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Bob Dylan: Desolation Row Meaning

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Covered By: My Chemical Romance (2009)


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Desolation Row Lyrics

They're selling postcards of the hanging

They're painting the passports brown

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors

The circus is in town

Here comes the blind commissioner

They've got him in a trance

One hand is tied to the...

  1. 1TOP RATED

    #1 top rated interpretation:
    Qweed
    click a star to vote
    Mar 3rd 2017 report

    Desolation Row is a song about the inhumanity mankind. The whimsical lines allow for many interpretations, but I see threads of continuity.

    The first verse is the most difficult to understand because many people are unaware of the incident to which it refers. It is about the 1920 lynching of three negroes in Duluth, witnessed by 8 year old Abram Zimmerman, Bob Dylan’s father. A brief accounting can be found at mnhs.org/duluthlynchings. My line by line interpretation follows.

    “They're selling postcards of the hanging”
    This lynching was notorious for the sale of picture postcards memorializing the misdeed.

    “they’re painting the passports brown”
    U.S Steel, the largest employer in the region had fostered racial strife by actively recruiting black laborers from southern states to replace higher paid white union workers.

    “The beauty parlor is filled with sailors”
    When World War I began many of Duluth’s young men enlisted in the Navy. After the war ended they returned home as war heroes but after a few years their status faded. By 1920 many had been displaced by blacks and there were a lot of unemployed sailors complaining about their situation.

    “the circus is in town”
    The John Robinson Circus, a traveling circus with several black employees had arrived in Duluth.

    “Here comes the blind commissioner, they've got him in a trance
    One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
    And the riot squad they're restless, they need somewhere to go”
    This refers to William Murian, the Commissioner of Public Safety in charge of the police and other city departments. When the lynch mob began to grow he ordered the police not to use they’re weapons to defend the accused prisoners and rejected using nearby military troops to quell the riot. Although responsible for public safety, his position was elective and he didn’t want to jeopardize his re-election.

    In the second verse, Cinderella is Joseph Stalin and Romeo is Adolph Hitler. Hitler considered the USSR an easy target and both men were ruthless tyrants. The reference to Bette Davis style, an actress that usually played an evil person, further strengthens this point. Romeo and Cinderella agreed to invade Poland starting World War II. Romeo then invaded the USSR thinking it could be easily conquered. At the conclusion of World War II Romero was gone but Cinderella remained in power.

    I believe the third verse refers to the cold war and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). At the time this song was written the future looked bleak. Bomb shelters were popular and there were frequent civil defense drills. Abel, Cain, and the hunchback of Notre Dame probably refer to the leaders of the three nuclear powers, Lyndon Johnson (USA), Nikita Khrushecv (USSR), and Mao Zedong (Red China). Everyone is hoping MAD will keep the peace but know the threat of nuclear Armageddon is real. I am unsure whom the Good Samaritan refers to.

    The fourth verse is about nuclear missiles. Ophelia, an insane suicidal character, is an ICBM. She’s kept in missile silos, out of sight but greatly feared. In 1965 nuclear weapon development was only 22 years old but these weapons were considered unusable. Ophelia’s mysticism is her awesome ability for death and mass destruction. This is her job but is also why she cannot be used. She keeps the peace (Noah’s rainbow) out of fear but could still be unleashed by a madman, destroying all life on earth.

    The fifth verse is about the developers of nuclear weapons. Einstein is most likely Albert Einstein. Although his scientific research was admirable with no hostile intent, the knowledge obtained was used to create nuclear weapons. I believe the jealous monk is Robert Oppenheimer, referring to his association of the first nuclear explosion with a verse from the Bhagavad Gita. Additional clues supporting Einstein as representing himself are his disheveled appearance, reciting the alphabet (his energy formula which is the basis for a nuclear explosion), and the fact he was a pipe smoker that loved playing the violin.

    The sixth verse is about Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. Dr. Filth is Josef Mengele, the sadistic doctor that performed heinous human experiments and selected the victims for the cyanide gas chambers. He is known for making leather articles using human skin. His nurse represents the local collaborators and/or the Sonderkommandos. The penny whistles refer to the railway whistles announcing the arrival of another trainload of victims.

