Dylan’s Scarlet Town decoded; from the nursery to Johanna, from Tangled up to Set em up Jo.

By Tony Attwood

The world can look ok, because we see it like this every day, but peel back the curtains and you find something completely different.  Something awful lurks outside, but we see it every day and so pretend its not so bad really.  We know it’s chaos, we pretend it is order.  We know it is awful, we pretend it is all right.

And that’s how I have come to see Dylan’s “Scarlet Town”.  But the images are so convoluted I could be completely wrong.  Maybe that’s the point.

Bob has played this song 272 times at the time of writing (September 2017), so he obviously rates it, and by and large we know quite a bit about its origins.  With a spot of luck, some insight and (as so often with Bob) a bit of (hopefully inspired) guesswork, we can work out many versions of what is going on.  Here’s just one…

The approach of the original song – Barbara Allen – is classic iambic pentameter which is also known as the rising duple giving us a beat of one-two, one-two

In Scarlet Town where I was born
There was a fair maid dwelling [pause]
And every youth cried well away
For her name was Barbara Allen [pause]

What Bob does is take that structure and give us a mix of iambic pentameter and trochaic pentameter, the latter being also known as falling duple: one-two, one-two.

An example of this comes from A.E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now’ (1896):

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Bob  gives us

Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face, heaping prayers on his head

The difference being Bob gives us falling / rising / falling / falling.

Now if you’ve read my rambling reviews before you’ll know I don’t normally bother with meter, because in a song the music allows you to play with the meter in all sorts of ways that you can’t get away with in a poem (as there is nothing to fill the bits with no words). But I have read a couple of commentaries that suggest Bob took a 19th century poem and based the meter on this, but I don’t think this is at all right.  He’s using classic elements from poetry and combining them as many have done before – it is not just one poem that influenced him.

What Bob does however is turn the original song of Barbara Allen all upside down in the lyrics so we don’t get a fair maid dwelling we get a “flat-chested junky whore.”   “Scarlet Town” has been replaced, if not by Desolation Row, then Juarez at Easter in the rain.

In the original tale Barabara’s lover, William, is lying on his death bed, and sends a message to Barbara to come to him.  But she is slow in getting there, and by the time she arrives he’s dead.  So mortified by her awful behaviour is she, that she ups and dies the next day.  A typical tale from the medieval period onwards.

And of course there is a twist…

And from his grave grew a red red rose
From her grave a green briar

And the two entwine as one so the lovers are together in eternity.  Within its medieval context this is an utterly moving tale of two young lovers reminding the audience that chance, mistakes and bad times on earth do happen, but can be redeemed in the afterlife where happiness prevails for those who believe.

The 21st century version of Scarlet Town created by Bob Dylan however is now a much more ramshackle affair, with only the slightest echoes of the original.

Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face, heaping prayers on his head

So brave, so true, so gentle is he
I’ll weep for him as he’d weep for me
Little Boy Blue come blow your horn
In Scarlet Town where I was born

And the first question is, what on earth is Little Boy Blue doing in there?

“Little Boy Blue” in this incarnation is not from the poem by Eugene Field about the death of a child which appeared in 1888 in the Chicago weekly literary journal, America.  Rather it is from the rhyme in Tommy Thumb’s Little Song Book (published in the mid 18th century although probably much older.  There are suggestions that there is a reference to it in King Lear (III, vi) when Edgar, masquerading as Mad Tom, say “Thy sheepe be in the corne”.   The nursery rhyme runs…

Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn;
But where is the boy
Who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack,
He’s fast asleep.
Will you wake him?
No, not I,
For if I do,
He’s sure to cry.

For me, Bob’s use of the phrase is just a reference back to the simple days of the past.  Is he really talking about the town where he was born (in contrast to his wife’s home town which is hell, apparently)?   I doubt it, but I guess it could be a reference to Gabriel’s horn in here, blown to announce Judgement Day.  This ain’t judgement day however, this is just life, so instead of Gabriel we get little boy blue.

Thus we have lost the simple life of our childhood, nothing is right any more; we have emotions, we can feel sadness and pity, but we haven’t really learned any lessons at all because as soon as we look beyond the dying man and the grieving lover we find…

Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes but it comes too late

In our brave new world yes, you can ask for help from your lover but really there is no telling if you are going to get that help – he might well be fast asleep like Little Boy Blue, or just tarrying along the way like Barbara Allen.  Even touching Christ’s cloak doesn’t guarantee a cure from your afflictions; not in the modern world it don’t.

On marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town where I was born

So presumably even the miracles don’t work no more (as in Matthew 9:20 where the woman touches Christ’s cloak and is healed).  In fact this is the end – or one of the versions of the end of all time

In Scarlet Town the end is near
The seven wonders of the world are here
The evil and the good living side by side
All human forms seem glorified

So maybe Battle of Armageddon isn’t an actual war – it is just the life that we have now.  We are, in fact, at the end of all times.

And as a result we are still suffering for the sins of our fathers, trying to hard to forget all that has gone before in the name of God, in the name of Progress, and maybe all that we have done just to survive.

