Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Commentary

Sad-Eyed has a compelling melody, one of not that many Dylan songs that leave the listener whistling long after the record stops playing. It’s a wonderful sounding song, written in the unusual 6/8 time.

The lyrics of the chorus are glorious. The repeated long vowels give it a sonorous, romantic sound. The biblical images of lowlands, prophets, and the giving of gifts to a god-like creature give the song a hymnal quality.

Lyrical gems are strewn all over. The first two lines:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.

A bunch of isolated phrases stand out for their freshness and surprise:

…flesh like silk
…your face like glass
…geranium kiss

There are also some not-so-great lyrical moments:

And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass…
And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs…
Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole…

The song never builds much narrative or emotional force. Tim Riley, author of Hard Rain, defines the problem well: “Dylan winds his way through situations and visions so vivid and yet so allusive that they end up only skirting the feelings he’s trying to get a handle on.”

The song is obviously written about Dylan’s first wife, Sara Lownds. In fact, Dylan tells us so in Sara, released on the Desire album of 1975.

I can still hear the sound of the Methodist bells
I had taken the cure and had just gotten through
staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
writing “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” for you

The line “your magazine husband who just had to go” is another clue, given that Sara’s first husband was a fashion magazine photographer.

Curiously, in the performance released on the album Dylan changes the published line “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums” to “My warehouse eyes as my Arabian drums”, which makes absolutely no sense (at least to me), and also makes the next line – when he speaks of “leaving them at her gate” – even more confused.

This long song was recorded in one take. Dylan commentator Betsy Bowden notes that Dylan doesn’t slur the words in this performance; he’s very careful to enunciate each sound. When it was released on vinyl it took up an entire side all by itself. Dylan was certainly trying to make a grand statement, but maybe didn’t quite pull it off. Close though.

Others have a different take, including singer Tom Waits.

For me, ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ is a grand song. It is like Beowulf and it takes me out to the meadow. This song can make you leave home, work on the railroad or marry a Gypsy. I think of a drifter around a fire with a tin cup under a bridge remembering a woman’s hair. The song is a dream, a riddle and a prayer.

Dylan has never played the song live in front of an audience. A version can be found on the Renaldo and Clara soundtrack and the bootleg 1966 Denver Hotel Tape.

Baez live in 1972.

Steve  Howe  of Yes.


Lyrics

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
With your pockets well protected at last,
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,
Who among them do they think could carry you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace,
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace,
And your basement clothes and your hollow face,
Who among them can think he could outguess you?
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims,
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns,
Who among them would try to impress you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

The kings of Tyrus with their convict list
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss,
And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this,
But who among them really wants just to kiss you?
With your childhood flames on your midnight rug,
And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs,
And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs,
Who among them do you think could resist you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?s

Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you the dead angels that they used to hide.
But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?
Oh, how could they ever mistake you?
They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm,
But with the sea at your feet and the phony false alarm,
And with the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in your arms,
How could they ever, ever persuade you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row,
And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go,
And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show,
Who among them do you think would employ you?
Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole
With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold,
And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul,
Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

3 thoughts on “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

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    Well, I agree with Bob Dylan that this song and the song Sara are not about his wives; he is too great a man and artist to have such transcendent and universal lyrics reduced in such a way; both the lyrics and subject matter stay deeply in the soul…my image of the song is from Revelation 12:1 And a great sign was seen in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon underneath her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve starts; 12:2 And she was with child, and she crited out, travailing in birth and being in pain to bring forth 12:3 And anothe sign was seen in heaven; and behold, there was a great red dragon (Tyrus), having seven heads and ten horns and on his heads seven diadems.”
    Notice too how these verses in Revelation contain the image of a child of the hoodlum in her arms (he means God; Israel; a woman carrying a child about to be devoured by Satan. Although the song is primarily a love song, it is also about spiritual warfare. The poet asks about whether he should wait…in my opinion ..like Oedipus with the Sphinx, he answered in correctly, and repeated the tragedy of most men and especially Jewish men–they keep marrying their Jewish mothers and prostitutes..the answer to his question to this Lady is “yes, you should have waited” as the great Poet Gibran said “To discover beauty is a form a waiting” ..the Lady was willing and able to show him Truth and Beauty and Love, but waiting was required. He did not even begin to discover these things in the world until his latest album ROUGH AND ROWDY,,,where he finally admits that “he is sick of chasing lies” and “cock” or the Black Rider’s propensity for lust so he can finally answer this Lady’s question and know Truth, Beauty and Love…this is a poet who has lost his conscience of Truth starting with his corruption in the early 1963, reaching its completion in his soul..else why in his song I SHALL BE RELEASED..and other songs at least say he is in darkness, and “I am now on the darkside of the run”. As John Keats, EDickons, and F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned or questioned in TENDER IS THE LIGHT, .how can one know Truth without Light, and how can one know Beauty without Truth. — Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty..that is all you know on earth and all you need to know. Unfortunately, to quote Mr. Dylan’s song MISSISSIPPI as soon as he left the country, and put his luggage down in the city, he got into confusion and trouble and started to live a life of crime.
    I think it is important to both hear with your heart and mind the lyrics and music, and especially do some research on the Kings of Tryrus (ancient corrupt kings of old) and symbolic of Satan. This woman and the imagery is taken from Jeremiah and Isaiah and the greatest love song every written SONG OF SONGS. I could go on with each word in this song and line with a careful poetic, theological, and philosophical logic for hundreds of pages, but I have my own poetry to work on at the moment, and service to God.

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