaning behind the lyrics and the music”) endeavours to explore the importance of the music in Dylan’s songs, rather than simply looking at the lyrics.   An index to this series and the earlier “meaning behind” series is given at the foot of the article.

Early Roman Kings is an interesting song to include in this series simply because the melody is so restrictive.  We know from the start that this is going to be a straightforward blues by the accompaniment.   But Dylan, in terms of melody takes this to an extreme because the vocal is more a declamation than a melody being based primarily on one note.  A second note is sometimes used (the minor third) and very occasionally the fourth note of the scale pops up.   There are in fact more added notes in the live performances as above, but that’s as far as it goes.

And it doesn’t matter which chord the band is playing, the melody doesn’t change – the use of the second note increases as we go forward, but that’s it.   There really is hardly any melody to speak of.  (And spare a thought for the bass guitarist…)

But then, come to that, calling what the band does “an accompaniment” is stretching it a bit as what we have here is a four note accompaniment with the last note being the same as the first and a single change of chord.   There is a certain amount of variation from the organ, but not much.

So what we have is an unvarying musical accompaniment to an almost single note vocal line – it is the ultimate song of repetition.

And yet no one that I have read or heard speak about this song has called it boring or dull – it seems to carry us along with it.  In a real sense the unchanging continuity of the piece is a background for the lyrics presented in a way that it sets a scene but doesn’t distract.  Rather like an actor performing in front of a plain curtain, and simply speaking.  No props, no waving of the arms, no pacing up and down.  It is a declamation.   (And the coda played in the live version above does change this approach slightly – but only as a way of roudning it up on stage and telling the audience it is time to cheer).

When I first heard the song, the antecedent that came to mind was “Hoochie Coochie Man” but that is still a 12 bar blues – what Dylan has done has taken the first eight bars, and then for the melody just extended it forever

Through the music Dylan gives us a sense of absolute continuity to eternity.  This is how it is and this is never going to change.  We don’t know if Bob is talking about gang warfare in New York or the days of what we now know as Italy before the Roman Empire – before even the Roman Republic.

Certainly gangs like to think of themselves as being unmoveable, and most certainly so do republics.  In fact so do most people with power be they in gangs or individuals.

And this is the brilliance of the music in this piece for there are clear references to continuity and a lack of change:

All the early Roman kings
In the early, early morn'
Coming down the mountain
Distributing the corn
Speeding through the forest
Racing down the track
You try to get away
They drag you back

As we all know, despite their leaders’ belief in their permanence, societies, gangs and groups always fall in the end as they seek to stop change while being assaulted by change on all sides.  Everything falls in the end – but while one is caught in the middle of it, it seems like this is how it will be forever.

As such this is a perfect combination of music and lyric, for both carry exactly the same message.

The lyrics and the music series…

From the earlier “The meaning behind the music and the lyrics” series



  1. I ain’t dead yet
    My bell still rings
    I keep my fingers crossed
    (Bob Dylan: Early RomanKings)

    Therfore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls
    It tolls for thee
    (John Donne: For Whom the Bell Tolls)

  2. Correction:
    Quote said by the Cyclops to Ulysses (repeated by Dylan):

    “Ship you down to the house of death” (Homer: Odyssey, Book IX transltated)

    (Not the previous quote you should(nt) have that I incorrectly posted from
    from the Iliad)

  3. ** Rather:

    Says Odysseus/Ulysses to the Cyclops he blinded:

    “Would to God I could strip you of life and breath, and ship you down to the House of Death”

  4. For Dylan, mythological Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclopes, man-eater, son of Neptune (like the biblical Whore of Babylon), represents America.

  5. Rather than “Hoochie Coochie Man,” the Muddy Waters (and previously written Bo Diddley) song which most closely resembles Dylan’s is “I’m A Man.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *