Villon And Dylan

Villon And Dylan

By Larry Fyffe

In many of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics he takes on the persona of Francois Villon, a French vagabond poet of the 15th century, an autobiographical poet who turns the courtly values of his day upside down, viewing the world from the perspective of the downtrodden who inhabit Desolation Row of the late Middle Ages:

Tell me where, or in what country
Is Flora, the lovely Roman ….
The White Blanche of the Siren’s voice
White as a swan ….
Where are they, Virgin, you who reign?
Oh, where is last year’s snow?
Prince, don’t ask of me again
Where they are, this year or no
I only have this last refrain
Oh, where is last year’s snow?
(Villon: Ballad Of The Ladies In Times Past)

Dylan finds both Snow White and Cinderella:

Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday, she already is an old maid …..
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella, sweeping up on Desolation Row

Characteristic of Dylan’s style, he takes end-rhyme from the original source (in this case a translation), and varies a bit –

Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me
no more letters – no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

There be ‘no’ and ‘row’ instead of ‘no’ and ‘snow’.

In his poetry Villon, based on his own experiences, observes that laws are made by and for the protection of the powerful, and the powers-that-be have the material means to enforce and maintain order that includes the legitimate use of violence and control over the sanctifying propaganda of religion right on down to fairy tales; indeed, to keep their feet upon the tight-rope rather than having it around their necks, the downtrodden may even turn against one another:

My brothers who live after us
Don’t harden your hearts against us too
If you have mercy on us
God may have mercy upon you
Five, six, you see us, hung out to view
(Villon: Ballad Of The Hanged)

The message, somewhat softened by accompanying music, in the following:

They’re selling post cards of the hanging,
they’re painting the passports brown
Here comes the blind commissioner,
they’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker,
the other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless,
they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight,
from Desolation Row
(Dylan: Desolation Row)

Brown passports being the mark of military personnel.

Given the consequences for not doing so, walking the line is an option worth considering, says the poet:

Now here, now there, the changing breeze
Swings, as it wishes, ceaselessly
Beaks pricking us more than a cobbler’s awl
So don’t you join our fraternity
But pray that God absolves us all
(Villon: Ballad Of The Hanged)

There is the option, however, chosen by some of the powerless, to imitate the leaders of mainstream society. That is, gaining authority through the power of material wealth, backed by violence. Hard drugs, the means thereto. Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, to quote poet John Milton.

Sung by Dylan, the ballad of the hanged becomes the band of the hand, the brotherhood of the slums:

Down these streets the fools rule
There’s no freedom or self respect
A knife’s point or a trip to the joint
Is about all you can expect
They kill people who stand up for their rights
The system’s just too damned corrupt
It’s always the same, the name of the game
It’s who do you know higher up
It’s Hell time, man
(Dylan: Band Of The Hand)

Not a right-wing song, it’s a variation on the Dylanesque theme against violence:

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your death bed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Till I’m sure that you’re dead
(Dylan: Masters Of War)

What’s good for the early Roman kings is good for the king-pins of war, and what’s good for them is good for the masters of the hard drug trade.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 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 all 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 recently started to produce 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 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.

One comment

  1. Of course whether the ‘rhymes’ are deliberately similar to Villon’s (though the the motifs are) depends upon Dylan reading the same translation – this I do not know for a fact, but is merely speculation on my part – could be coincidence.

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