Soon after midnight: Bob Dylan’s real murder ballad

by Jochen Markhorst

The successful and influential comics series Preacher (66 parts, 1995-2000) is the frenzied, fiercely fanning, bewildering and highly original story of the priest Jesse Custer. Custer has gained control over a half divine, half demonic force, “Genesis” and takes off in search of God, who is missing.

This storyline, and the richness of colourful antagonists and imaginative sidelines, attract many film companies. Miramax, HBO, Columbia Pictures … rights are bought, scripts written and actors selected, but in the end nobody dares to do a filming. Religiously still too controversial, and sometimes perhaps a little too dark. Finally, in May 2016, a screen version is released: a ten-part television series on AMC. It is a success, the second, thirteen-episodes season follows in June 2017 and in June 2018 season 3.

The eighth episode of the second season ends, true to the spirit, bizarre. Custers traveling companion and comrade Cassidy, a movingly faithful, cheerful and immortal vampire of Irish descent, approaches the bed where his elderly son lies dying. Cassidy stares at the old man, at his son, with an unusually serious, intense look and sings with a heavy Irish accent:

Way down in Tipperary where cow plop is thick 

Where women are young and the lads all come quick

There lived pretty Charlotte, the girl we adore

The pride of Dear Erin, the Scarlet Haired whore

It's Charlotte the harlot, the girl we adore

The pride of Dear Erin

The Scarlet Haired whore

“Charlotte The Harlot” is an ancient scabrous song that is sung in dozens of variants, increasingly foul-mouthed, everywhere in the English-speaking world. Dylan undoubtedly knows the version of the godfather of the Greenwich folk scene, Oscar Brand, on his Bawdy Hootenanny (1955).

Folk musician Brand is not only the organizer of the Newport Folk Festival but also the presenter of the world’s longest running radio show, Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival. To him we owe Dylan’s radio debut, October 29, 1961, the broadcast in which the young Bob fantasies all sorts of humbug about his carnival days (“I learned it from a farmer in South Dakota and he played the autoharp. His name is Wilbur. Met him outside of Sioux Falls when I was there visiting people and him, and I heard him do it.”) and in which he plays “Sally Gal”.

Fifty years later, Charlotte the Harlot reaches Dylan’s oeuvre, in the intriguing and often misunderstood song “Soon After Midnight” on the acclaimed album Tempest (2012).

When it is released, the album receives – obviously – considerable attention and without exception positive reviews. In those same critiques, however, “Soon After Midnight” usually gets the short hand of the stick. The Guardian and Rolling Stone do not even mention the song at all, The New Yorker, Billboard and the New York Times think it is a love song and sense heartbreaks in it, and only Uncut and The Sun suspect malicious revenge and a sinister turnaround.

The opening line puts the listeners on the wrong track, that much is true. ‘I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises’ is sweet, wistful and cute. Dylan borrows it from the doo-wop and crooner idiom of the 50s. Sinatra’s “Too Marvelous For Words”, Sarah Vaughan’s “Words Can’t Decribe” and “I Don’t Know How To Say I Love You” by The Superlatives, for example. Just as Dylan takes something from somewhere in every verse. “Money Honey” is made famous by The Drifters. Dylan runs the song in his radio program Theme Time Radio Hour, and he also plays it on stage a few times himself.

“Moon Got In My Eyes” is recorded by both Bing Crosby and Sinatra, “On The Killing Floors” is an evergreen that Dylan probably knows since Howlin’ Wolf (1964), and otherwise he heard Clapton’s performance, or Jimi Hendrix’, or the brilliant version from his musical partner Mike Bloomfield (with Electric Flag, 1968). In any case, the master has enjoyed the film O Brother Where Art Thou by the Coen Brothers. Certainly the soundtrack, which features “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” by Chris Thomas King: “I was delighted with this album and even watched the movie,” Dylan says at a press conference in Rome, July 2001.

By the time the killing floors occur, in the third verse, the attentive listener begins to realize that this is not just a love song, that this is not some desolate whiny bigot, outside pining lonely between dusk and dawn, but that something else is going on. In his later work, Dylan the poet occasionally steps into the shoes of a dark, or at least an unpleasant, unreliable narrator. “Mississippi”, in which song he also searches for words to ‘do you justice in reason or rhyme’, “Floater”, “Huck’s Tune”, “This Dream Of You”, just to name a few – all of them songs with dubious storytellers.

This time it gets really ominous. Prior to the date with the current fairy queen, this narrator has left at least three ladies dying in their own blood, ladies who in his eyes are all whores: the money honey, Charlotte the Harlot and the Maria dressed in green (the alleged ex-prostitute Maria Magdalena is usually depicted in green clothing). He does not fear her fury; he has faced stronger walls and he is not in a hurry – it is shortly after midnight, his day is only beginning, and ‘I don’t want nobody but you’.

