The Emperor Jones: Bob Dylan And Paul Leroy Robeson (Part I)

by Larry Fyffe

Right wingers in American politics, prior thereto and during the 1960’s, see a hard-line Communist behind every bush, as they still do today. The folk-singing ‘Weavers’ member Jackie Alper notes that Bob Dylan spends a lot of time listening to Paul Robson records when he’s at her house in 1962. Ten years earlier, Paul Robeson, a former football player turned civil rights activist, with one foot on Canadian soil, performs before a crowd of nearly 40,000 after he’s ‘blacklisted’, thanks to Senator Joseph McCarthy, and deprived of a passport due to his ‘UnAmerican’ activities. 

One of Paul Robeson’s favourite numbers is a ‘spiritual’ originally sung by American slaves who escaped up north to Canada:

No more driver's lash for me
No more, no more
No more driver's lash for me
Many thousands gone

(No More Auction Block For Me)

 Bob Dylan considers himself blacklisted because he’s prevented from performing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” on the Ed Sullivan Show; he travels to Canada the next year, and records a number of songs for CBC-TV in Toronto.

The young singer/songwrite indirecty mentions Robeson in a song on an album released in 1964:

He said he's gonna kill me
If I don't get out the door in two seconds flat
"You unpatriotic, rotten, doctor, Commie rat"

(Bob Dylan: Motor Cycle Nightmare)

Untold is the profound impact that the Afro-American bass singer has on the Dylan, an impart still apparent in more recent lyrics.

As noted in a previous article, ‘Sweetheart Like You’ makes reference to the film noir ‘All Through The Night”, starring Humphrey Bogart. However, this song is haunted by the ghost of Paul Robeson. Playwright Eugene O’Neill makes Robeson famous by having him star in the movie ‘The Emperor Jones” that is based on an O’Neill play. Dylan’s song ‘Sweetheart Like You” is loosely based on the movie and play.

Influenced by the Naturalist School of Literature, Eugene O’Neill stresses how both heredity and the surounding environment affect human behaviour. Samuel Johnson, who befriends Oliver Goldsmith, opens the door for the Romantic Transcendentalist poets who react against previous writers who consider it dangerous to portray human beings as free-thinking individuals who do not  require authoritarian social control.

Then along comes the English Naturalist Charles Darwin and he shuts the door with his deterministic and empirically based Theory of Evolution. According to a number of writers, including O’Neill, (they turn Darwinian science into an art form), any hope of individual freedom is carried away, grasped as it is in the greedy claws of jingoistic patriotism and imperial capitalism.

Bob Dylan sums things up quite nicely:

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scroundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king

(Bob Dylan: Sweetheart Like You)

Samuel Johnson’s 1775 aphorism is presented by Dylan to the listener (or reader); then it’s Paul Robeson speaking as Brutus Jones:

"For a little stealin', they put you in jail sooner or later
For big stealin', they make you emperor
and puts you in the Hall of Fame when you croaks"

(Eugene O’Neill: The Emperor Jones)

In the movie, the intelligent and muscular blackman Brutus Jones, departs fom his Hezekiah Baptist Church friends in the Ameican South,  and travels up North to New York City as a porter on a train where he starts gambling and womanizing, and ends up in a chain gang for killing a black friend; he clubs a white guard to death, jumps in a dump truck, and manages to steam off to an isolated West Indian island inhabited by blacks. There he gets sold to a white trader, but he outsmarts the island’s black ruler by demonstrating that he can only be killed by a silver bullet. 

Paul Robeson crowns himself ‘Emperor Jones’. Says to the trader:”Phew! This place smells more like a chain gang dump than a palace.” Imitatinng the behaviour of the white authorites that he’s used to back home, Emperor Jones is as exploitive and cruel to the islanders as were the historical slave-holders in the United States. 