    The seventh verse is about the Holodomor and other famines resulting from the Soviet Union’s collective farming program. Behind the iron curtain the Soviet leaders (Phantom of the Opera) mask their goal to increase grain production for export using the forced labor of the peasants (Casanova). To accomplish this they use propaganda to convince Casanova he is the beneficiary of their plan. Instead of growing his own food, his crops are taken by the Phantom for redistribution. When the Phantom’s quotas are not met Casanova is blamed for the shortfall leaving him and his children to starve to death.

    The eighth verse is about the establishment forces that keep the status quo. Politicians employ government agencies and secret police to maintain their power. Corporate officials maintain their profitable positions by setting high quotas, keeping their minions working overtime in stressful but unfulfilling jobs. By keeping the masses busy no one has time to challenge the status quo.

    The ninth verse is a summary of the current state of affairs (in 1965). World leaders are fiddling around ignoring the impending doom. It really doesn’t matter which side of the conflict you support or what your idealistic views are if everyone is destroyed in the upcoming battle. The black calypso singers have always been oppressed and don’t see they have much to lose. The religious (fishermen) pray for peace but accomplish nothing. The entire earth is endangered, not just one or two continents. Even the most beautiful and tranquil areas will be destroyed.

    In the last verse Bob speaks for himself. Nuclear Armageddon almost became a reality via the Cuban missile crisis (when the doorknob broke). He is dismayed that anyone can ignore the dire fate of mankind. He also provides clues about the meaning of this song, acknowledging playful terms were used to mask the appalling events the song describes.

    This song requires a lot of thought and research to decipher its message. That is what makes it such a masterpiece!

  2. 2TOP RATED

    #2 top rated interpretation:
    Qweed
    click a star to vote
    Feb 28th 2017 report

    Desolation Row is a song about man's inhumanity. The whimsical lines allow for many interpretations, but I see threads of continuity.

    The first verse is the most difficult to understand because many people are unaware of the incident to which it refers. It is about the 1920 lynching of three negroes in Duluth witnessed by 8 year old Abram Zimmerman, Bob Dylan’s father. A brief accounting can be found at mnhs.org/duluthlynchings. My line by line interpretation follows.

    “They're selling postcards of the hanging”
    This lynching was notorious for the sale of picture postcards memorializing the misdeed.

    “they’re painting the passports brown”
    U.S Steel, the largest employer in the region had fostered racial strife by actively recruiting black laborers from southern states to replace higher paid white union workers.

    “The beauty parlor is filled with sailors”
    When World War I began many of Duluth’s young men enlisted in the Navy. After the war ended they returned home as war heroes but after a few years their status faded. By 1920 many had been displaced by blacks and there were a lot of unemployed sailors complaining about their situation.

    “the circus is in town”
    The John Robinson Circus, a traveling circus with several black employees had arrived in Duluth.

    “Here comes the blind commissioner, they've got him in a trance
    One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
    And the riot squad they're restless, they need somewhere to go”
    This refers to William Murian, the Commissioner of Public Safety in charge of the police and other city departments. When the lynch mob began to grow he ordered the police not to use they’re weapons to defend the accused prisoners and rejected using nearby military troops to quell the riot. Although responsible for public safety, his position was elective and he didn’t want to jeopardize his re-election.

    In the second verse, Cinderella is Joseph Stalin and Romeo is Adolph Hitler. Hitler considered the USSR an easy target and both men were ruthless tyrants. The reference to Bette Davis, an actress that usually played an evil person, further strengthens this point. Romeo and Cinderella agreed to invade Poland starting World War II. Romeo then invaded the USSR thinking it could be easily conquered. At the conclusion of World War II Romero was gone but Cinderella remained in power.

    I believe the third verse refers to the cold war and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). At the time this song was written the future looked bleak. Bomb shelters were popular and there were frequent civil defense drills. Abel, Cain, and the hunchback of Notre Dame probably refer to the leaders of the three nuclear powers, Lyndon Johnson (USA), Nikita Khrushecv (USSR), and Mao Zedong (Red China). Everyone is hoping MAD will keep the peace but know the threat of nuclear Armageddon is real. I am unsure whom the Good Samaritan refers to.

    The fourth verse is about nuclear missiles. Ophelia, an insane suicidal character, is an ICBM. She’s kept in missile silos, out of sight but greatly feared. In 1965 nuclear weapon development was only 22 years old but these weapons were considered unusable. Ophelia’s mysticism is her awesome ability for death and mass destruction. This is her job but is also why she cannot be used. She keeps the peace (Noah’s rainbow) out of fear but could still be unleashed by a madman, destroying all life on earth.

