“If I Was A King”: Bob Dylan For Dummies


By Larry Fyffe

With a focus on the lyrics of his songs, Bob Dylan presents a narrative through them that is highly consistent.

And it goes – The God of the Old Testament is a real tough-guy when He’s not obeyed:

In the city is left desolation
And the gate is smitten with destruction
(Isaiah 24 :12)

So it seems best to say nice things about God, and follow the orders of His superhuman crew; else bad things a-gonna happen to you – just like the bad stuff that happens to Adam and Eve:

O Lord, thou art my God
I will exalt thee
I will praise thy name ….
For thou hast made the city a heap
(Isaiah 25:1,2)

Dylan takes note of William Blake who refers to these verses of Isaiah when the poet criticizes the established religious order of his time. Blake castigates biblical ‘reformer’ Emanuel Swedenborg for helping God and Jesus escape to the outside of the physical Universe when they are most needed in town – leaving people on their own.

Blake claims that an artist, using imagination to the fullest, can become a God, be like the human Jesus, and create a mythological world of one’s own with tigers and lambs in it.

Swedenborg, according to Blake, instead stifles the creative imagination – folds it up:

Swedenborg is the angel sitting at the tomb
His writings are the linen clothes folded up
(William Blake: The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell)

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan picks up the story:

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
(Bob Dylan: Like A Rolling Stone)

There must be some way out of here, says Dylan. He’s a-gonna unroll the linen clothes, and roll the stone away from the tomb. Not so fast, Frederich Nietzsche interrupts – the heavenly life is reserved just for powerful masters. Ah, but if they’re lucky, innovative people who seek to get away from the status quo, have ‘Desolation Row’ to escape to, sings Dylan:

At midnight all the agents of the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more
than they do
Then they bring them to the factory where the
heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders, and then the kerosene
is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

In the French Quarter of Desolate City, the singer/songwriter befriends a poet who’s sleepin’ in the alleyway – and you’d never know it, but he was famous not that long ago in the musical ‘The Three Penny Opera’, as well as in the movie ‘If I Were A King’.

Dylan finds a kindred spirit in the poet – Francois Villon knows how it feels to be on your own on Desolation Row:

Have pity now, have pity now on me
If you at least would, friend of mine
I’m in the depths, not holly or may
In exile where I have been consigned
By fortune, as God too has designed
(Francois Villon: Epistre)

Inverting the thoughts of Swedenborg and other theologians who build walls that trap human beings in a dark physical world, Villon and Dylan see a light that comes shining from friendship and love; there’s something that does not love a wall; that wants it down:

He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Everything I think about him now
Lord, I just can’t keep from cryin’
‘Cause he was a friend of mine
He died on the road
He died on the road
He never had enough money
To pay his room and board
He was a friend of mine
(He Was A Friend Of Mine)

From the rogue poetry of Villon, Dylan gains knowledge – no sense asking for directions to a home in heaven when you’re home on earth with Mom and God chasing after you:

If I was a king, I’d walk the straight and narrow
With a hundred stallions following me
And if I were a rogue, I’d leave at midnight in the barrow
With the Lone Ranger after me
Well, I rode six mare; I’d lay the wagon by the spare road
And here I stand with you facin’ me
And O Lord – the cost, my blood and my marrow
With your hand always chasin’ me
Well, I’d give all I had to tell her just one word
And for a kiss, I’d throw it all into the sea
Ah, but here I stand on a lake without a sparrow
None at hand to comfort me
And if I was a rogue, I’d give her all of my luck
And take my chances with that lake and this blue sea
(Bob Dylan: If I Was A King ~ Emmett Sherlock)

Best to dance like Jesus, and sing like a sparrow.

What else is on the site

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.

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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

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4 Responses to “If I Was A King”: Bob Dylan For Dummies

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    status quo have – no comma

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    A time to weep and a time to laugh
    A time to mourn and a time to dance
    (Ecclesiastes 3:4)

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    In Hibbing, Bob Dylan’s relatives owned a movie threatre

  4. Hello there, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/3530/If-I-Was-A-King Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud plus so much more… including this link.

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