Scarlet Town: Tracing Dylan’s song from Pepys to Barbara Allen and The Byrds

by  Jochen Markhorst

Through the diaries of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), the English have inherited an enviable cultural and historical treasure. For ten years, from 1660 to 1669, the senior official (a Secretary of the Admiralty and reorganiser of the Royal Navy) keeps a diary, in which he wittily, precise and above all very boldly records everything that haunts him in his private life, while also meticulously reporting on life outside his four walls.

He writes on the Black Death, the Great Fire of London, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, to name but a few, we thus gives us unique eyewitness accounts. Pepys is quite a gentleman, as the description of the Dutch enemy Michiel de Ruyter (the Raid on the Medway is also described) shows: “In all things, in wisdom, courage, force and success, the Dutch have the best of us.”

Equally colourful and detailed are the descriptions of his many sexual escapades, but those are written in a self-invented code, in some kind of shorthand. That was finally deciphered in the nineteenth century, and it was not until well into the twentieth century, before a full, unedited version was entrusted to the public.

And to music historians the diary is a source as well: thanks to Pepys, we know that the indestructible evergreen “Barbara Allen” is a popular song already in his time: on January 2, 1666 he tells us about a New Year’s party where one of his mistresses, the actress Elizabeth Kneipp, enchants him with her performance of “a little Scotch song of Barbara Allen.”

The song, in many variants, remained popular for centuries. The setting is London, sometimes Dublin and then Reading – relocation to the nonexistent Scarlet Town is probably a wordplay on Reading (pronounced Redding). That is not the variant that Dylan sings at The Gaslight October ’62; that one opens in Charlotte Town, “not far from here” but in the much more dramatic version in 1988 it’s “Scarlet Town, where I was born.” The ailing young man is called William in both versions, but becomes Sweet William again in the later version; initially it was Poor William.

The excerpts Sweet William on his deathbed lay and the opening line with town name both travel along to one of the highlights of Dylan’s beautiful album Tempest (2012): “Scarlet Town”. On that record, quite rightly received with jubilant cheers, the Dylan touch that we have seen developing roughly since “Highlands” (1997), culminates: that sparkling amalgam of poetic, epic and lyrical influences, quotations and paraphrases from centuries of world literature, from ancient Greece to modern Japan, from the Bible to film noir, from seventeenth-century Scottish folk songs and songs from the Civil War to dusty swing records from the early twentieth century, and rock ‘n’ roll classics from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

“Scarlet Town” is a highlight of that sparkling amalgam, a highlight that manages to capture the time transcending appeal of Dylan’s later work. Besides “Barbara Allen” more song references sail on by: “Little Boy Blue” is a nursery rhyme that is already cited in Tommy Thumb’s Little Song Book (1744), “Set ’em Up, Joe” is a country song by Vern Gosdin from 1988, which in turn also respectfully quoted the 1941 song “Walking The Floor” by Ernest Tubb.

However, those winks at folk music tradition do not define the song; at most they add some couleur. Predominant is the apocalyptic, Sodom and Gomorrah-like doom, although the lyrics do not end in downfall, but in reconciliation.

Biblical references abound, and thereby Dylan comes close to what he originally intended with this record: “I wanted to make something more religious. I just didn’t have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do.”

Clearly inspired by the spirit of the New Testament, we find in the song many references from especially Matthew. In “Narrow Way” we hear Matt. 7:14 (“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way”), and Matt. 26:42 (“if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it”).

In “Pay In Blood” we see bits of Romans, Corinthians and Peter and “Scarlet Town” does not remain behind. I touched the garment but the hem was torn the poet lends from Matt. 9:20; “And, behold, a woman (…) touched the hem of his garment” (- the story of the woman who heals thanks to the strength of her faith) and the location of Scarlet Town (“under the hill”) does not bode well; Jesus refers to his disciples that they are to be the light, the salt of the earth, a city on the hill (“A city that is set on a hill can not be hid” Matt. 5:14).

The American vocabulary incorporated A city on a hill centuries before as a metaphor for responsible, exemplary citizenship. In the twentieth century both J.F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan use the image in speeches. This Scarlet Town, however, is under the hill, thus doomed.

The poet Dylan does seem to choose his actual birthplace, Duluth in Minnesota, as the setting for this lyrical sketch of a Judgment Day. Ivy leaf is the poisonous leaf of that nasty poison ivy that is a plague in Minnesota (toxicodendron rydbergii), the street names you can’t pronounce is perhaps a witty hint to the Bob Dylan Way, unveiled by the proud people of Duluth in 2006 on the occasion of Dylan’s sixty-fifth birthday, Walnut Grove and Maplewood are a village and a small town in Minnesota, and in that vein there are some other, more and less far-fetched, allusions to be found.

This now is the setting to the Last Daybreak, with matching dancing-on-the-volcano behaviour of mortals. Heaven comes down. Mary kisses the dying Sweet William, the end is near, Good and Evil come back together and human forms seem glorified (“Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours” 1 Cor. 3:21.). It does not matter, because sin is not possible anymore. We stay up late and dance with the skinny junkie whore while the Heavenly Smile descends.

The last verse opens with the original, catchy aphorism If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime, which Dylan subsequently connects to the biblical classic Ecclesiastes 3. Famous, because Pete Seeger put it to music and sang Turn, Turn, Turn after every verse, more than famous after The Byrds turn it into a worldwide hit in 1965.

“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)”, as the song is officially called, quotes verse 1 through 8. Dylan reads a little further and then underlines verse 11, “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time”, and Dylan saw those lines, that it was good: the ideal completion for the masterful mosaic that “Scarlet Town” is. With good reason he then holds back in terms of musical accompaniment; more is less now. Dylan chooses a smooth melody, a thin chord progression and the faltering pace of a funeral procession; it truly is an enchanting song.

You might also enjoy “Dylan’s Scarlet Town decoded: from the nursery to Johanna, from Tangled up to Set em up Jo.

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  1. Sweet William Holme?

    Bob Dylan And Arthur Rimbaud II &III
    Bob Dylan And Henry Longfellow Conclusion
    and the satirical The Mystery Of WH Solved

    A s well, William Holme was an associate of one of Shahespeare’s publishers.

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