This song gets a lot of hate. Heylin calls it (in Behind the Shades) “excruciatingly bad”. Even Dylan seems to dislike it. He’s never played it live.
I’m a fan. It paints a little picture of a desolate town, with down-trodden folks muddling through their day with a frown. All the while a beautiful world of angels and wonder is there for the viewing. Nobody except our erstwhile protagonist can see it. Perhaps not the most original of thoughts, but well-done.
Weirdly, to me anyway, Tim Riley (Hard Rain), calls in a “clean parody” – says it “vilifies the homeless”. What?
Many have pointed out the biblical roots of “three angels”. Genesis chapter 18:2.
And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;
And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground,
Dylan lived in Woodstock, New York during the New Morning timeframe. There was a cafe there, according to Heylin in Behind the Shades, named “Three Angels.” Perhaps it was the inspiration for this song. I cannot find any references to any cafe with that name, on the internet or in other Dylan books. It does seem the narrator could be sitting in a cafe, watching the “wildest cat from Montana” strolling by.
Heylin, in Revolution in the Air, says this song, written for MacLeish’s play, began life as a spoken word piece. He also mentions that Dylan in his early days performed a version of Lord Buckley’s Black Cross. Performances can be found on the Minnesota Hotel Tapes, December 1961, and on the Second Gaslight Tape, October 1962. Interesting.
Michael Gray (Song and Dance Man) notes that Three Angels echos Wink Martindale’s Desk of Cards and Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.
From Our Lady of the Flowers.
But neither of the two seemed to care whether Divine was absent or present. They heard the morning angelus, the rattle of a milk can. Three workman went by o bicycles along the boulevard, their lamps oit, though it was day. A policeman on his way home…passed without lookin at them.
Wink Martindale, Deck of Cards.
Three angels up above the street
Each one playing a horn
Dressed in green robes with wings that stick out
They’ve been there since Christmas morn
The wildest cat from Montana passes by in a flash
Then a lady in a bright orange dress
One U-Haul trailer, a truck with no wheels
The Tenth Avenue bus going west
The dogs and pigeons fly up and they flutter around
A man with a badge skips by
Three fellas crawlin’ on their way back to work
Nobody stops to ask why
The bakery truck stops outside of that fence
Where the angels stand high on their poles
The driver peeks out, trying to find one face
In this concrete world full of souls
The angels play on their horns all day
The whole earth in progression seems to pass by
But does anyone hear the music they play
Does anyone even try?