    The fifth verse is about the developers of nuclear weapons. Einstein is most likely Albert Einstein. Although his scientific research was admirable with no hostile intent, the knowledge obtained was used to create nuclear weapons. I believe the jealous monk is Robert Oppenheimer, referring to his association of the first nuclear explosion with a verse from the Bhagavad Gita. Additional clues supporting Einstein as representing himself are his disheveled appearance, reciting the alphabet (his energy formula which is the basis for a nuclear explosion), and the fact he was a pipe smoker that loved playing the violin.

    The sixth verse is about Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. Dr. Filth is Josef Mengele, the sadistic doctor that performed heinous human experiments and selected the victims for the cyanide gas chambers. He is known for making leather articles using human skin. His nurse represents the local collaborators and/or the Sonderkommandos. The penny whistles refer to the railway whistles announcing the arrival of another trainload of victims.

    The seventh verse is about the Holodomor and other famines resulting from the Soviet Union’s collective farming program. Behind the iron curtain the Soviet leaders (Phantom of the Opera) mask their goal to increase grain production for export using the forced labor of the peasants (Casanova). To accomplish this they use propaganda to convince Casanova he is the beneficiary of their plan. Instead of growing his own food, his crops are taken by the Phantom for redistribution. When the Phantom’s quotas are not met Casanova is blamed for the shortfall leaving him and his children to starve to death.

    The eighth verse is about the establishment forces that keep the status quo. Politicians employ government agencies and secret police to maintain their power. Corporate officials maintain their profitable positions by setting high quotas, keeping their minions working overtime in stressful but unfulfilling jobs. By keeping the masses busy no one has time to challenge the status quo.

    The ninth verse is a summary of the current state of affairs. World leaders are fiddling around ignoring the impending doom. It really doesn’t matter which side of the conflict you support or what your idealistic views are if everyone is destroyed in the upcoming battle. The black calypso singers have always been oppressed and don’t see they have much to lose. The religious (fishermen) pray for peace but accomplish nothing. The entire earth is endangered, not just one or two continents. Even the most beautiful and tranquil areas will be destroyed.

    In the last verse Bob speaks for himself. Nuclear Armageddon almost became a reality via the Cuban missile crisis (when the doorknob broke). He is dismayed that anyone can ignore the dire fate of mankind. He also provides clues about the meaning of this song, acknowledging playful terms were used to mask the appalling events the song describes.

    This song requires a lot of thought and research to decipher its message. That is what makes it such a masterpiece!

  3. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Jan 10th report

    "Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
    Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk
    Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
    And he when off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet
    You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
    For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row"

    Desolatin Row is a place that is populated by those who look hard into the face of the truth. Einstein, one of those unfortunates, was compelled to emigrate to the US, with his belongings in a trunk. He had died only ten years before this song was written. Science was seen as the new religion hence he, science's new priest was escorted by a jealous monk. His insights into the equivalence of mass and energy promised wonderful things, hence he might be seen as a modern Robin Hood delivering much to ordinary people but the truth is very frightful as the product of the money bummed from the Allies to produce an atomic weapon produced a horror. The product of his mind was immaculate but the result was frightful. Physics is the attempt to get down to brass tacks and into the very humus of nature and see the truth behind everything physical, and so he snuffed about so close to the earth that he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet of E=mc^2 . His seminal papers electrified the world when they were published, but he struggled to unite classical physics with quantum physics, and in a sense he faded, was famous long ago (pre WWI).



  4. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Dec 22nd report

    Others have covered much of the rest of the lyrics. I will jump in.

    The whole poem is a collage of many things but a central theme is a place called Desolation Row where resides those with the stomach to look long into the face of the truth.

    "Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide
    The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside
    All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
    Everybody is making love or else expecting rain
    And the Good Samaritan, he's dressing, he's getting ready for the show
    He's going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row"

    There are ominous clouds obscuring the future to such an extent that even the fortune telling lady has given up, but still people continue to fight (Cain and Able), feed (expect mana from heaven), or fornicate, just as all the beasts do.

    The Good Samaritan is dressing as if for a major formal event, perhaps to receive recognition and applause, but is a carnival, a festival on Desolation Row where only those who see the light and truth are allowed to live. A carnival of the truth would be a spectacular event and probably heaven and the just deserts of the Good Samaritan.

    "Between the windows of the sea
    where lovely mermaids flow
    and nobody has to think too much
    about desolation row."

