Scarlet Town

Even after many listens, I’m not really sure what to make of Scarlet Town. It could be Dylan’s ominous vision of what America has become. Perhaps he’s remembering his hometown of Hibbing. Maybe it’s an update of Desolation Row. Maybe there’s some hidden coherence my wee brain can’t understand. Dylan’s best songs reward repeated listens. This one doesn’t, and I think that’s its fatal flaw.

If there is some glory in this song, it’s in the details. Let’s explore some of that.

Most Dylan fans know the Childe Ballad, Barbara Allen. that Dylan references in the third verse.

Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face, heaping prayers on his head

It is one of my favorites. Joan Baez’s version is probably best known. But since I can’t find a good version from her on YouTube, we’ll listen to this nice one by Art Garfunkel.

Dylan covered in many times, many times during the “Never Ending Tour.”

Dylan references a nursery rhyme below, harking back to the Under the Red Sky album, which was strewn with such references.

Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn.
Where is that boy who looks after the sheep?
He's under a haystack, fast asleep.
Will you wake him? Oh no, not I,
For if I do, he'll surely cry.

Note the similarity of “Little Boy Blue” to other “blue” persons in Dylan songs, such as “little boy lost” from Visions of Johanna and “Baby Blue” in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

He references the country song “Set’em Up, Joe” which was made famous by Vern Gosdin.

There are several possible references to the Bible, a book that is seemingly never far from Dylan’s mind these days.

touched the garment – Matthew 9:18-26

18 While he spake these things unto them, behold, there came a certain ruler, and worshipped him, saying, My daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live.

19 And Jesus arose, and followed him, and so did his disciples.

20 And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment:

21 For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.

22 But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.

human forms glorified

When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

making amends/smile of heaven

21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Matthew 5:23-24

all things are beautiful

8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

 9What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? 

10 I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.

 11He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.

 12I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. 

13And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.

 14I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

Further Reading


In Scarlet Town where I was born
There’s ivy leaf and silver thorn
The streets have names you can’t pronounce
Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce

The music starts and the people sway
Everybody says, are you going my way?
Uncle Tom still working for Uncle Bill
Scarlet town is under the hill

Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face, heaping prayers on his head

So brave, so true, so gentle is he
I’ll weep for him as he’d weep for me
Little Boy Blue come blow your horn
In Scarlet Town where I was born

Scarlet Town in the hot noon hours
There’s palm leaf shadows and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes but it comes too late

On marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town where I was born

In Scarlet Town the end is near
The seven wonders of the world are here
The evil and the good living side by side
All human forms seem glorified

Put your heart on a platter and see who’ll bite
See who’ll hold you and kiss you good night
There’s walnut groves and maple wood
In Scarlet town crying won’t do you no good

In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows
You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in
You fight ‘em with whisky, morphine and gin

You got legs that can drive men mad
A lot of things we didn’t do that I wish we had
In Scarlet Town the sky is clear
You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here

Set ‘em up Joe, play Walking The Floor
Play it for my flat chested junky whore
I’m staying up late and I’m making amends
While the smile of heaven descends

If love is a sin then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
It’s all right there for ya in Scarlet Town

Scroll to Top