New Orleans Rag: the meanings behind Bob Dylan’s early song

New Orleans Rag

Between “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “With God on our side” Dylan wrote a number of songs that ultimately, in most cases, were not used on any of the albums.  Songs such as

The range of topics was widespread, for in addition to the inevitable songs about leaving and travelling on, there were other topics slightly more unexpected topics explored – including New Orleans Rag (although this too does a rapid departure at the end).

New Orleans Rag is about a man who feels depressed and who is then told by a passer-by that he knows a woman who can sort the singer out.  The singer goes to the door of the woman’s house, but the men she sees coming out are in such a state he takes fright and runs away.

It appears to have been performed in a concert in April 1963 and then subsequently with eight takes across three separate recording sessions which Wiki has identified as the Times The Are A Changin’ sessions in August 1963 and a separate session in October that year.  It was also played again in concert in July of 1963.

The live versions used the guitar and one at least of the studio recordings used the piano.  I’ve found a live version and a studio piano version – presumably there are copies of the others around, but seemingly not free to listen to on the internet.

Here is the piano version of the song, which I hope you might agree, is a great piece of fun.

Inevitably the lyrics changed as they went along, and the recordings don’t quite match the lyrics on the official Bob Dylan site.

The first verse gives a feeling of where this is going…

I was sittin’ on a stump down in New Orleans
I was feelin’ kinda low down dirty and mean
Along came a fella and he didn’t even ask
He says, “I know of a woman that can fix you up fast”
I didn’t think twice I said like I should
“Let’s go find this lady that can do me some good”
We walked across the river on a sailin’ spree
And we came to a door called one-oh-three

Then we have the story of the men who emerge from behind the door

There comes another man he wiggled and he wobbled
He couldn’t hardly stand he had this frightened look in his eyes
Like he just fought a bear he was ready to die

and then there

Was a long-legged man who couldn’t hardly crawl
He muttered and he uttered in broken French
And he looked like he’d been through a monkey wrench

So the singer tries to get out of there quick, and he does that natural traveller thing of jumping a freight train.

And thus we hit the moral…

So, if you’re travelin’ down Louisiana way
And you feel kinda lonesome and you need a place to stay
Man, you’re better off in your misery
Than to tackle that lady at one-oh-three

What is so interesting is that in the midst of these various songs of leaving and larking around, Dylan then wrote “Who killed Davy Moore” and “Seven Curses.”

There really is no telling how Bob worked and what took him from one theme to another during these periods of energetic writing but jump around he certainly did.

Dylan has rarely written about the world of prostitution, and we can’t really know why he suddenly decided to do a song about it now, but it is interesting to listen to his introduction to the live recording.

In one way however this was a clear forerunner of the Basement era songs about the strangest people one could ever meet.  Yet it is not so much about the lady, but the look of the men who leave her house that fascinates Dylan. And it continued to be that way for several years.

What else is on the site

1: Over 460 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. Side2, track 4: Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been
    (His Gotham Ingress)
    .1974 Kornyfone Bootleg LP

  2. With the New Orleans reference in the title and the use of the word “fix,” I would suggest the woman at one-oh-three is a hoodoo lady, rather than a prostitute.

  3. //Dylan has rarely written about the world of prostitution//

    I disagree. Dylan has always written about women who take your money and steal your mind.
    Saint Annie and Sweet Melinda that Tom Thumb encountered in Juarez are clearly prostitutes, as is the “this girl from France” in the Dylan’s 115th Dream.

    The venal nature of the encounter and the mechanics of the sex act in 4th Time Around also point in the same direction.

    Later songs like Frankie Lee and A Simple Twist of Fate and many on the Desire album also involve prostitutes.

    In all cases, the narrator client finds himself back on the street (in the dirt), feeling empty and cheated. This is seen most starkly in J L Tom Thumb’s Blues, where the encounter seems to have cost the writer his soul and his poetic voice.

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