Absolutely Sweet Marie

Commentary

The  lyrics to Absolutely Sweet Marie are kind of all over the place, finally fading away with some confusing, ambiguous lines about the woman’s “yellow railroad” and her “ruined balcony”. The Blonde on Blonde musicians have told the story many times about how they played cards while Dylan finished some of the songs during the sessions. I’m guessing that Absolutely is one of those toss-offs.

The song contains one Dylan’s most quoted aphorisms: “To live outside the law you must be honest”. Jonathan Lethem, in an article in Harpers magazine in February 2007, notes that the line is very similar to a line in the 1958 film The Lineup, “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty”.

The lines “Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously/But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately” is cited in Ben Yagoda’s book, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, as being a great example of imaginative use of adverbs (“obviously” “absolutely” “fortunately”).

‘Sweet Marie’ rolls off the tongue nicely. “Sweet Melinda” appears in Just Like Tom Thumbs’ Blues. It does sound good.

Dylan may have copped the name from a well-known carnival fat lady. That Sweet Marie supposedly weighted over 600 pounds. The artwork used to advertise carnivals with characters such as Sweet Marie is now highly collectible.Gideon Bosker and Carl Hammer edited a book of this type of advertisements. The cover illustration portrays Sweet Marie in the process of eating half-a-dozen eggs.

It has also been suggested that Dylan took the name from an old song of the same name written by Irishman Percy French. French’s song was a popular number in the sixties, and was covered by Dylan’s cohorts Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers.

The performance on the recording is fantastic. The organ and drums drive the bouncy little tune along. Dylan sings it well, and throws in an extended, wildly exuberant harmonica break in at the end. Good stuff.

Dylan didn’t play the song live until 1988. Since then he’s often used it as the opening number.

George Harrison did a nice cover at the 30th Anniversary Concert concert in 1992.

Jason and the Scorchers give it a demented cow-punk treatment.


Lyrics

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it
Sometimes it gets so hard, you see
I’m just sitting here beating on my trumpet
With all these promises you left for me
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

Well, I waited for you when I was half sick
Yes, I waited for you when you hated me
Well, I waited for you inside of the frozen traffic
When you knew I had some other place to be
Now, where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously
But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately.

Well, six white horses that you did promise
Were finally delivered down to the penitentiary
But to live outside the law, you must be honest
I know you always say that you agree
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

Well, I don’t know how it happened
But the river-boat captain, he knows my fate
But ev’rybody else, even yourself
They’re just gonna have to wait.

Well, I got the fever down in my pockets
The Persian drunkard, he follows me
Yes, I can take him to your house but I can’t unlock it
You see, you forgot to leave me with the key
Oh, where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

Now, I been in jail when all my mail showed
That a man can’t give his address out to bad company
And now I stand here lookin’ at your yellow railroad
In the ruins of your balcony
Wond’ring where you are tonight, sweet Marie.

4 thoughts on “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

  1. Avatar

    from a facebook post:

    “We want to make it safe to live by the law; enough has been done to make it safe to live life outside the law” – Barry Goldwater 1964

  2. Avatar

    During a 1991 interview published in Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting, Expanded Fourth Edition (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), Dylan gives an idea of how he sees the song in his explanation of a line about a “yellow railroad”:

    That’s about as complete as you can be. Every single letter in that line. It’s all true. On a literal and on an escapist level…. Getting back to the yellow railroad, that could be from looking someplace. Being a performer, you travel the world. You’re not just looking out of the same window everyday. You’re not just walking down the same old street. So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you. You don’t have to observe. It hits you. Like, “yellow railroad” could have been a blinding day when the sun was so bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind…. These aren’t contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out.

  3. steve

    Link to the Harper’s article is here.
    The article also documents similar borrowings committed by other artists, including William Burroughs, T.S. Elliot, and many others. Includes a detailed analysis of the ethical considerations in play.

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