It’s just after the turn of the last century. Some raving lunatic has just fatally shot President William McKinley, the news of which is broadcasting on the newfangled “wireless radio”. Our protagonist, perhaps a European expat, a fan of a pirate radio station out of Luxembourg, has turned a “thumbs-down” on the chaos of the mainland and escaped to the beauty, peace, and simplicity of Key West. Perhaps he’s hanging with Hemmingway at Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street. In the hot flatland of Key West, you can’t be “over-dressed.” You have to be nearly naked, free from vanity and distraction. On Key West, a Pirate Philosopher can find his personal “immortality”.
The theme of escaping to rediscover inspiration and rebirth is not new territory for Dylan. He asked Mr. Tambourine Man “to take him away on his magic swirling ship”. In Goin’ to Acapulco, his voice aches for the sun and relief of a sandy Mexican beach.
Like modern politicians, songwriters aren’t constrained by the facts. Dylan takes advantage of that in Key West. Our Philosopher King is listening to the news of McKinley’s assassination – which happened in 1908 – on the radio – which didn’t become an everyday item until well afterward. He’s listening to “pirate radio” coming out of Luxembourg. That well-know station was actually a border blaster. There’s no such thing as “Gumbo-Limbo spirituals.” A Gumbo-Limbo is a type of tree. It sounds good though.
Dylan includes a bunch of shout-outs to nature; hibiscus flowers, fishtail palms (the official lyrics read “fishtail ponds”, but that can’t be right, there’s no such thing), orchid trees, bougainvillea’s. Perhaps our Pirate is a gardener.
The musical arrangement is perfection. The accordion is the featured instrument. The estimable Garth Hudson first added that sound to Dylan’s songs during the Basement Tapes days. It worked then and it works now. There’s a lot of accordion on recent Dylan records, especially on Together Through Life and Modern Times. In fact, an accordion is included in every track on Together Through Life.
Naturally, we have some references to old songs. The bit about McKinley at the beginning is a direct quote from White House Blues, made famous by Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers. Reading up and listening to old Charlie Poole is worth the effort. He was a textile worker, baseball player, great musician, and hall-of-fame level drunk. He died in 1931, a victim of a heart attack brought on by a thirteen-week bender.
Not many know of Poole now, but he was well-known during the folk renaissance in the 60s. His recordings are included in the influential American Anthology of Folk Music. Dylan mentioned Poole in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, specifically mentioning the song Ain’t Talkin’ to Me, from which Dylan based Ain’t Talkin’ from his 2006 album Modern Times.
“From down in the boondocks” might or might not be a reference to the Joe South’s Down in the Boondock. Both songs mention being born on the “wrong side” of town:
born born on the wrong side of the railroad track
Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac
Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest.
Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac were all Beat authors that Dylan knew personally. Ginsberg was actually not born on the wrong side of the tracks. His father was a well-known academic poet. Perhaps Dylan is referencing to his homosexuality, which made him an outsider in straight society.
The three musicians – Louis, Jimmy, and Buddy – are harder to identify. Louis Armstrong or Louis Jordan? Dylan played Jordan’s music on this Theme Time Radio Hour. Jimmy Rodgers or Jimmy Reed? Dylan included a song about Reed on Rough and Rowdy. Buddy Holly or Buddy Guy? Buddy Holly, an early Dylan hero, grew-up lower-middle-class in Lubbock, Texas, or Buddy Guy born to a family of Louisiana sharecroppers.
I take the phrase “I’m sticking with you” might mean he’s sticking with the teaching of the above artists to guide his life as opposed to a specific philosophy, religion, or other teachings. That thought reminds me of an old interview in which Dylan, asked about his religious beliefs, said the “songs are my lexicon”.
Perhaps the weirdest, but also the most interesting, lines in the song:
Twelve years old, they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute
There were gold fringes on her wedding dress
That’s my story, but not where it ends
She’s still cute, and we’re still friends
Many have noted that those lines could be a reference to the Book of Hosea, part of the Hebrew Bible. In that book, Hosea is asked to marry the harlot Gomer. Although he is reluctant at first, Hosea and Gomer eventually bond. A common interpretation is that this story is a metaphor for the separation and eventual reconciliation of God and the people of Israel.
These lines seem very much autobiographical. Dylan, had his bar mitzvah when the was twelve. He seems to be saying that he was forced into the religion, and although he is no longer a true believer, he’s still has a relationship with it (“she’s still cute“). Remarkable lines. I can’t see any other songwriter, except perhaps Leonard Cohen, coming up with anything like that.
Key West is certainly one of my favorite Dylan songs in the last twenty years. I love the sound. I love the vocal. I love the lyrics. I love the production. I love the whole thing. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times already with no sign of tiring. I’m not the only one, Rolling Stone lists it in their compilation of the best songs of the 21st Century.
McKinley hollered - McKinley squalled Doctor said McKinley - death is on the wall Say it to me if you got something to confess I heard all about it - he was going down slow Heard it on the wireless radio From down in the boondocks - way down in Key West I’m searchin’ for love and inspiration On that pirate radio station It’s comin’ out of Luxembourg and Budapest Radio signal clear as can be I’m so deep in love I can hardly see Down in the flatlands - way down in Key West Key West is the place to be If you’re lookin’ for immortality Stay on the road – follow the highway sign Key West is fine and fair If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there Key West is on the horizon line I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac Like Louie and Jimmy and Buddy and all of the rest It might not be the thing to do But I’m stickin’ with you through and through Down in the flatlands - way down in Key West I got both my feet planted square on the ground Got my right hand high with the thumb down Such is life - such is happiness Hibiscus flowers grow everywhere here If you wear one put it behind your ear Down on the bottom - way down in Key West Key West is the place to go Down by the Gulf of Mexico Beyond the sea - beyond the shifting sand Key West is the gateway key To innocence and purity Key West - Key West is the enchanted land I’ve never lived in the land of Oz Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause It’s hot down here and you can’t be overdressed The tiny blossoms of a toxic plant They can make you dizzy - I’d like to help ya but I can’t Down in the flatlands - way down in Key West The fishtail ponds and the orchid trees They can give you the bleedin’ heart disease People tell me - I oughta try a little tenderness Amelia Street - Bay View Park Walkin’ in the shadows after dark Down under - way down in Key West I play the gumbo limbo spirituals I know all the Hindu rituals People tell me that I’m truly blessed Bougainvillea bloomin’ in the summer and spring Winter here is an unknown thing Down the flatlands - way down in Key West Key West is under the sun Under the radar - under the gun You stay to the left and then you lean to the right Feel the sunlight on your skin And the healing virtues of the wind Key West - Key West is the land of light Wherever I travel - wherever I roam I’m not that far from the convent home I do what I think is right - what I think is best Mystery Street off Mallory Square Truman had his White House there Eastbound - westbound Way down in Key West Twelve years old and they put me in a suit Forced me to marry a prostitute There were gold fringes on her wedding dress That’s my story but not where it ends She’s still cute and we’re still friends Down in the bottom - way down in Key West I play both sides against the middle Pickin’ up that pirate radio signal I heard the news - I heard your last request Fly around my Pretty Little Miss I don’t love nobody - gimme a kiss Down at the bottom - way down in Key West Key West is the place to be If you’re lookin’ for immortality Key West is paradise divine Key West is fine and fair If you lost your mind you’ll find it there Key West is on the horizon line