“Absolutely Sweet Marie” The meaning of the music and the lyrics

Coming back to Blonde and Blonde I picked up my original double album, the one I bought shortly after its release in England, while I was a music student.  Amazingly its in quite good nick – probably because no one else studying music with me at the time liked Dylan, so it only got played by me in my room, alone.  Ah, those Visions of Johanna.

Playing this original copy now suddenly makes me think two things.  First how extraordinarily annoying it is to have to get up and swing the stylus back if you want to play a song over and over (as I do when writing these reviews).  Second, just what an extraordinary virtuoso tour side three of Blonde on Blonde is.

Dylan was exploring throughout this set of five songs what he could do with chord changes and “middle 8″s (the short section inside a song where he pulls away from the verse format and does something different)”.  The songs all have something of this in different degrees…

  1. Most Likely You Go Your Way and i’ll go Mine
  2. Temporary Like Achilles
  3. Absolutely Sweet Marie
  4. 4th Time Around
  5. Obviously 5 Believers

I’ll work my way through these, but I’m starting with Sweet Marie, because it is one that I particularly remember from those days, probably like everyone else because of the classic line “To live outside the law you must be honest”.

Jonathan Lethem, in an article in Harpers magazine in February 2007, notes that the line is very similar to a line in the 1958 film The Lineup, “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty”.

With Dylan it was ever thus.

The lyrics of Sweet Marie are an upbeat version of the woman’s gone but with infinitely more positive energy than “My Baby Left Me”, and without the aggression and annoyance.  He’s waited for her, she’s betrayed him or left him, or abandoned him half way through some dodgy and illegal scheme, he’s in prison, he can’t get to her, when he does get out she’s left home.

Or something like that.

I’m not sure it really matters, any more than the exact meaning of the lyrics in many “my baby’s gone” type songs is relevant.  It’s all the blues even when played with all sorts of chord experimentation that Dylan never (or at least very rarely) uses before or ever after and with this real upbeat tempo.

Playing this today from the vinyl on modern equipment gives us about the best sound we could have got at the time – but oh, it sounds fairly poor compared with what we can get now out of remastered albums.

The song from the album plays in E flat – a very odd key for Dylan to choose – but it is not quite E flat.  I don’t have perfect pitch any more, but even so my piano is absolutely in tune to concert pitch – maybe it is my record player – but I do know a lot of songs before digital came along slipped slightly out of the pitch they were recorded in because of tape machines not running at exactly the right speed.

Dylan uses the chords that we might expect from a song in E flat – he’s got A flat and B flat in there throughout, but the minor chords associated with the key: C minor and G minor.

The song moves along at quite a gait – there is no attempt to make it sound like a railway song but it bounces along and gives that feel, not only with the percussion but the way the harmonica is played.  It is something that is emphasised by the fact that the instrumental introduction is the same as the instrumental coda at the end – both based on a repeated chord that emphasises the train running over the tracks.

Musically the big surprise comes with the middle 8

Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously
But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately

Just listen to the piano running down the bass notes to get to that chord at the start of each of those lines.  Quite something.

Suddenly the chord of B major is hit – a chord that has about as little to do with a song in E flat as any chord could have.  It is an audacious move – and even more audacious for Dylan to use that middle 8 in the second instrumental break with him playing the harmonica.

As others have said before me, there is a feeling of the playful here.  The song could well be a tragedy, and yet it bounces, a bit like Bonnie and Clyde as a movie is all about death but trots along with quite a vigour.

It is a feeling that life bounces along, stuff happens, some of it is rubbish, but never mind, where are you?

From the start we have the railway theme (my apologies if you are in America – I’ve written “railway” rather than “railroad” all my life, and it would seem pretentious to change now.)

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it

Incidentally I do love “frozen traffic” for traffic jam.  Great line.

Then we have the curiosity with the unexpected chord change…

Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously
But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately

It is a bit like going over the points on a railway line in the 1960s – we keep going but there is that unexpected jerk.

