Spanish Mary and the beggar man mystery. Bob Dylan uncompleted.

Spanish Mary is a song that one might associate very much with Dylan’s writing around the time of When the ship comes in (1963) although we are told that the notebook that includes the song comes from 1967.  Assuming 1967 is right (and I have no evidence to suggest that all the learned and excellent musicians who have put the New Basement Tapes project together got the date of the notebook containing the lyrics wrong) then we have Dylan looking back whistfully to the way in which he wrote songs before.

As I have noted in previous reviews from this album, the songs consist of lyrics Dylan wrote but never turned into songs, which were then completed and performed by Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford, Rhiannon Giddens.

Because for this song we have a copy of the notebook we can see some of the changes Dylan made along the way as where “Upon their ship quite scary” becomes “no longer could they tarry,” and so on.

The music created to accompany the song seems to me to be very closely related to “The Twa Sisters” which seems fair enough because Dylan’s Percy’s Song (also from 1963, the “When the ship” year, uses the same sort of approach.


Here are the lyrics that Bob left…

“Spanish Mary”

There were three sailors, bold and true
With cargo they did carry
They sailed away on the ocean blue
For the love of Spanish Mary
So deeply now were they disturbed
No longer could they tarry
Swoon and swerve
For the love of Spanish Mary
In Kingston Town of high degree
The buffoon, the fool, the fairy
All paid the dues and inquired to me
For the love of Spanish Mary

Beggar man, beggar man tell me no lie
Is it a mystery to live or is it a mystery to die?

I seek ye not to ask of you
It was in Kingston Town indeed
It is said they stopped but not for greed
But for the love of Spanish Mary

I remember well, they came one day
The buffoon, the fool, the fairy
They asked of me what could I say
For the love of Spanish Mary

Tis not of me to talk absurd
No rumour do I carry
No, I’ll not give you one word
But for the love of Spanish Mary

Beggar man, beggar man tell me no lie
Is it a mystery to live or is it a mystery to die?


It truly is an atmospheric piece, beautifully realised in my opinion as the music aims to enhance the images contained within the lyrics.

But there is a problem.  Not a problem that takes anything from the beauty of the realisation, but a problem with realising the song in a musical form.  This is the couplet that appears twice:

Beggar man, beggar man tell me no lie
Is it a mystery to live or is it a mystery to die?

What on earth was Dylan intending to do with that?  It’s very difficult to say, since it is so very unlike Dylan to put in a couplet of that nature twice within a song that is otherwise in an utterly standard strophic (ie verse-verse-verse) format.

The first of these two line inserts heralds a change in the rhyming scheme – another oddity for a Dylan song.  Although Dylan is very liberal with the rhymes, up to this point he is running with a conventional rhyme scheme A B A B (the first and third lines rhyming with each other, and separately the second and fourth rhyming with each other).  It is standard stuff, and none the worse for that.

But after the first “beggar man” couplet we get something quite different

I seek ye not to ask of you
It was in Kingston Town indeed
It is said they stopped but not for greed
But for the love of Spanish Mary

which can only be written as A B B C.   Then we are back to the original form, until the repeat of the Beggar Man.

Does it matter at all, or am I being pedantic?  I think it matters in the sense that the format and style are 100% traditional, but with these two sudden leaps in a different direction – the break in the rhyming scheme and the two “beggar man” lines – something quite different is happening.

Each jolts the listener who is carefully paying attention to the song – and there is no harm in that at all – jolts can be good.  But a jolt of this nature needs to be done with a purpose and in a way that allows the music to continue while the jolt occurs.

If we think for a moment of Visions of Johanna, with the extra line added to the last verse, the listener may not appreciate at first that there is an extra line, but if taking in the whole feel of the song most listeners appreciate that something odd has happened.  This “something” works in Johanna, because the change stresses the build up towards “as my conscience explodes”.  (Incidentally the official Dylan site’s version of the lyrics hides this by randomly changing the line breaks, making it look as if each verse has differing numbers of lines, but it really is a nine line verse throughout with a tenth added in the final verse).

So we really do have a lyric that is, I am sure, not yet complete, and one which Dylan couldn’t immediately see how to resolve.  He wanted the question to be asked, and indeed  to be asked twice, but he hadn’t yet found a way to get the question fitted into the rest of the story.  Nor indeed is there a clear route back into the story after the first asking of the question – hence the break in the rhyming pattern.

Of course a master of words such as Dylan could have solved it given time, but he was being drawn in one hundred directions, and I rather suspect that if Dylan did think of these lines at all, he thought only that he might come back to them another day.


This is the fourth of these songs that we have reviewed so far the others being

  1. Married to My Hack
  2. Nothing To It
  3. When I get my hands on you

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+ Dylan compositions reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also 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




  1. Ah, but, Grasshopper, is there not no success like failure?

    Are not the lyrics complete because of their incompleteness?

    Is not the ‘mystery’ deepened because it is left to die by the writer – left unresolved?

    Is not he riddle or ‘koan’ repeated a the end of the lyrics because the writer hands it over (Zens it) to the listener (or reader) – who’s begging for answers – to resolve, to breath life into it, himself ?

  2. Couldn’t agree more Larry…I love an unresolved lyric…like Man Gave Names To All The Animals. 😉

  3. Well , keep working on it … I’m sure, given enough time, that you’ll come up with the answer to the name Dylan left out in reference to that slithering fellow …. let us all know when you’re satisfied that you’ve got the right answer!

  4. Hehe was actually just about to say the same thing! Great minds!

    I’ve listened to Spanish Mary a few times today and I do think it might be deliberate that he left the thought unfinished…dunno though I’ve also been listening to Bowie and Gabriel-era Genesis today and they both seem to do a lot of that so maybe it’s clouding my judgement

  5. Great minds indeed – Dylan gives it away by his use of the masculine pronouns ‘his’ and ‘he’:

    He saw an animal as smooth as glass
    Slithering his way through the grass
    Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake
    Ah, think I’ll call it a drake

    The dream team does it again!

  6. I’m listening to this track right now and have to say I love what the bass player is doing all through the song but especially at the “beggar man” sections,.,

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