Dylan’s song ‘Sweetheart Like You’ begins:

Well the pressures down, the boss ain't here
He's gone North for a while
They say that vanity got the best of him
But he sure left here in style

(Bob Dylan: Sweetheart Like You)

Emperor Jones overplays his hand, realizes he has stayed too long. War drums  beat and he flees into the jungle. Lost in the darkness, Jones goes mad from fear; he doesn’t know what is happening, and he shoots off his silver bullet at phantoms  – he’s been keeping it to kill  himself with should he be hunted down. Meanwhile, the angry islanders have manufactured silver bullets of their own.

At the end of the movie,  the white trader (who appears to get along with the islanders) says to the dead body of Jones:

"Where's all your high-and-mighty airs now, your bloomin' Majesty.
Silver bullets. Blimey. Anyhow, you died in the 'eighth of style."

At the time, American political authorities have problems with the O’Neill movie/play because of its oblique critique of the US Marine invasion of Haiti that forces the government there to allow foreign ownship of property 

(As well, civil rights groups express concerns about ‘The Emperor Jones’):

They got Charles Darwin trapped out
there on Highway Five
Judge says to the high sheriff
'I want him dead or alive
Either way I don't care"
High water everywhere

(Bob Dylan: High Water)

‘High Sheriff’ Joseph McCarthy does his utmost to destroy Paul Robeson’s career.

What else is here?

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.

There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here.  There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan.  The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today.  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. “Sweetheart like you” is a song about royal and noble. There is a Mansion House with fireproof floors. Which Mansion House might that be: I will give you an idea:
    An ancestor from the Mansion House once said:
    “when my ancestor as you say were keeping sheep, your ancestors were plotting treason”
    it was a dispute between two noble men.
    What else did the noble men dispute about. Oh yes (a little social realisme) Who shall marry who. Marriages was a way to get stronger political bonds, and not a matter of love. So marriages was not as fireproof, , as the royal and nobles beautiful castles.

    The poem is written in 1983. Who could that beautiful princess be. She has a nice hat, (might be a pillbox hat). She is one of the most beautiful women in the world. She is unhappy and bits her lower lip. She has to tour around the world in stead of staying at home taking care of her children. Her husbond goes North. We are in England – so it might be Scottland. What draws him to Scottland. The rumors are there.

    Why this song is important to Bob Dylan. He tells:
    “You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you
    She wanted a whole man, not just a half”

  2. Afraid it’s off to the Tower for you ….Bob and I were in the House of Lords at the time those political jibes were spoken, and he whispered to me that he could never bring himself to steal a line said by someone else.

    Bogart however did use the line ‘Sweetheart like you…’

  3. To be exact:

    What would a sweetheart like that Hamilton dame be doing in a dump like this”

  4. In 1983, the Prince and Princess visited New Brunswick , Canada, where upon Premier Hatfield embarrassed one and all when he said to them:
    “We have heard and read the lies……as it always is, today it was wonderful to meet, and know the truth.”

  5. The only thing I fear for, is your mind, – – you confabulate. A word we use in my field.

  6. Here I was trying to save you from the guillotine, but no you insist that you have the sure answer to what the Dylan song is about.

    I speculate somewhat but at least point that Dylan quotes diectly from the Robeson ‘Emperor Jones’ movie while there is no such direct evidence given by yourself pertaining to your thoughts on the subject.

    You really don’t know what’s happening , do you Mr. Jones. Sorry….but it’s off with your head!

  7. Robin Hood, wearing buckskins and speaking with a strong American accent hardly passes the test of ‘social realism’.

  8. Surely, ‘Robin Hood’ is a Romantic Adventure film (not a Social Realistic film) if there ever was one.

  9. We are basicly talking about building states with God on your site, and how to use religion, art and masscommunication for that purpose. Specific in this case I talk about stabilising political and social structures through marriages. And as an eg we used the LP Infidelity “Sweetheart like you”. Now some say: The wars nowadays is not religiouse wars, it is wars about democracy. We still have a lot to learn at home – I see. At least you understood the joke about Robin Hood , but still on a superficial level. Peace be with you.Before I go to the guillotine I have a last question: What number in the row am I to go to the tower? Before I die, please read my first message. I did not critizise you with one single word.