    This brings to mind the opposite sides of an aquarium tank, within which a pretty scene of mermaids, a treasure chest, and perhaps a deep-sea diver in an old fashioned kit with bubbles streaming from his helmet is created, all nicely illuminated. It is a scene intended to distract the viewer from the harsh realities of life. We drape our windows with pretty curtains to keep out the harsh light of reality, we drive down the boulevard listening to our pretty songs to color the rough world without and we prefer our stories with happy endings. Looking constantly into the face of reality is very hard and singer rejects those who don't even try:

    "Yes, I received your letter yesterday
    about the time the door-knob broke,
    when you asked me how I was doing,
    was that some kind of joke?
    Yes, I recall all these people you mention,
    I assure you they are quite lame,
    I had to rearrange their faces and give them
    another name."

    The singer is repelled by the trivialities with which others bother themselves and the ephemera of their lives and all the popular nonsense in which they are embedded and it is so irksome to him that the singer pleads the writer to leave off writing unless they have come to grips with reality and hence have mailed theirletters from Desolation Row.







  5. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Apr 15th 2020 report

    Well desolation row is a place where people who do not fit into society (free thinkers and artists) go to live. So make of that what you wish

  6. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Jul 31st 2019 report

    This song is about a very rough street named desolation row and lots of fighting and violence.

  7. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Aug 11th 2018 report

    Why do you need to ?

  8. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Nov 14th 2017 report

    I lived in the village during the 60's when Bob was playing at Folk City. I spent a great deal of time wandering from East to West and back again. If you think about that time there where still many beats and perhaps rockers but the artistic community was still dominant and where displaying art in Washington Square Park. In traveling along McDougal, Fourth Street and Sullivan Street you would often meet a collection of folks who would fit the descriptions in Desolation Row. There was a feast every year on Sullivan Street, St. Anthony's feast. There were many Romeos wandering around, priests and young girls. There was an animosity and resentment by the Italian community about the "beats" and then the Hippies,"which side are you on". There were great often comments and critiques about values, war and styles of dress.
    It was not uncommon for there be sporadic violence, the police, and romantic entanglements. There were unscrupulous physicians who provided services for women in need of an abortion or drugs, thus the cyanide whole. Identifying some of these folks in less than a metaphorical or symbolic nature would have been somewhat problematic. There was a "mayor" of the Village who traveled on Fourth Street and McDougal Street. I agree that until now the first verse had me at a lost but the reference to Mr. Zimmerman's past indeed made that perfectly clear. One could consider religious garb as an "iron vest", etc. Maybe Bob Dylan was freewheeling along the streets of the Village and his brilliant mind saw and met people like a "folk singer she is a humdinger" most likely Joan. It was such a wonderfully insane time to be alive and it was the best time of my life. Thank you Bob as we all should be thankful and not try to interpret and imbue every word with some deep structure and meaning after all we are not a genius like him.

    Doc

  9. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Apr 12th 2016 report

    The first thing you need to know about this song is that you are not going to "figure it out". It raises several questions to the careful listener, and none have pat answers. Can you relate to what happens to Cinderella or Romeo? Have you been in the wrong places my friend? Or are you more likely to tell someone that and or do something about it? You can only have your view of matters.
    To me, desolation row represents a place that those with questions go to seek understanding and a place that those Babbitts without these questions fear. The power structure realizes what desolation row is and wants to keep people from going there (check to see that no one is escaping to), since that is the location from which the morally bankrupt are overthrown. It is the place where all is stripped bare except the self. It is where the singer, and one can only assume the addressee of the song are at. "Not unless you mail them from desolation row" is a challenge to respond with substance and meaning, not the hackneyed drivel that the characters in the song so often represent. My view is that Einstein represents science and the atomic era and the monk the waning power of religion in the face of scientific advance (hence he is "jealous" of Einstein). Of course science is only going to blow us up - it is not Robin Hood, the answer to our ills and questions, but is immaculately (religious comparison) frightful.
    IF you work hard at the verses you can probably find some similar explanations, Cinderella (the woman who is "liberated" = in the original story so I suppose she represents the emerging modern woman ) has now become "easy" but really you are just the same. romeo (why must it always be the wrong man) doesn't get it that Cinderella belongs to no one and is willing to "fight for her" or course he is really only fighting for himself and it seems he loses. It is unclear what happens, but it is clear that Cinderella gets to clean up the mess (which is what she was an expert at in the original story anyway). Her consolation is that she is now more self aware (on desolation row).

