Diamond Ring: Bob Dylan wants to get back, and then immediately leave

by Tony Attwood

This is one of the five songs not placed on the standard version of the New Basement Tapes album, but is avaialable on the deluxe edition, and has music by Taylor Goldsmith.

It’s just under three minutes of sweetness, singled out by the pounding beat and a twist in the tail in the lyrics.

Now, concerning these lyrics, my first stumble came with Mack girls – it appears that “Mack” is a moderately popular girls’ name in the USA – I’ve not come across it in England, although of course I only know ladies of my generation – and sometimes their children, so maybe it has been introduced this side of the Atlantic more recently.

The urban dictionary doesn’t help me too much either – I am told a “mack” can be a person who is smooth, slick etc – although the dictionary seems to imply a “mack” is male.  I think I need help on that one, but I am going to guess the Mack Girls, are women who draw a man into their lives for their own benefit, rather than out of love and affection.

The theme is not unknown in Dylan – that he (that is to say the person represented as the signer of the song) becomes influenced by others, and instead of following his own instincts goes astray.

But of course this is not the Dylan we know most of the time where his strength is his independence.  Yes he does get pulled away from his true way by the hungry women who really make a mess out of you, but most of the time he is more than able to fight his own way and tell others to go and crawl out their window.

As for why the singer wants then, having made all the effort to get there, he immediately wants to leave St Louis and go to Wichita I have no idea – again my Englishness counts against me.  But I did look it up, and the journey is around 450 miles and takes about seven hours by car.

So why Wichita?  Of course I have no idea – I only know about the lineman (always loved that song – one of my all time favourites for the melody and chordal accompaniment alone) – but I did a bit more digging and am told that  Wichita “is the birthplace of Pizza Hut and White Castle fast-food chains.”  Also the “first electric guitar was played at the Shadowland Ballroom in Wichita by Wichitan Gage Brewer in 1932.”  If that is right, maybe that’s the key.

But actually I guess this was a little ditty that Bob knocked out when feeling a bit low – and there’s the little twist (or perhaps a joke) at the end – he spends all the song wanting to go to St Louis, and immediately he has got there he’s going to get married and then leave.

I think you really do have to know the cities, or maybe the mythology and feel of the cities, really to understand what is going on – unless really there is nothing here at all.

If I ever get back to St. Louis again
There’s gonna be some changes made
I’m gonna find old Alice and right away where I left off
It’s gonna be just as if I’d stayed

That old organ grinder’s gonna wind his box
And the knife sharpener’s gonna sing
When I get back to St. Louis again
I’m gonna buy that diamond ring

Diamond ring
Diamond ring
Shine like gold
Behold that diamond ring

If I ever get back to St. Louis again
Everybody’s gonna smile
One of the Mack girls dragged me up to Washington
I got stuck there for a while

She gave me more misery than a man can hold
And I took her bad advice
Now I don’t aim to bother anyone
I have paid that awful price

Diamond ring
Diamond ring
Shine like gold
Behold that diamond ring

If ever I get back to St. Louis again
That diamond ring is gonna shine
That old burlesque dancer is gonna bum around
And everything’s gonna be fine

I’m gonna settle up my accounts with lead
And leave the rest up to the law
Then I’m gonna marry the one I love
And head out for Wichita

Diamond ring
Diamond ring
Shine like gold
Behold that diamond ring

Here’s the recording.

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  1. Tony, you may be looking for a solution that is in search of a problem – ‘Mack’ be her last name, not first.

    Wichita of course is associated with lawman Wyatt Earp in the days of the Old West who later went to Tombstone where the lead-filled gunfight at the OK Corral took place.

  2. Dylan’s mixing up the medicine….There’s Alice in Wonderland, and Mack The Knife and his gals from the Three Penny Opera who keeps the knife sharpener singing.

  3. Mack is a well known US truck manufacturer. But it is also a small town in Minnesota, which is obviously Dylan-relevant.

  4. I don’t think there’s any special significance to the place-names. They’re just a way to ground the song, to suggest someone’s personal experience. He does that a lot. It’s not the only time he’s sung about Wichita, though. Back in 1962, in the early sessions for what would be his second album, he recorded “Wichita Blues,” aka “Going to Louisiana.” In that song Wichita is where he’s from, and should probably never have left. The next year, in “Gypsy Lou,” Gypsy Lou runs from Denver (where Dylan actually lived at one time) to Wichita. He follows her up to Washington, the same place he’s stuck for a while in this song. And in “Yea! Heavy” he’s going back to Wichita in (just as he is in this song) a pile of fruit. So it all goes full circle, I guess.

  5. Particular cities are chosen, however…not pulled from a hat. There’s mental associations – metonymical ones- that go with them such as blues music in regard to St. Louis, and politics to Washington.

    “I’m going to settle up my accounts with lead” relates back to Wichita of the Old West as well as being a playful pun on paying debts not with the metel gold but instead with the metal lead.

    So, yes, the cities mentioned do ground the song, but they often have significance in and of themselves, or take on a significance in the context of the song lyrics, or perhaps on an autobiographical level – as mentioned in the comment directly above.

  6. Yes, the names of cities have associations–general ones, and often particular, personal ones. But the way the names are used in “Diamond Ring,” in Dylan’s songs in general, and in most popular songs, for that matter, don’t usually go very far with those associations. The evocativeness works in a rather vague, romantic way, like Dr. Seuss’s “Constantinople and Timbuktu.” Wichita sounds like the Old West–sure. It sounds like a dusty, remote sort of place that a young boy might be desperate to get out of, and miss when he’s gone. And St. Louis suggests the blues. Or beer. Or whatever you like. But past that superficial level, what’s the significance? They’re names; they’re counters; they’re not real places. They don’t really have anything to do with the real Wichita or St. Louis or Washington. But that’s the magic of place-names; the magic is actually stronger the less you know about the place, the way the names on Tolkien’s maps get a lot less exciting when you learn the stories behind them. (The Witch-King of Angmar! Oh, it’s just that guy.)

  7. Vague associations are sufficient – more significant ones there need not be, nor were any suggested nor indeed thought required – these are stock cities mentioned in many songs as noted.

    Metonymy is especially characteristic in Post Modern poetic and song lyrics since the reader or listener is drawn by the author into the lyrics by the listener’s or reader’s own mental associations to cities and phraseses that are not picked at pure random in the song by the writer thereof … and this can still apply even were they randomly picked.

    The human mind searches for patterns ….surrealistic images are therefore used by writers because the listener’ or reader’s imagination, more often than not, becomes involved in the creative process to some degree or another.

    And phrases like ‘The old organ grinder gonna wind his box’ reminds of “The guilty undertaker sighs/The lonesome organ grinder cries” from “I Want You” as ‘Mack girls’ reminds another listener of getting a ride by truck, say while hitchhiking on Highway 61.

    So, as far as I am concerned, I see no disagreement as to what is being said even if one does not know of any associations with the names , or, for that matter, any autobiographical information about the author.

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