Cinderella Seems So Easy: From the Bunch of Rushes to Desolation Row


by Larry Fyffe

As others have noticed, ‘Red River Shore’ by Bob Dylan shows the influence of at least a couple of traditional folk songs. I point out that it also shows the impact of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, in particular ‘The Raven’.

Following, is a traditional song that analysts of Bob Dylan’s lyrics miss as a source of another allegorical song by Dylan. There are words both contained within the traditional song, and Dylan’s song – ‘morning’ and ‘air’, and more or less paired are – ‘walked’/’went’, ‘espied’/’spied’, ‘fair’/’fairest’, ‘maid’/’damsel’, ‘charmer’/harm’:

It was on a summer’s morning
As I walked forth to take some air
Down by a shady arbour
Where seldom strangers do appear
I espied a comely fair maid
Who I thought was going astray
With a bunch of rushes in her hand
Which she had pulled on the way

The song above tells the tale of an innocent (symbolized by the ‘rushes’) girl who yields to a self-serving seducer, and is left stranded by the man who at first mistakes her for a prostitute:

I says, my lovely charmer
To you I mean no injury
But come and sit beside me
Beneath yon wide and shady tree
Where the lofty lark and linnet
Shall witness out mutual love
And I shall never deceive you
By all the powers above
(Traditional: The Bunch Of Rushes)

In the song below, the fair damsel, is figuratively a ‘prostitute’ in the grip (symbolized by the ‘chains’) of organized authority – could be a government, or it could be a civil rights group – could be the Devil, could be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody:

As I went out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains
I offered her my hand
She took me by the arm
I knew that very instant
She meant to do me harm

Tom Paine be a political writer, a Deist in the era of the Enlightenment, who searches for a reasonable way to hold in balance the freedom of the individual, and the common good of society as a whole:

Just then Tom Paine, himself
Came running across the field
Shouting at this lovely girl
And commanding her to yield
And as she was letting go her grip
Up Tom Paine did run
“I’m sorry, sir”, he said to me
“I’m sorry for what’s she’s done”
(Bob Dylan: As I Went Out One Morning)

Dylan upholds the Romantic position that all of us are born free, but everywhere we are in chains. Individual responsibility for one’s behaviour, as opposed to an imposed morality – by organized religion, for example -is the concern of the singer/songwriter:

A whore will pass the hat, collect a hundred
grand, and say, ‘thanks’
They like to take all this money from sin, build
big universities to study in
Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ all the way to the Swiss banks
(Bob Dylan: Foot Of Pride)

Tom Paine views government, personified below, as a necessary evil to prevent behaviour that’s harms those who carry rushes – a position that is inherently paradoxical; Dylan shies not away from controversy:

Every empire that enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even Babylon
He’s made a garden in the desert sand
In bed with nobody and under nobody’s command
He’s the neighbourhood bully
(Bob Dylan: Neighbourhood Bully)

There must be some way out of the paradox, and romanticizing and whitewashing the horrors of earthly existence is one attempt by Dylan to escape the trap:

But no charge against him
Could they prove
And there no man around
Who could track or chain him down
He was never known to make a foolish move
(Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding)

Under such circumstances, cynicism is bound to raise it’s ugly head. In the long run, not much changes – there’s an eternal recurrence of good and evil; you’re stuck with Poe, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud:

Cinderella, she seems so easy
‘It takes one to know one’, she smiles ….
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row)

Yes, it’s all been said before:

So make yourself quite easy
And merry be while I’m away
And bless the happy hour
You came to pull green rushes
(The Bunch Of Rushes)

Footnote: The link to The Bunch of Rushes above is to a contemporary vocal version of the song.  However today (in England at least) The Bunch of Rushes is often performed as an instrumental.  Here’s a particularly fine example.

You might also be interested in our index to Dylan’s references to British and French writers.


One comment

Leave a Reply

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