The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

Some songs on John Wesley Harding are a bit too succinct, too circumscribed, a fault Dylan has rarely been guilty of. Not the case with this rambling, semi-serious, semi-comic tall-tale. Yet, it is frustratingly vague, similar to the title track and As I Went Out One Morning. One thing I can say about it for sure though; the performance is a homage to Luke the Drifter, the nom de plume of Hank Williams. Williams, of course, was an early Dylan hero, who he claims was an even bigger influence than Woody Guthrie.

Of course, this vagueness only encourages intrepid Dylanologists; breaking out the Bob Dylan library reveals a plethora of ideas on the “meaning” behind this song. Some of them are rather ingenious.

Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman
Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman

James Dunlap, in an essay published in 20 Years of Isis, argues that Albert Grossman, Dylan’s infamous manager during his early career, is the Judas Priest character. According to Dunlap, Dylan is both the ridiculous Frankie Lee and the “little neighbor boy”. Specifically, Frankie Lee is Dylan pre-John Wesley Harding, given to foolishness, subject to the temptations of money (Priest’s “roll of tens”) and women (a brothel with a “woman’s face” in every window), who has profound lack of Christian faith (“I don’t call it [heaven] “anything”). Judas/Grossman tempts this Dylan, which isn’t very hard to do, and leads him down to ruin. The little neighbor boy represents the older, “wiser” Dylan post-motorcycle accident, who now knows he didn’t belong in those evil places he used to dwell, the fake “paradise”. Dunlap notes that Grossman was Dylan’s “neighbor” around the time Harding was recorded when Dylan was living in Woodstock, New York. Dunlap also notes that Dylan used a similar strategy before – the old Dylan dies so that a new one can be born – in his book Tarantula (20 Years of Isis).

“Here lies bob/dylan…killed by a discarded Oedipus/so turned/around/to investigate a ghost/& discovered that/the ghost too/was more than one person”

Dylan biographer Robert Shelton also thinks Dylan is Frankie Lee and also notes that the Frank in the confusing liner notes might also be Dylan (that seems pretty clear to me). Dunlap writes that “three kings” in the notes could represent record producers or business managers.

Fredrick Mellers, the author of A Darker Shade of Pale, has a more general take. He believes Judas Priest represents the Established Church gone rotten; a priest who is a Judas, a Judas who is a priest. The Church and State represented by the bordello. He contends that the little neighbor boy could be a reference to Matthew 18:3

And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Biographer Anthony Scaduto has a similar take:

“…Dylan is Frankie Lee … and in naming him Judas Priest Dylan symbolized not only the betrayer of Christ but also the institutionalized religions & ruling establishments. …Frankie needed money, Judas … pulled out a roll of tens … & Dylan is saying that he was placing himself above all people, exalting himself. Judas tells Frankie to take whatever he needs… Frankie resists the seduction at first… In giving [him] a choice, Dylan reflects the Biblical teaching… Judas leaves, pointing down the road … putting down the paradise of the Lord. [A] stranger … tells [Frankie Lee that] Priest is … stranded in … a house of prostitution. Frankie Lee loses control of his senses and runs into the house … falls into Judas’ arms & dies of thirst… Dylan should never have entered society’s whorehouse… [T]he result of that huge ego trip was the death of his soul.”

Joe Cliburn did a nice job of documenting Scaduto’s and others’ take on the song (from which the above excerpt is taken). It’s saved on the Bob Dylan Who’s Who website.

Gibbens, the author of The Nightingale’s Code, suggests that the little boy could be Priest doppelgänger.

Interesting ideas all, they shed quite a bit of light on a rather confusing lyric. I tend to be somewhat skeptical that Dylan actually had Grossman in mind as the Priest. But who knows?

Michael Gray, the author of Song and Dance Man, notes that Dylan borrowed the phrase “midnight creep” from old blues songs. Many artists used this phrase, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alice Moore, Lil Green, and most notably, Willy Dixon’s Back Door Man, which was first made popular by Howlin’ Wolf, and much later by The Doors.

Dylan rarely plays this song live. It was played a few times during his tours with the Grateful Dead in 1987-88.

It was also played a few times during the Never-Ending tour, in 2000.


Well, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
They were the best of friends
So when Frankie Lee needed money one day
Judas quickly pulled out a roll of tens
And placed them on a footstool
Just above the plotted plain
Sayin’, “Take your pick, Frankie Boy
My loss will be your gain”

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat right down
And put his fingers to his chin
But with the cold eyes of Judas on him
His head began to spin
“Would ya please not stare at me like that,” he said
“It’s just my foolish pride
But sometimes a man must be alone
And this is no place to hide”

Well, Judas, he just winked and said
“All right, I’ll leave you here
But you’d better hurry up and choose which of those bills you want
Before they all disappear”
“I’m gonna start my pickin’ right now
Just tell me where you’ll be”
Judas pointed down the road
And said, “Eternity!”

“Eternity?” said Frankie Lee
With a voice as cold as ice
“That’s right,” said Judas Priest, “Eternity
Though you might call it ‘Paradise’”
“I don’t call it anything”
Said Frankie Lee with a smile
“All right,” said Judas Priest
“I’ll see you after a while”

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat back down
Feelin’ low and mean
When just then a passing stranger
Burst upon the scene
Saying, “Are you Frankie Lee, the gambler
Whose father is deceased?
Well, if you are, there’s a fellow callin’ you down the road
And they say his name is Priest”

“Oh, yes, he is my friend”
Said Frankie Lee in fright
“I do recall him very well
In fact, he just left my sight”
“Yes, that’s the one,” said the stranger
As quiet as a mouse
“Well, my message is, he’s down the road
Stranded in a house”

Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked
He dropped ev’rything and ran
Until he came up to the spot
Where Judas Priest did stand
“What kind of house is this,” he said
“Where I have come to roam?”
“It’s not a house,” said Judas Priest
“It’s not a house . . . it’s a home”

Well, Frankie Lee, he trembled
He soon lost all control
Over ev’rything which he had made
While the mission bells did toll
He just stood there staring
At that big house as bright as any sun
With four and twenty windows
And a woman’s face in ev’ry one

Well, up the stairs ran Frankie Lee
With a soulful, bounding leap
And, foaming at the mouth
He began to make his midnight creep
For sixteen nights and days he raved
But on the seventeenth he burst
Into the arms of Judas Priest
Which is where he died of thirst

No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest
Except, of course, the little neighbor boy
Who carried him to rest
And he just walked along, alone
With his guilt so well concealed
And muttered underneath his breath
“Nothing is revealed”

Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

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