Literary Analysis of Bob Dylan to Folk Ballads


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Dexter Bullis

Literary Analysis of Bob Dylan to Folk Ballads

By breaking down and analyzing the lyrics of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” to the common American ballads “Frankie and Johnnie” and “Lost Jimmie Whalen” we are able to see the similarities and differences between Dylan’s ballads and traditional ballads. In Bob Dylan’s songs he uses the three primary characteristics of a ballad: “(1) The ballad tells a story; (2) it tells its story in song, in simple melody; (3) it is folk story-song since it has the unmistakable qualities of treatment, of style and of subject that come only from folk culture” (Leach, 1). Dylan’s ballads are like the “beginning of a play in the last act, often leaves the reader bewildered, feeling that he has not been given enough info to know what is happening and why it is happening” (Leach, 3). Dylan disregards the common ballad meter of ballad melodies as AABA, ABBA, ABAC, AAAB and sometimes ABCB. Dylan also disregards the common structure of the refrain line. He uses a refrain line in some songs but changes the beginning of the refrain but always ends it the same way.

A ballad “tells a story” (Leach, 1). The elements that go into a story are “action, characters, setting, and theme” (Leach, 1). The action in the ballad is “always vivid and dramatic and romantic” (Leach, 1) The action of a narrative ballad is either plotted or episodic. Dylan uses a plotted action to describe the story of “Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” Typically the action found in a ballad is doubled because a balled describes the unstable situation and the solution to the situation. Therefore a ballad story can be both suspenseful and climatic. By closely picking apart the lyrics of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and “I Dreamed I saw St. Augustine” we are able to see how we are able to see the story of the main characters.

Many ballads cover the subject of folk tales, romance, death, supernatural sightings, local happenings of a dramatic character and etc. In “Frankie and Johnnie” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” they both cover the subject of romance. “In Frankie and Johnnie” we are able to see the love between Frankie and Johnnie escalates until Frankie finds out that Johnnie was cheating on her. By looking at the first stanza we are able to see the love between Frankie and Johnnie. They were lovers who “swore to be true to true to each other.” Already it foreshadows that either Frankie or Johnnie is going to cheat on one another. Johnnie is the one that cheats on Frankie by “making love to Nellie Bly” (Leach, 764). When Frankie found out that her husband was cheating;

Frankie pulled back her kimona, drew out her little forty-four turuute; three times she shot right through that hard wood door- Killed her man because he had done her wrong.

Frankie killed her man because he cheated on her just as Rosemary kills Big Jim. Rosemary plays the role of Big Jim’s wife. The name Rosemary can also be connected to the plant rosemary. The plant rosemary represents constancy, fidelity and loyalty. It is also ironic that rosemary symbolically represents loyalty and constancy yet the character Rosemary completely goes against being loyal. She also misrepresents loyalty when it is stated that she was “tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife” and that even though “she was with Big Jim, she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts.” Here you can see that she was not going to be loyal to Big Jim. She clearly didn’t want to be his wife. She wanted to run away with the Jack of Hearts. So Rosemary kills Big Jim with her penknife. “Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back.” Just as in “Frankie and Johnnie,” Rosemary kills Big Jim out of love.

Another common subject of ballads is the subject of life after death. This is seen in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “Lost Jimmie Whalen.” In “Lost Jimmie Whalen” we are able to see a supernatural spirit coming back alive. In “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” the main character believes that he has seen St. Augustine “alive as you or me.” In “Lost Jimmie Whalen,” the soul of Jimmie Whalen comes out of the water to be next to his lover. ‘For to see you once more, I have come from my grave.” In both stories the ghost of Jimmie Whalen and St. Augustine disappear. In “Lost Jimmie Whalen” The spirit of Jimmie Whalen vanishes before his lover just as the spirit of St. Augustine disappears when the man awakes from his dream.

The use of a refrain line is common in ballads. A refrain line in a ballad is a line that is two lines that is often a repeated lyrical statement that comments or summarizes the actions in the preceding verse. Bob Dylan goes against the “proper” use of the refrain line and does not rhyme the refrain line in “John Henry.” An example of a refrain line in “John Henry” is:

You must be a steel driving man like me, (A) You must be a steel driving man like me (Stanza 1) (A)

An example of a refrain line in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts

He was standing in the door way, (A) Lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts (B)

Here Bob Dylan goes against the use of the standard refrain line. He doesn’t rhyme his refrain lines as in “John Henry.” “John Henry” uses ballad meter of AA while Bob Dylan uses a rhyming scheme of AB. AB represents that the end of the 1st line doesn’t rhyme with the second line. However, Dylan’s AB ballad meter repeats just as in “Frankie and Johnnie.” “Frankie and Johnnie” is as follows in the first stanza:

Frankie and Johnnie were lovers. (A) Oh, ho, how they did love! (B) Swore to be true to each other (C) As True as the stars above. (B) He was her man; He wouldn’t do her wrong (D)

The refrain line in “Frankie and Johnnie” is the 5th line. The ballad meter of “Frankie and Johnnie is ABCBD. The refrain line doesn’t rhyme with the rest of the stanza. However the refrain line ends with “wrong” just as in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” always ends the refrain line in “the Jack of Hearts.” The ballad meter of “Frankie and Johnnie” follows the same ballad meter throughout the ballad. The ballad meter is ABCBD with the 2nd and 4th lines rhyming with the 5th line (refrain line) not rhyming with lines 1 or 3. The ballad meter in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is ABCB excluding the refrain line. Some ballads don’t even include a refrain. Dylan doesn’t include a refrain line in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” but follows the ballad meter of ABCB. By looking at the appendix you can see this. Also in “Lost Jimmie Whalen” there is no refrain line but it has a ballad meter of ABCB.

Bob Dylan tells a story in his ballads. In “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” we learn the complicated story of Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Lily was a princess, she was fair skinned and precious as a child” while Rosemary was “a queen without a crown.” The Jack of Hearts is the person what would interrupt the friendship between Lily and Big Jim. “And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king. No, Nothin’ ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts.” Rosemary in the song kills the Big Jim and is later hanged for the crime. Lily and the Jack of Hearts are the only characters to survive in the story. In “I dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” the main character dreams that he has seen St. Augustine. The man dreamed that he was one of the ones who killed St. Augustine. It hurts the main character so much that while he is “alone and terrified” he cries about his horrific dream.

Bob Dylan’s songs can be interpreted into being a ballad because they fit the ballad structure. By breaking his songs into 4 line stanzas we are able to see the ballad meter and the use of the refrain line. Ballads typically use a ballad meter of as AABA, ABBA, ABAC, AAAB while Dylan uses ABCB with the use of a refrain line. However, Dylan the refrain line doesn’t not rhyme as it does in John Henry but ends in the same phrase, “the Jack of Hearts” just as in “Frankie and Johnnie” the refrain line always ends in “wrong.” Dylan’s songs are also like a ballad because they tell a story. They tell a story that is focused around the actions of one character or sometimes multiple characters. Dylan goes against the typical ballad structure and tells the story about three characters in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Bob Dylan intertwines the structure of a ballad to create a modern day ballad song.


Leach, MacEdward. The Ballad Book. New York: Harper Brothers, 1955. 1-44, 726-727, 757-759, 761-765. Print

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine (A)

Alive as you or me (B)
Tearing through these quarters (C)
In the utmost misery (B)

With a blanket underneath his arm (A)

And a coat of solid gold (B)
Searching for the very souls (C)
Whom already have been sold (B)

“Arise, arise,” he cried so loud (A)

In a voice without restraint (B)
“Come out, ye gifted kings and queens (C)
And hear my sad complaint (B)

No martyr is among ye now (A)

Whom you can call your own (B)
So go on your way accordingly (C)
But know you’re not alone” (D)

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine (A)

Alive with fiery breath (B)
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones (C)
That put him out to death (B)

Oh, I awoke in anger (A)

So alone and terrified (B)
I put my fingers against the glass (C)
And bowed my head and cried (B)

Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
The festival was over, (A)

The boys were all plannin’ for a fall (B)

The cabaret was quiet (C)

Except for the drillin’ in the wall (B)

The curfew had been lifted (A)

And the gamblin’ wheel shut down (B)
Anyone with any sense (C)

Had already left town (B)

He was standin’ in the doorway

Lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

He moved across the mirrored room, (A)

“Set it up for everyone,” he said (B)

Then everyone commenced to do (C)

What they were doin’ before he turned their heads (D)

Then he walked up to a stranger (A)

And he asked him with a grin (B)
“Could you kindly tell me, friend, (C)

What time the show begins?” (D)

Then he moved into the corner,

Face down like the Jack of Hearts

Backstage the girls were playin’ (A)

Five-card stud by the stairs (B)

Lily had two queens, (C)

She was hopin’ for a third to match her pair (D)

Outside the streets were fillin’ up, (A)

The window was open wide (B)

A gentle breeze was blowin’, (C)

You could feel it from inside (B)

Lily called another bet

And drew up the Jack of Hearts

Big Jim was no one’s fool, (A)

He owned the town’s only diamond mine (B)

He made his usual entrance (C)

