Scarlet Town, where the narrator of this song says he was born, is also of course the hometown of Barbara Allen, who figures in one of the most famous of English ballads, first printed in the late 17th Century but probably dating from much earlier. Dylan performed the song in his early club days, and an achingly beautiful version survives in a live recording from 1962.
In Dylan’s new version on Tempest, Scarlet Town is peopled with many more figures than the doomed lovers of the ballad. The ghost of John Greenleaf Whittier (above), 19th-Century New England poet, hymn writer and abolitionist, seems to be in residence there, referenced in many quotes and images from his poetry.
At a local bar, the narrator sings, “Set ‘em up, Joe, play ‘Walkin’ the Floor’, play it for my flat-chested junkie whore.” In these brief lines Dylan manages to summon Frank Sinatra, Ernest Tubb and (via Tristessa) Jack Kerouac, all of whom can testify, in terms sophisticated, prosaic or depraved, to the heartaches of hopeless love, like the love for Barbara Allen that killed Sweet William in the ballad.
The slightly ominous but elegiac arrangement of a sweet melody wanders along like the narrator through a place very much like Desolation Row, without the theatrical spectacle, a ghost town that has been abandoned by its flesh-and-blood residents but is lively with spirits.
Sweet William dies once again for the love of Barbara Allen — the narrator identifies with him. “I’ll weep for him as he’d weep for me.” There are hints of a larger catastrophe ravaging the land — “beggars crouching at the gate . . . help comes, but it comes too late.” The old faith seems to be failing — “I touched the garment, but the hem was torn.” People are fighting their fathers’ foes. “The end is near.”
Still, somehow, love abides, if only as hope. “Put your heart on a platter and see who bites — see who’ll hold you and kiss you goodnight.” Regret permeates everything — “Lot of things we didn’t do that I wish we had.”
Finally the ghosts convene in the bar to raise glasses to ruined loves, but the narrator won’t despair — decides to stick with love, doomed or not. It seems to be the only way out of this desperate town, if there is one.
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