In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows
You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in
You fight ‘em with whisky, morphine and gin

So here I am, in the bar, listening to music trying to pass the time, maybe truing to make things right, waiting for the end

Set ‘em up Joe, play Walking The Floor
Play it for my flat chested junky whore
I’m staying up late and I’m making amends
While the smile of heaven descends

I’ve done it all, and I don’t regret anything, in fact I just wish I’d done more, when I had the time.   But there is no “better judgement”.   In fact it is getting pretty uncertain whether there is even any judgement at all.  The only thing to learn is that life goes around and around – the setting might have changed but really, the rest is just how it goes.  Best make the best of it, for this is all we have…

If love is a sin than beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
It’s all right there for ya in Scarlet Town

Indeed this setting – the cards that fate deals out are what affects your life – you can’t fight the fate you are dealt.

This is of course a message totally contrary to the Christianity that Dylan preached for a number of years.   Which is not to say he’s given up on the Christian message, because there is nothing to say he believes this vision, any more than any novelist believes in the story lines he evolves.  It’s just the story he’s telling today.  Maybe

As to the references, they are, I suspect, significant only as illustrations, rather like a poet had employed a cartoonist to sketch a few drawings as part of the story.  They are not, in my view, insightful definitions.   Here’s Set em up Joe from 1988.


“Set ‘Em Up Joe” was a tribute song to Ernest Tubb (ET in the lyrics).  Tubb was the Texas Troubadour, an American singer and songwriter and one of the pioneers of country music. His biggest career hit song, “Walking the Floor Over You” which although not a massive hit as first was later seen as the first honky tonk song that launched the musical genre.  And here it is…


You left me and you went away
You said that you’d be back in just a day
That day has come and gone but you’re still away from home
I’m walking the floor over you

Meanwhile back in Scarlet Town à la Bob…

You may of course completely disagree but I see this as an impressionist piece, giving us hints and pictures that fade in and out, rather than a whole story or any sort of complete exposition of a situation.  The references to Set Em Up Joe and Walking the Floor are not so much a specific references to specific songs as hints and impressions of the worlds we travel through within Scarlet Town – the town contains all these different elements all at the same time, just as any town might include a folk club, a bar for heavy drinkers, a dance hall playing 1950s rock n roll, a junky whore and so on.    A set of competing images, just like Visions of Johanna, and a set of varying time perspective just as with Tangled up in Blue.

And into those images we have characters: quite a bunch of characters.  Just as Visions of Johanna has Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost now we have Little Boy Blue, Vern Gosdin, Ernest Tubb, and Uncle Tom – taken from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A man who accepts and actually believes in his lower-class status because of his race.

Plus Uncle Bill (a reference I didn’t know, at least I have never heard it in English English) which the urban dictionary tells me is a “creepy family member most likely to molest anyone he can. The funny Uncle nobody trusts. The uncle who volunteers to play Santa.

Which suggests everything is concocted from the personalities we’ve been dealt through out genes and our upbringing.  A world that looks to be one thing from the front but which behind the screens is something else.  Just like in a movie, nothing is quite what it appears to be.

And repeatedly we realise that in this world there really is no escape.  For even if there were to be it would certainly come too late.  Good and bad exist side by side; that’s just how it is.  We can’t do anything about it.  That’s just how it goes.

So nothing changes, we are still fighting the same wars as our parents fought, and for all the signs of progress there is no progress

In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows
You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in
You fight ‘em with whisky, morphine and gin

But still out of all this, the narrator (be it Bob or a fictional character) believes that if he repents and tries to do better, even at this late stage all will be ok.  He only needs to sort out issues where he is now, because you don’t have to travel to put things right.

Set ‘em up Joe, play Walking The Floor
Play it for my flat chested junky whore
I’m staying up late and I’m making amends
While the smile of heaven descends

If love is a sin then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
It’s all right there for ya in Scarlet Town

Just accept it all.  It is all here, everything is fine.  It’s all good.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this 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.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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.


  1. Hasn’t Barbara Allen always been a whore?
    In those days, women on their own in a tavern (and in the song there are many to choose from), where not the honourable ones (though prostitution as a profession was more respected than nowadays).

  2. It’s all to the point Tony. And this Scarlet Town stands for America. “Scarlet Town is under the hill“ sings Dylan. Ronald Reagan said America must be “The Town on the Hill“, by quoting John Winthrop. He was all wrong.

  3. ‘Sweet William Holme on his death bed lay’…a possible reference to William Holmes, a lieutenant under the command of Myles Standish who established a settlement at Plymouth Rock while attempting to reach Jamestown, Virginia.

  4. A lovely reading, or should I say listening?

    My hearing of Little Boy Blue is different than yours, though. What I hear in it is Barbry Allen being “re-contextualized” (sorry for trendy pretentious but helpful word) as a nursery rhyme. The old ballad, with its dramatic betrayal and redemptive purity, is “just” another tale without correspondence to the way things actually work in our real world. Ballads are beautiful words and poetry, but not more than that, at least in Scarlet Town.

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