When the Ship Comes In


When the Ship Comes In is the odd-sock of this recording. Where the rest of the songs are traditional ballads or protest anthems, the lyrics of Ship bring to mind the verbosity of Hard Rain, and point towards the verbal dexterity that would come on future recordings.

Dylan commentator Stephen Scobie calls it a rather “mean and nasty” song. John Hinchey thinks it works best if viewed as an “inner spiritual quest”. I don’t see it in either of those ways. It certainly isn’t nasty. Overthrowing a despot doesn’t make one “mean”.  And it’s clearly not a spiritual quest at all: it’s about the eternal struggle between the haves and the have-nots. “The foes will rise etc.. etc…”

In his book “No Direction Home”, Robert Shelton quotes Gabrielle Goodchild on the use of a ship as a metaphor. “Throughout myth and literature, we find water as the symbol of the unconscious, spirituality, and earth, and the ship as the tiny ego of man making its lonely or triumphant voyage across dangerous deeps.”

Shelton notes that the song is steeped in the Old Testament and specifically related to Revelations 7.1, which matches the opening stanza of Ship quite closely. First the Dylan stanza:

Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’.
Like the stillness in the wind
‘Fore the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in.

And in Revelations 7.1:

And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.

Many have noted that Dylan’s inspiration for this song may have come from Kurt Weill’s Pirate Jenny, which was written for Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. Dylan’s girlfriend Suze Rotolo was the set director for an amateur production of the play and it has been well documented that Dylan attended the rehearsals. Here are the lyrics of Pirate Jenny:

You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors
And I’m scrubbin’ the floors while you’re gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town
In this crummy old hotel
But you’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’.
No. You couldn’t ever guess to who you’re talkin’.

Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you’ll wonder who could that have been
And you see me kinda grinnin’ while I’m scrubbin’
And you say, “What’s she got to grin?”
I’ll tell you.

There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
with a skull on its masthead
will be coming in

You gentlemen can say, “Hey gal, finish them floors!
Get upstairs! What’s wrong with you! Earn your keep here!
You toss me your tips
and look out to the ships
But I’m counting your heads
as I’m making the beds
Cuz there’s nobody gonna sleep here, honey

Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you say, “Who’s that kicking up a row?”
And ya see me kinda starin’ out the winda
And you say, “What’s she got to stare at now?”
I’ll tell ya.

There’s a ship
The Black Freighter
turns around in the harbor
shootin’ guns from her bow

You gentlemen can wipe off that smile off your face
Cause every building in town is a flat one
This whole frickin’ place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up safe and sound
And you yell, “Why do they spare that one?”
That’s what you say.
“Why do they spare that one?”

All the night through, through the noise and to-do
You wonder who is that person that lives up there?
And you see me stepping out in the morning
Looking nice with a ribbon in my hair

And the ship
The Black Freighter
runs a flag up its masthead
and a cheer rings the air

By noontime the dock
is a-swarmin’ with men
comin’ out from the ghostly freighter
They move in the shadows
where no one can see
And they’re chainin’ up people
and they’re bringin’ em to me
askin’ me,
“Kill them NOW, or LATER?”
Askin’ ME!
“Kill them now, or later?”

Noon by the clock
and so still by the dock
You can hear a foghorn miles away
And in that quiet of death
I’ll say, “Right now.
Right now!”

Then they’ll pile up the bodies
And I’ll say,
“That’ll learn ya!”

And the ship
The Black Freighter
disappears out to sea

Listen to Nina Simone‘s version of Pirate Jenny.

Clearly, there are similarities. The ship is used as a symbol of freedom in both songs and its arrival marks the demise of the narrator’s nemesis. There are other connections as well. Dylan mentions Brecht in the Freewheelin’ liner notes. And Brecht on Brecht, the popular play written in the early sixties, is widely thought of as the inspiration for the title of the album Blonde on Blonde.

I am always skeptical when commentators try to tie Dylan’s lyrics to literary instead of folk or blues material. In this case, I don’t completely buy the connection. Perhaps Pirate Jenny got the ball rolling, but I think that’s about it. A ship is a universal symbol that has been used in thousands of songs and poems. And although the themes may be similar, the specific lyrics are not similar at all. But who knows.

A version with Dylan accompanying himself on piano was released on The Bootleg Series.

Bootleg Series 7.

Live  Aid. Not the best.


Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’.
Like the stillness in the wind
‘Fore the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking.
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.

Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they’ll be smiling.
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand,
The hour that the ship comes in.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline.
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck,
The hour that the ship comes in.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’.
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’.
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they’ll raise their hands,
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands,
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh’s tribe,
They’ll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

5 thoughts on “When the Ship Comes In”

  1. John Landau “this song is truly frightening in its righteous zeal.  It is vengeful in the Old Testament sense of the word.  It is the work of a profoundly religious mentality, but Bob dylan didn’t have to go any farther than the good old USA to get into this kind of religion”

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