Desolation Row by Bob Dylan. It doesn’t get more frightening than this.

By Tony Attwood with help from Pat Sludden.

This review was one of the first ones I wrote in 2008 not long after conceiving of the idea of this web site, and while I was still trying to work out how best to approach songs which had been reviewed a million times before I decided to write my own comments.

In 2018 two new articles were added to the site which you might also enjoy in relation to this song.

Here’s the original review…

Returning to the original version of Desolation Row after years of hearing it in live performances, is quite a shock. I recall a performance at Wembley where suddenly it became a dance number – and none the worse for that, because once again it woke us all up to the terrors portrayed in the song.

In the original there is something so gentle and clean about the opening bars with the sweet continuing melodic guitar in the background, and then across it comes that line: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…” and you know that in and around Dylan’s home town they were still doing that when he was a kid.  The album is  named after the  highway that passes near his home town – this is Dylan talking about home but not quite home – it is that mix of real and unreal that Dylan was developing at this time.

Unhappy men, living in attics and also listening to Visions of Johanna have used lines from the end of the song to explain their feelings and emotions over the breakup of a relationship (especially the last verse), but “I received your letter yesterday” is more about the isolation of the singer from a world gone very wrong indeed, rather than anything else. It is the ultimate reflection on the decline of American idealism into an anti-intellectual fascism that protects those with against those without.

It is the most powerful attack Dylan made on his society – but it not as many claim, a surreal song. Rather it is a science fiction story of the Philip Dick genre – a total dystopia. To have added jagged guitar and pulsating drum would have been too obvious – this is peaceful music for a world that has collapsed. It doesn’t have to rain to show you the world is a miserable place.

Likewise the chord sequence is kept simple, like the accompaniment, which makes the horror of the lyrics all the more real.

There are lines here for everyone – you choose the verse and it gives you the horror show. It is The Waste Land for those who don’t read Eliot.

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do

It doesn’t get more frightening than that, does it?

What else is on the site

1: Over 470 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


  1. Hi Tony,

    Your interpretations are amazing. Whilst I don’t understand the musical, the lyrical content is very interesting and gives a different viewpoint as to what we in Bobland already have.

    One small point view, when we discussed Mississippi recently I mentioned that Bob wasn’t from there but from Minnesota

    See you soon. Keep up the good work


  2. The Hangman’s card, a symbol of regeneration, is missing from the deck in Eliot’s Wasteland, but is on sale in Desolation Row. It’s not a dystopia, but a place to escape to, not from, if you’re an artist looking for kindred spirits unhappy with mainstreet society.

  3. Mr. Attwood, Dylan rebuts TS Eliot perception that
    America is ‘a total dysopia’; the singer is not talking about the blandless of small country towns, but the impersonal, noncaring hustle and bustle of the big city in which there are enclaves to which though who reject that style of life can escape to; yes, there are problems, the, but threats come mostly from the oursde:
    “At midnight the agents and superhuman crew/
    Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do/
    Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation

    That’s ‘to’, not ‘from’; for example, artists and musicians escaping to Greenwich Village to find a creative atmosphere.

  4. Scarlet Town that uses the traditional ballad Ode To Barbara Allen as a template depicts small town USA as somewhat of a dystopia but even that song ends with a message of hope. As reviewers have noted, Dylan draws upon the Quaker abolitionist poet John Whittier:
    “How blessed the swineherd’slow estate/
    The begger crouching at the gate”.
    (Whittier: Chapel Of Hermits)

    Beggers crouched at the gate/
    Helps comes but it comes to late”.
    (Dylan: Scarlet Town)

    Dylan lyrics, always two-edged….better late than never.

  5. “I touched the garment but the hem was torn/
    In Scarlet Town where I was born”
    (Scarlet Town: Bob Dylan)

    refers to Matthew 14:36:

    “And besought after him that they might only touch the hem of his garment/
    And as many as touched were made perfectly whole”

    Dylan instead finds that everything is broken; that Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again.

  6. Didn’t know about the brown passports, so thanks. Regarding the historical background of the song, the following is a pretty good report.

    The circus was in town, postcards of the lynched men were sold. I don’t know the source for the claim that Dylan’s father told him the story–and when I wrote to ask Greil Marcus he said he doubted it happened.

  7. The song is loosely based on Tennessee Williams’ ‘Camino Real’. Can’t post the link, but please look on Wiki to see what I mean.

  8. ‘And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style’
    alludes to the movie ‘Petrified Forest’

  9. Casablanca

    Strausser: Captain, can we be sure entirely which side you are on?

    Desolation Row:

    Enerybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?”
    (Bob Dylan)

  10. chris smither did a good version of ‘Row” at ’02 Falconridge Folk Festival, indirectly alluding to 9/11. Charlie McCoy and russ savakus both added a lot to the original.
    somewhat like ‘Chimes”, though more nihilistic. “chimes’ is more a caring song. there is too much scope in ‘Row, like an overwritten first novel. but not to trash it altogether (tho D. attempts to trash all human history/ achievements here). My fave verse is the TS Elliott v. Ezra Pound/ calypso singers verse. Very insightful and surrealistic. But why does Einstein disguise himself as Robin Hood? Oh, it’s weird as fuck but seems weird for weird’s sake, though “his friend a jealous monk” isn’t gratuitously weird as it indicates the triumph of modern science over religion. Einstein’s bumming a cigarette alludes to D.’s habit of bumming cigarettes even when he was flush./ so, comme ci, comme ca, but D. threw it too high on this one. The music is stately and pretty, and carries the whole trip, but the words on paper don’t add up. and the ditty’s length smacks of overkill.

  11. Regarding “Brown Passports” Having a “Brown Passport” (1960’s) allows one to ‘go through “Customs” without any hassle (like being searched). The “Implication”. I believe that there is total freedom to travel anywhere! (There ar no “Rules” so the Fortunetelling Lady rather not participate in the ensuing mess!) She’s a major T.S.Eliot character.
    To get the ‘right’ feel for this piece, I urge all to take a DEEP look at” Nero’s Neptune”. This very ancient Greek statue shows the “fate” of any of Us who thing we are “Doing Good”

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