  10. m320753
    click a star to vote
    Jun 4th 2013 report

    it amazes me that each new post about this song brings forth something I and many others never gave a 2nd thought to. this site just gets deeper and deeper into an all time great set of lyrics. i suppose an interpretation does depend what mood the listener is in when they hear it! what was a collection of funny phrases in '65 when i first heard the song, seems to have changed into an 11 minute scolding of society's useless standards. or maybe i'm just hearing it differently as i have aged

  11. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Jun 3rd 2013 report

    Of course the first verse is about a hanging of black circus performers in Duluth MN

  12. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Mar 26th 2013 report

    That's a good observation (message just prior to this one) about how he seems to be pointing out how messed up everything in the world is. I think Everything is Broken could indeed be an extention to that notion.

    A couple of things stand out in my mind which do a good job of supporting this notion (in DR, that is)...

    At one point, Dylan seems to go off on a tangent/rant about how corrupt and crooked Insurance companies are. I think most people would tend to agree that these said companies can really go a long way in making people have to do a double-take and scratch their heads, while not having any clue at all as to how they've managed to rake us all (collectively) over the coals, so to speak.

    And let's not forget the line about what could possibly be considered the most interesting oddity of the entire 11 minute song...the line about Titanic sailing at dawn.

    The notion about 'Everything being Broken' really stands out, perhaps more so with this line than maybe any other in the song.

    But the whole entire song is still a masterpiece, nonetheless...and will continue to force me to rack my brain trying to figure it all out, I'm sure.

  13. m320753
    click a star to vote
    Mar 25th 2013 report

    i.m almost positive the subject at the end of the song is Carla. she hated Bob and the feeling was mutual. the more i listen or think about D.R. the more interpretations i feel. right now a thought entered my brain, that the song was about how screwed up the world was then, how everything was out of place and people were not what we thought they were! "Everything is Broken" could be a hint at what D.R. was about, but written so we could understand what exactly it was he tried to put forth in D.R., which is probably his deepest and most mysterious song. it was like he wrote " Rolling Stone" and dared us to find the meaning. then told us if you think you figured that out, try this one

  14. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Mar 24th 2013 report

    Considering all of these possible interpretations about DR, it also gets me to wondering who the chief target character was that he was thinking of he penned the words to, 'Like A Rolling Stone'...

    Could it have been Carla (Rotolo's) sister, possibly? Or perhaps it might have more correctly been a "High Society" person such as Jackie O'Nassis, or Marilyn Monroe, or someone like that.

  15. m320753
    click a star to vote
    Mar 24th 2013 report

    right now i can't see too good
    don't send me no more letters,no
    not unless you mail them from Desolation Row is Dylan's reply to Jackie Kennedy's letter to various poets? why would she write Dylan anyway? she was in high society and more likely to send letters to Robert frost and others that appealed to her level of what the "Arts" were. i know the kinds of concerts she went to, Leonard Bernstein, operas and classical music were her idea of a fun night out. i just can't see her smoking a joint with her cigarette lighter lit, rocking side to side while Dylan is singing " Visions of Johanna'. but you might be right as only Dylan knows why he wrote that song

  16. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Mar 23rd 2013 report

    I heard an interview with a professor on NPR some years ago -- don't remember his name. He said a year after the JFK assassination, Jackie sent letters to lots of poets, asking them to write a poem in commemoration of the slain president. The last verse is about that letter.

  17. m320753
    click a star to vote
    Dec 13th 2012 report

    suze is the girl on the cover of "Freewheeling Bob Dylan" she was living with bob, or bob was living with her; depending what month i might be. suze was the girl in "Boots of Spanish Leather" who was taken to Spain by her family to let her forget about dylan, whom they felt was a leech, as her family was quite wealthy a lot of his songs written about that time had her as the female character of the tune. carla was suze's sister who hated bob and his dealing with her is told in Ballad in plain D i believe. anyway by time he wrote desolation row he was far more wealthier than the Rotello family. which was suze's last name. she died this summer and her death was noted in many media sources as the girl on the cover of the album"Freewheeling" taken on Jones Street in the west village. there was a rumor going around that the first 500 or so covers had shown dylan's fly was open and Colunbia records tried to get back as many as they could but some are out there! if the lucky New Yorker realized what he had and didn't toss the cover when it got worn he/she is sitting on a gold mine. true or not?

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