Scarlet Town Analysis – Part 1

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

Additional Reading

https://americansongwriter.com/barbara-allen-behind-the-song/

https://www.loc.gov/folklife/LP/BarbaraAllenAFS_L54_sm.pdf

4 thoughts on “Scarlet Town Analysis – Part 1”

  1. Pingback: Scarlet Town Analysis - Part 2 - the Bob Dylan Commentaries

  2. Interesting how Mr D ended his gorgeous version in 1988 while married to Carolyn Dennis and raising out of wedlock DESIREE ’till marriage made it legal and somewhat sacred” that he chose to sing this song, and changed the usual traditional ending to “it was from William’s breast/grave that the briar grew, and from Barbarie Allen heart grew the beautiful eternal red rose” I wonder how personal this was to Mr. D so that in later albums after his or Mr CD divorce he wrote “TWO TIME SLIM WHO EVER HEARD OF HIM” and ‘i went to Sugar Town and shook all the sugar town’ or in his latest song..Black Rider…he said to …that it’s been on the job too long..anyway just some interpretations but it is not fair to use unexamined People’s magazine second hand infor or second guess someone’s heart, but that change of lyrics at the end of Mr d’s BA is very shocking and tell-tale heart revealing..No/Yes? thanks for your interesting articles. I just sent this to Prof. Kees de Graaf in the Netherlands who did an excellent anaylsis of SCARLET TOWN. He is a Christ lover and pursuer. He does an excellent job on Mr dy’s songs; and he is a scientist plus interest in Jewish mysticism as I am and I think he does a careful analysis of the songs. I think he mentioned he took 9 months to write about FALSE PROPHET before he put it on his blog. He asked me to comment on it before he put it to print, but I was on my way to vacation and would need a comparable time period for thinking and praying to be careful with such a complex masterpiece of a song.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to submit the most interesting comments. I was not aware of Dylan’s change to the traditional ending.

      I’ll check out de Graaf’s analysis. I’ve long been aware of his work. Like you said, excellent. I’m going to do another post on Scarlet Town from a religious angle (although not in the depth of folks like you and de Graaf). I definitely see some connections.

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