  10. Well, you’re only getting Bob Dylan’s ‘Portrait of Woman at the Red Lion Pub’ pasted on the stone; however, your estate is going to have to pay for it! (lol)

  11. Carved on the stone will be:

    “While others were shepherding their sheep in green pastures, your head was cut off in the Tower for treason and blasphemy.”

  12. Ah yes, except we know for sure that all those ‘social realists’ are a bunch of unpatriotic, dirty commie rats, don’t we!

  13. For the last weeks I have been discussing” building a state with God on your site” from an intellectual point of view. From Israel ( genesis 32.28) to Konstatinobel to the Roman imperium to the western european contries including the vikings (Richard Lionheart ancestors were vikings). But you have decided to defend that little hole you have digged for yourself, so it is very difficult to use Spinoza philosophi. Use your intelligens and find out why things happens.

  14. Here you can read about the Spencer Family, who did not have ancestors, from the plundering vikings. Churchill and Princess Diana were from The Spencer Family.Many years ago the Spencer Family had a big fire in the castle. They built a new castle with fireproof floors.

    Bob Dylan is singing about princess Diana from England.

  15. Bob Dylan uses the symbol “fire in my house” , when he falls in love and can´t control it.

    Album: Time out of mind
    Song: “Till I fell in Love with you”

    “I was all right ’til I fell in love with you
    Well, my house is on fire, burning to the sky
    I thought it would rain but the clouds passed by”

  16. And why did he write “in a dump like this” and make a video with a woman from the lower social class, who was cleaning the floor in a restaurant? (Haha cleaning the floor)
    Because he ” rearranged their faces and gave them other names”
    At that time he could not have written: It is burning in Prins Charles House and princess Diana is trying to clean up for him.

  17. usualy you use WATER, when you clean the floor.

    Now you can use all you symbols with fire, water , air and earth. Mr. Larry Fyffe.

  18. You are running, like Emperor Jones, around in the woods like someone with his head chopped off.

    Poet Edmund Spenser, distantly related to Princess Diana, also has a castle burn down. He writes:

    My love is like ice, and I to fire
    How comes it then that this her cold so great
    Is not dissolved through my so hot desire
    (Edmund Spencer: My Love Is Like Ice, I To Fire)

    Johnny Cash alludes to the above poem or perhaps another
    gotten from a book of Elizabethan poetry in Doc Carter’s library – “Ring of Fire”.

    Poet Robert Frost does too: “Fire And Ice”. Frost’s influence on Bob Dylan is quite clear as I point out in an upcoming article.

    Though you can make a dubious case for your interpretation of ‘Sweetheart Like You’, you are barking up the wrong family tree – it does not have the correct Spenser branch on it.

    When you are trapped in a hole, you should stop digging.

  19. For me, it’s just a bridge too far to visualize Dylan comparing Lady Diana Spencer to Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row ….. others, like yourself, might.

    Edmund Spenser, on the other hand, relates to the history of art through poet Robert Frost, and singer Johnny Cash.

  20. Now the english people can´t complain, that Bob Dylan does not sing folksong (ballads) any more(as they did in 1965) They have got a ballad in the best 1300 century style. At that time the troubadours travelled from place to place singing ballads often gossip and rumors about the king or the noble people.

  21. I’ve been holding back the ‘killer rabbit” as best I can, but after you are drawn, quartered, and disembowelled, release him I may have to.

  22. It’s fine to point out the music and history stuff that you do
    Babette, but I am very well acquainted with 99 per cent of what you mention.

  23. Why you take my intended humourous criticism of your interpretation of ‘Sweetheart LikeYou’ so seriously escapes me, but realy it’s only castles burning down.

  24. At least in American English, ‘harp’ also means a harmonica
    that you play using your lips.

  25. ‘Fire in the house” is an analogy for sexual desire that has a long tradition in folk songs and poetry of yore.

    You ought to pay attention to my comments since I do to yours ….you have indeed criticized my interpretation which is fine with me though I find it faulty.

  26. Monty Python made me do it, but, Babette, feel free to comment on any article that you wish to.

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