It is, in short, a real murder ballad. Not a love song, not a song that, as the reviewer of Pitchfork thinks, belongs to “Blood On The Tracks”, because of some bitter, vicious heartbreak, but a song like “Mac The Knife”, or “Where The Wild Roses Grow”, or “Little Sadie”, songs in which the protagonist is a murderous psychopath.

Literary, Dylan’s murder ballad surpasses most of the songs in that category. After all, those are often quite straightforward, unambiguous ballads about bloodthirsty maniacs who tell us without any remorse how and why they slaughter their victims.

Delia was cold and mean, so I tied her down and fed her two bullets (“Delia’s Gone”). My Flora was talking to some other guy, so I messed him up (“Lily Of The West”). “Soon After Midnight” relates to songs like these as a brooding Hitchcock thriller to a bloody western of Peckinpah. Dylan contrasts idyllic, innocent or even heart-warming phrases (the opening lines, ‘my heart is cheerful’, the ladies ‘chirp and chatter’) with ominous, macabre asides (‘the moon in my eyes’, ‘I’ve been down on the killing floors’, ‘they are dying in their own blood’). The upcoming murder remains, however, as in the more subtle thrillers, beyond the reach of the cameras. The contrast is reinforced by the misleading musical decoration; it is sweet, seductive and slightly melancholy, just like Dylan’s delivery.

The lyrics may be lovingly composed out of bits and pieces that the poet Dylan has raked left and right for this haunting, horrifying snapshot of a waiting sex murderer in the dark, for the music he has done less effort. The musician Dylan has copied almost unfiltered “A New Shade Of Blue” from The Bobby Fuller Four. Rhythm, tempo, chord progression, bridge and even arrangement are almost identical, only the main melody differs slightly. Dylan does have a weakness for the Texan who died young (at the age of 23, in 1966), who earned his place in the Pantheon with “I Fought The Law”. In Theme Time Radio Hour he drops by three times, the radio host comments appreciative: “One heavy cat.”

That unconcerned copying may also inhibit the urge to produce a cover. The site nobodysingsdylanlikedylan.com does register some twenty covers, but these are without exception completely uninteresting hobby projects on YouTube by dabbling amateurs or untalented tribute artists.

For now, the only exception is the talented, beguiling Aoife O’Donovan, performing an intimate, lonely “Soon After Midnight” in Massachussettes, March 2017. Even more beautiful is, incidentally, her cooperation with Sarah Janosz and Sara Watkins on “Ring Them Bells”, March 2015. Overshadowed, however, are both alluring covers by a memorable “Farewell Angelina” at the Hollywood Bowl, August 2015 – with Yo Yo Ma (!) on cello.

You might also be interested in Soon After Midnight: Bob Dylan’s Other World

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5 Responses to Soon after midnight: Bob Dylan’s real murder ballad

  1. Jonathan Smith says:

    While everyone was getting distracted by the 15 minute Tempest, or the vitriol of Pay In Blood, it was this sinister little number that stood out right from the first listen. So many musical and literary allusions it’s hard to know where to begin and as seductive as the Jack the Ripper narrator. Thrilling and chilling.

  2. Kiwipoet says:

    Right on, Johnathan, a favourite track from the album. And, unusually, I haven’t heard a live version that quite matches the weary menace of the album version. A deadly little number indeed. Thanks to Jochen for reminding us of it.

  3. Alicia says:

    Hello Jochen!
    I think maybe love can be murder if it is not true. The poet has the moon in his eyes and his heart is never fearful. Maybe this really is a love song about true love’s struggles. He is searching for phrases to sing her praises.
    The poet mentions four previous lovers. Honey took his money, sounds like a marriage dissolved, she was passing by. Charlotte wasn’t true dressed in red desire. Mary wore green the lovely color of the heart chakra. The fairy queen look what she did to poor Mercutio, he tried to dissuade Romeo of even the notion of true love.
    But what does it matter they chirp and they chatter they are lying and dying in their blood. The blood of Jesus covers us by the blood we are reconciled to the Father, without the blood we are condemned by our own unbelief. “He who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters.” Luke 11:21.
    Maybe when the poet says , I’ve been down on the killing floors, he means it. If the heart is a lonely hunter then to have relationships that aren’t really true kills the heart bit by bit.
    Two timing Slim, who ever heard of him? The poet will drag his corpse through the mud for taking her for a ride.
    I’m not afraid of your fury I’ve faced stronger walls than yours. The adversary seeks to kill, steal, destroy, he uses all kinds of walls, walls of condemnation, slander, deception. “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound – think of it – for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” Luke 13:16.
    It’s Soon After Midnight, and the poet don’t want anybody but her. It is a beautiful love song if you ask me.

  4. Kiwipoet says:

    Sometimes I have wondered if the ‘fairy queen’ mentioned in the song is not Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, 1596, which, according to the author was “cloudily enwrapped in Allegorical devises.” Hmm…

  5. LarryFyffe says:

    A member of Iron Maiden penned a song likely based on ‘Charlotte The Harlot’ – it has the same title.

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