“Golden Tom Silver Judas” Bob Dylan talks betrayal

By Tony Attwood

Another song from the New Basement Tapes – you can find the full listing of the songs and links to all the reviews (which at the moment are not complete) by going to Dylan songs of the 60s and then scrolling down the page to 1967.  Because we can’t properly date these songs they are listed together at the start of that year.

Anyway, this is a Dylan (lyrics) Elvis Costello (music) composition, produced by T Bone Burnett, and the album version has Costello singing and playing acoustic, with Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith also on acoustic guitar and vocal.  Marcus Mumford on brushes and vocal and Jay Bellerose on percussion.

Here is the album version

And the lyrics, which as you will see below, have given me a bit of a knotty problem to unravel.  I’m sure you can do better than me.

They say that today makes up for what yesterday lacked
And it must be some old day and that is a fact
Can’t talk to nobody, don’t know just how they’ll react
Weigh the silver and gold
Be precise and exact

How can today make up for yesterday
For if we break up, I guess you would stay

Buffalo Bill wouldn’t have known what to do
If he got a just one look, just one good look at you
And I don’t know what to do either
Just want to tell you it’s neither
Tom said “Don’t take her”
Judas said “Leave her”

How can today make up for yesterday
For if we break up, I guess you would stay

So golden Tom said to poor Silver Judas
“It’s so hard to say who’s the worst of the two of us
So don’t brood
There’s no fraud in this feud
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know what to do”

How can today make up for yesterday
For if we break up, I wish you would stay

Musically the piece is very straightforward with the C, G, A minor, E minor sequence happening over and over.

The melody is stretched by Costello into unexpected places, only to take on a new twist completely in the chorus as over the word “stay” we get a totally unexpected modulation from C major to G major (via the chord of D) and then we are straight back to where we were.

For me, musically, that modulation is by far the most memorable and interesting part of the music.  That’s not to say that I don’t like the rest, but if Costello had not put in that D major then I would have thought, “hmm, not too sure what he’s doing here.”   With that one chord, all changes.

Here’s another recording


As for the lyrics, weighing silver and gold is an old testament phrase (Ezra 8:33)

In John 11.25 we get  Jesus talking to Judas, and offering reasons why he should leave Mary alone: “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

And thus we get to the 30 pieces of silver – the money given to Judas in return for betraying Jesus, before the last supper according to Matthew 26:15.  It symbolises betrayal, or at the very least, compromising a friendship.

And I guess what Bob is saying is that having been betrayed, how can that ever be made good – how can today’s repentence make up for that betrayal yesterday?  It is always there, it is always with you.

As for Buffalo Bill, during his travelling show days he employed many Native Americans, and described them as “the former foe, present friend, the American” and once said that “every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”

Am I getting close to what Dylan was talking about?  It is hard for me as a non-American to get to grips with the American past and I may well be going all over the place, but I guess it is simply a set of reflections on betrayal – the betrayal of Christ by Judas, the betrayal of the native Americans by the government, the betrayal of the singer by his girlfriend.  Can we ever undo the wrongs we did yesterday?

Probably not.

Here’s another version…

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.

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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



  1. Maybe it’s just the names used in the title but I always got a Frankie Lee & Judas Priest vibe from this track…I guess they are also from the same year so maybe thats why. I guarantee if this was released at the time, the lyrics would have been picked over and we’d all have a full understanding of what he’s on about here! I for one have no idea but it certainly sounds great to me!

  2. Doubting Thomas: I don’t know what to do

    Thomas saith unto him, Lord, ‘We know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?”
    (John 14:5)

  3. Buffalo Bill, father’s Canadian, wants to leave his long-time wife, seeks a divorce, but the court rules against him, and they eventually reconcile.

  4. There’all the French version of Tom Thumb who makes his fortune by stealing the magic boots of a giant ogre.

    And Tom-Tit-Tot, a folk tale character who’s comparable to another who spins straw into gold.

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