Dylan’s Desolation Row Decoded


Most people believe Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row” is a drug-fueled, bizarre vision of American cities mixed with Bertolt Brecht‘s grim opera “Pirate Jenny”

However it may be one of Dylan’s most striking, poetic songs with a social conscience, better than “Blind Willie McTell.” Here’s the opening verse. See if that makes any sense.

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 tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight From Desolation Row (Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music)

Wikipedia calls “Desolation Row” Dylan’s “a series of vignettes that suggest entropy and urban chaos.”

According to writer Ian Bell, there is more to ”Desolation Row” than it’s fantastic lyrics suggest. In Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan

 Bell argues that Dylan’s songs are the product of his time in America, a time before he was even born.


Here is a brief quote from the Chapter: Forever Young of Once Upon a Time, a fascinating book even if it does tread over well plowed ground. There’s always something new to learn about the past.


“When Dylan was a child 17 states in the Union enforced racial segregation in schools. Many whites, even in the supposedly civilised states, thought it a wise and responsible policy, especially if people were conveniently ‘separate but equal’.

In 1954, however, the Supreme Court of the United States decided, after a long struggle among the justices, to do its job and protect the constitution. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka the court interpreted the 14th amendment to mean that ‘equal’ treatment was irrelevant: segregation was harmful in and of itself to black youngsters, and unconstitutional. The idea that racism could have a ‘scientific’ basis was dismissed.

Civil rights activist Rosa Parks, who took a stand against racial segregation on buses in Alabama. Disabled people face an ‘us and them’ ethos. Photograph: Corbis

In Topeka, Kansas, this did the trick. Mrs Parks was arrested for a breach of the segregation laws.

It was no isolated incident, nor was it the worst.

In August of that year, in Mississippi, an ‘adult-looking’ 14-year-old from Chicago named Emmett Till made the mistake of flirting — to her alarm, it was alleged — with a white woman.

A few nights later Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half- brother took the youth to a barn where they beat him bloody, gouged out one of his eyes and shot him in the head. Emmett’s body, barbed wire wrapped around its neck, was recovered from the Tallahatchie River after three days.

Scarcely half a dozen years after the fact a young songwriter, barely a beginner, would ‘borrow’ a tune from a friend and compose a ballad about the murder, a farcical trial and the killers’ acquittals. It was intended to remind his fellow man ‘That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost- robed Ku Klux Klan’.

In truth, it wasn’t much of a song, even as a prentice piece, and Bob Dylan disowned it soon enough. But the civil-rights movement, born in its modern form when Mrs. Parks took her stand and Emmett Till died, was another unnoticed backdrop to Bobby Zimmerman’s childhood and youth. The music he came to love, and the music the young Bob Dylan would make, was torn from a disfigured national psyche. Or as Barry Shank has said,

Dylan’s earliest musical tastes, desires, and ambitions were profoundly intertwined with the history of race relations in the United States; he learned about race through his study of popular music.

Knowledge was born from a collective memory, too. Some things were hard to forget, and some persistent ugly facts of American life did not fit the usual caricatures. One convenient caricature said that racism was ‘a Southern thing’. Too many people knew better.

John Robinson CircusFor example: in June of 1920, when Abe Zimmerman (Bob Dylan’s father) was an eight-year- old in Duluth the circus came to town.

One night, two local teenagers, 19 year-old Irene Tusken and James Sullivan, 18, decided to spend time behind the big top watching black workers dismantling tents and loading wagons.

Something happened — no one is sure quite what — but young Sullivan would later claim that he and the girl had been assaulted and held at gunpoint Then, so the story went, she had been raped by a group, five or perhaps six strong, of the black men.

A subsequent examination by Irene’s own doctor showed no physical evidence of such a crime, but it didn’t matter.

Six of the black workers were arrested. Incensed by press reports and rumours that the girl had died, a mob then broke into the city jail — the police did not resist — seized three of the men, beat them senseless, and lynched them.

Postcard of the hanging, the mob, on 1st and 2nd Avenue of Duluth MN, lynches Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie 3 black youths wrongly accused of a crime

There is a postcard of the event’s aftermath, 31/2 inches by 51/2 inches, showing an unabashed white crowd posed around three black corpses, each stripped to the waist.

The victims are depicted hanging together from a pole on the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East a site almost as far as it was possible to get from the ‘notorious South’.

The inscription on the card — though the date is erroneous — reads: ‘Three Negroes lynched at Duluth, Minn. for rape. Oct, 1919 by mps.’

In the years after the First World War such postcards were commonplace in America. James Allen, who has spent 25 years collecting and documenting the evidence, remarks acidly on the website withoutsanctuary.org that the cards were once ‘common as dirt, souvenirs skin-thin and fresh-tattooed proud, the trade cards of those assisting at ritual racial killings and other acts of a mad citizenry’. Allen states that the surviving postcards represent an original photo population of many thousands’.

In 1919 lynchings and ‘riotings’ had occurred in at least 25 cities across America. Were such things possible in Duluth far in the north with all its newly arrived Europeans versed in oppression and oblivious to the legacies of the war between the states?

The Minnesota Historical Society observes that a city ‘on the rise’ in 1920 contained 100,000 souls, but only 495 of those — according to that year’s census — were black. They did the usual work — ‘as porters, waiters, janitors and factory workers’ — and were treated in the usual fashion.

As the society’s account of the 15 June lynchings observes: ‘Certain restaurants did not serve blacks. A downtown movie theater forced blacks to sit in the balcony. Blacks working for US Steel were paid less and excluded from living in Morgan Park, an idyllic “model city”… Many settled in nearby Gary, a poor neighborhood with substandard housing.

After the event, many citizens were outraged by the lynchings, but others were unperturbed.

In Superior, Wisconsin, just across the bay from Duluth, the acting Chief of Police declared, ‘We are going to run all idle negroes out of Superior and they’re going to stay out.’ The historical society cannot say if the threat was carried out.

It is known, however, that ‘all of the blacks employed by a carnival in Superior were fired and told to leave the city’.

The belief that racism was a Southern disease died when the Duluth mob anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 of the city’s upstanding citizens — laid hands on Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.

What did Abe know of the killings? If he knew, what did he remember? If he remembered, what did he say in later years? The Duluth lynchings were within the living memory of some of the older local folk, white and black, who would soon hear of a native son become the chosen voice of civil rights.

But there’s another point. James Allen had not begun his researches in 1965. At that date the city of Dylan’s birth had not recovered its memory; the Minnesota Historical Society had not set to work. Yet in 1965 there was this: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 tight-rope walker The other is in his pants And the riot squad they’ re restless They need somewhere to go As Lady and I look out tonight From Desolation Row” Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan (Copyright Mainstream Publishing)

Most of the photographs are from the Minnesota Historical Society

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