I’ve been listening to Scarlet Town a lot lately. It’s not a particularly easy song to digest. Perhaps an impossible song to really get to know. Dylan long ago stopped writing in a linear fashion, with often spectacular results. Think Desolation Row, to name one glorious example. Sometimes though, like with this song, this style can result in a bit too much ambiguity. IMO.
Anyway, I thought I would put together a series of blog posts devoted to this complicated song.
It seems that Dylan based, at least in part, Scarlet Town on the traditional folk song, Barbara Allen. Dylan played a version of Barbara Allen at the NYC Gaslight club in 1962, which was released on CD in 2005. That melancholy version is alright, but I much prefer the version he did during the early days of the Never Ending Tour. Most importantly for the purposes of this post, Dylan performed a version of the song during the Tour that starts with “In Scarlet Town where I was born.”
Other references are more obvious. The second verse is basically a summary of Allen’s plot.
Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William Holme on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissin’ his face and puttin’ prayers on his head
So brave and true, so gentle is he
I’ll weep for him as he would weep for me
Little Boy Blue come your blow horn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
The rest of the song, it seems to me, is Dylan describing a time and place where a tragic story such as described in the traditional song could take place. Perhaps a place like Hibbing Minnesota, Dylan’s hometown. We’ll get to that later.
Barbara Allen – As Sung By Bob Dylan During the Never Ending Tour
In Scarlet town where I was born There was a fair maid dwelling And every youth cried well away For her name was Barbara Allen 'Twas in the merry month of May The green buds were a swelling Sweet William on his deathbed lay For the love of Barbara Allen He sent a servant unto her To the place she was dwelling Saying you must come to his deathbed now If your name be Barbara Allen Slowly, slowly she got up Slowly, slowly she came nigh him And the only words to him she said Young man I think you're dying As she was walking o'er the fields She heard the death bell knelling And every stroke it seemed to say Hardhearted Barbara Allen Oh, mother mother make my bed Make it long and make it narrow Sweet William died for me today I'll die for him tomorrow They buried her in the old churchyard They buried him in the choir And from his grave grew a red red rose From her grave a green briar They grew and grew to the steeple top 'Till they could grow no higher And there they twined in a true love's knot Red rose around green briar In Scarlet town where I was born There was a fair maid dwelling And every youth cried well away For her name was Barbara Allen