Dylan, the greatest songwriter of the second half of the 20th century saying anyone can be like me, but not many people can be like you.   I guess he’s in his “i’m a song and dance man” mode.

Quite where Dylan goes with the riverboat captain I really don’t know so it is silly to guess,  and the same is true with

The Persian drunkard, he follows me

but by then it doesn’t matter.  When Dylan says

Yes, I can take him to your house but I can’t unlock it

he’s talking about the physical house, and the mind at the same time, and that gives us a clue to the real meaning of  Oh, where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

It might be physical it might be mental.

But then we come to the last verse

Now, I been in jail when all my mail showed
That a man can’t give his address out to bad company
And now I stand here lookin’ at your yellow railroad
In the ruins of your balcony
Wond’ring where you are tonight, sweet Marie

Very rarely for Dylan, he commented on the Yellow Railroad line saying, “That’s about as complete as you can be. Every single letter in that line. It’s all true. On a literal and on an escapist level…. Getting back to the yellow railroad, that could be from looking someplace. Being a performer, you travel the world. You’re not just looking out of the same window everyday. You’re not just walking down the same old street. So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you. You don’t have to observe. It hits you. Like, “yellow railroad” could have been a blinding day when the sun was so bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind…. These aren’t contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out.”

So there we have it.  A rollicking song with images.  What more did we want after being haunted by the Visions of Johanna?

I’ll work through the rest of this side of the album in the coming reviews and try to pull it all together.

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it

Right on Bob.

Index to all the review


  1. There were two great female folk singers in the 60s .
    Joan Baez and Buffu-Sainte-Marie and they were just as great or greater than Bob Dylan at that time. I think he feels they have locked him out and he cant no longer stand below the balcony and sing his songs for them. The door is closed.
    He left those protest singers both musically and emotionally and there is no way back. They are touring and succesfull , but he is in a sort of prison – moving nowhere.

    Those were the days where many a young girl got a guitar for christmas present and learned 3 or 5 guitar grip and just started to play and sing folk song.

    Buffu Sainte Marie: Universal soldier

    Joan Baez: Where have all the flowers gone

  2. The drunken Persian is Omar Khayyam:

    There was a door which I found no key
    There was a veil past which I could not see

  3. why is he in jail?? Is it possible that the riverboat captain saw what he did to miss marie? and the question he poses is really gallows humor in that he certainly does know what happened to Sweet Marie…

    What I want to know is why every great songwriter has a song about Marie???

  4. “But to live outside the law you must be honest”
    refers to a line from the movie ‘Lineup’:

    ‘When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty”

  5. for a few years in the ’90s I composed lyrics of several songs by utililizing what I believed was Dylan’s methodology: (1) get the music, or most of it, down first (2) smoke some dope and improvise the lyrics, though not without a title/ idea in mind (3) work on the lyrics daily until you have a complete song. My music was more influenced by lou reed and it was fun hearing “Oh, you wanna be another Dylan” or “you wanna be another lou reed”, but never both from the same source./ I suspect the line “to live outside the law”, etc. happened when Dylan was stuck for a line and blurted out the paradox; the line hits because of its sense of abandon. larry fyffe’s deduction that Dylan’s paradox spun off ‘Lineup’ dialogue makes sense but this came from D.’s subconscious. I got stuck for one couplet for days and came up w/ “that drastic wedding vow/ could turn out to be an exploding plastic cow” which made me laff then made audiences laff. Of course the second line’s off-kilter metre comes from “how come he didn’t drive a truck (“115th Dream”). and much after the fact it occurred
    that my couplet wasn’t just wacky non-sequitir as it alludes to “QJ Approximately” and Warhol’s “cow wallpaper” and “exploding plastic inevitable” multimedia show. to qualify: it wasn’t just the weed, it was Dylan’s proclivity for 1930s surrealist poets like andre Breton still not widely read in the u.s. of a./ no, I didn’t become famous, but had some fun for a bit.

Leave a Reply

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