Bob Dylan and Movies: Absolutely Sweet Marie


By Larry Fyffe

Many well-respected interpreters of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics focus on biographical information about Bob Dylan when doing so. They fail to examine his work as a whole, as art in and of itself; in a nutshell, they see the trees, but not the forest. ‘Untold Dylan’ strives to rectify the situation.

Thus by biographical-prone analysts, the song ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ is considered to be one that refers, at least in part, to Dylan’s stepdaughter Maria, or to an earlier political protester ‘Sweet Marie’ that Dylan’s heard of, or to fellow folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, or to Dylan’s immediate protest- predecessor Woody Guthrie.

Pointed out is that Guthrie wrote:

‘I love a good man who lives outside the law just as much as I hate a bad man inside the law’

Bob Dylan writes and sings:

But to live outside the law, you must be honest
I know that you always say that you agree
All right, so where are you tonight, sweet Marie?
(Bob Dylan: Absolutely Sweet Marie)

Some analysts, however, point instead to a film noir about two killer drug smugglers in which one of them says:

‘When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty’
(The Lineup)

Such a reference is not in any real sense ‘biographical’ because the line drawn upon is done to enhance the work of art. Art for art’s sake, as it were. The present ‘Untold Dylan’ article demonstrates that this be the case in many of Dylan’s songs – in relation to the line: ‘I know that you always say that you agree’, for example.

‘Sweet Marie’, as it turns out, is pure fiction. No, she’s not a Canadian chocolate bar, but she’s somewhere up in the north woods of Canada. As previously noted in another ‘Untold’ article, Bob Dylan’s song ‘Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts’ cross-references a somewhat satirical operetta, and its followup movie ‘Rose-Marie’.

The characters in the two formats of ‘Rose-Marie’ include French Canadian opera singer Rose-Marie de Flor; her fugitive brother Jack Flower (James Stewart) whom she loves dearly; Jim, the gold miner; and Metis ‘half-breeds’.

The movie version, produced by MGM, a film company headed by Canadian Louis B. Mayer, features a riverboat, lots of snow, and a log cabin in the Canadian North. It’s quite different from the operetta – the melodious Northwest Mountie shadows Rose-Marie, who’s got word from Jack, so that he can track down and jail her brother.

The Mountie says to Rose-Marie:

“I’ve always said it’d be a dull world if we all agreed ”

And sings to her:

Oh Rose-Marie, I love you
I’m always dreaming of you
No matter what I do, I can’t forget you
Sometimes I wish I never met you
Yet if I should lose you
It would mean my very life to me
Of all the queens that ever lived, I’d choose you
To rule me, my Rose-Marie
(Rose-Marie: Hammerstein et al)

Bob Dylan borrows a couple of lines from the lyrics above for use in another song lyric:

I’m sick of love, I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love, I’m trying to forget you
(Bob Dylan: Love Sick)

Note what I’ve labelled the Dylanesque ‘rhyme twist’ technique: the inverted end-rhymes: ‘met you’ and ‘forget you’ – rhymes that are in both songs.

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan revives and revises the role of James Stewart of the aforementioned movie in which Jack’s sister ends up with the Mountie – albeit in a fragmented Post Modern song format:

Well I don’t know how it happened
But the riverboat captain, he knows my fate
But everybody else, even yourself
They’re just gonna have to wait ….
Well I been in jail where 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 the ruins of your balcony
Wondering where you are tonight, sweet Marie
(Bob Dylan: Absolutely Sweet Marie)

Heretofore, Dylan flees to Canada to a make-believe log cabin in the north woods where he’s joined by ‘Joe Two Rivers’, and by others wearing plaid shirts like the jacket worn by Stewart in the movie:

Dylan plays and sings:

Remember me to one who lives there
Oh, she once was a true love of mine
(Bob Dylan: Girl From The North Country)

Remember, too, that you can find out important information like this only by
reading ‘Untold Dylan’. It’s not to be found anywhere else!


What else is on the site?

Untold Dylan contains a review of every Dylan musical composition of which we can find a copy (around 500) and over 300 other articles on Dylan, his work and the impact of his work.

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 alphabetical index to the 552 song reviews can be found here.  If you know of anything we have missed please do write in.  The index of the songs in chronological order can be found here.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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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