Lookin’ so dandy and so fine (B)

With his bodyguards and silver cane (A)

And every hair in place (B)

He took whatever he wanted to (C)

And he laid it all to waste (D)

But his bodyguards and silver cane

Were no match for the Jack of Hearts

Rosemary combed her hair (A) And took a carriage into town (B)
She slipped in through the side door (C) Lookin’ like a queen without a crown (B)
She fluttered her false eyelashes (A)

And whispered in his ear (B)

“Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,” (C)

But he didn’t seem to hear (B)

He was starin’ into space over

At the Jack of Hearts

“I know I’ve seen that face before,” (A) Big Jim was thinkin’ to himself (B)
“Maybe down in Mexico (C) Or a picture up on somebody’s shelf” (B)
But then the crowd began to stamp their feet (A) And the houselights did dim (B)
And in the darkness of the room (C) There was only Jim and him (B)
Starin’ at the butterfly Who just drew the Jack of Hearts

Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned (A) And precious as a child (B) She did whatever she had to do, (C) She had that certain flash every time she smiled (B)

She’d come away from a broken home, (A) Had lots of strange affairs (B)
With men in every walk of life (C) Which took her everywhere (D)

But she’d never met anyone Quite like the Jack of Hearts

The hangin’ judge came in unnoticed (A)

And was being wined and dined (B)

The drillin’ in the wall kept up (C)

But no one seemed to pay it any mind (D)

It was known all around (A)

that Lily had Jim’s ring (B)

And nothing would ever (C)

Come between Lily and the king (B)

No, nothin’ ever would

Except maybe the Jack of Hearts

Rosemary started drinkin’ hard (A)

And seein’ her reflection in the knife (B)

She was tired of the attention, (C)

Tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife (B)

She had done a lot of bad things, (A)

Even once tried suicide (B)

Was lookin’ to do (C)

Just one good deed before she died (B)

She was gazin’ to the future,

Riding on the Jack of Hearts

Lily washed her face, (A)

Took her dress off and buried it away (B)

“Has your luck run out?” she laughed at him, (C)

“Well, I guess you must have known it would someday (B)

Be careful not to touch the wall, (A)

There’s a brand-new coat of paint (B)
I’m glad to see you’re still alive, (C)

You’re lookin’ like a saint” (B)

Down the hallway footsteps

Were comin’ for the Jack of Hearts

The backstage manager was pacing (A)

All around by his chair (B)

“There’s something funny going on,” he said, (C)

“I can just feel it in the air” (B)

He went to get the hangin’ judge, (A)

but the hangin’ judge was drunk (B)

As the leading actor hurried by (C)

In the costume of a monk (D)

There was no actor anywhere

Better than the Jack of Hearts

Lily’s arms were locked around the man (A)

That she dearly loved to touch (B)

She forgot all about the man she couldn’t stand (C)

Who hounded her so much (B)

“I’ve missed you so,” she said to him, (A)

And he felt she was sincere (B)

But just beyond the door (C)

He felt jealousy and fear (B)

Just another night in the life

Of the Jack of Hearts

No one knew the circumstance (A)

But they say that it happened pretty quick (B)

The door to the dressing room burst open (C)

And a cold revolver clicked (D)

And Big Jim was standin’ there, (A)

Ya couldn’t say surprised (B)

Rosemary right beside him, (C)

Steady in her eyes (D)

She was with Big Jim

But she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts

Two doors down the boys finally (A)

Made it through the wall (B)

And cleaned out the bank safe, (C)

It’s said that they got off with quite a haul (D)

In the darkness by the riverbed (A)

They waited on the ground (B)

For one more member (C)

Who had business back in town (D)

But they couldn’t go no further

Without the Jack of Hearts

The next day was hangin’ day, (A)

The sky was overcast and black (B)

Big Jim lay covered up, (C)

Killed by a penknife in the back (B)

And Rosemary on the gallows, (A)

She didn’t even blink (B)

The hangin’ judge was sober, (C)

he hadn’t had a drink (B)

The only person on the scene missin’

Was the Jack of Hearts

The cabaret was empty now, (A)

A sign said, “Closed for repair” (B)

Lily had already taken (C)

All of the dye out of her hair (B)

She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, (A)

Who she very rarely saw (B)

Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary (C)

And thinkin’ about the law (B)

But most of all she was thinkin’

’bout the Jack of Hearts

Frankie and Johnnie

Frankie and Johnny were lovers 

Oh, ho, how did they did love. 
They swore to be true to each other, 
True as the stars above. 
He was her man; he wouldn’t do her wrong. 

Frankie went down to the corner 

Just for a bucket of beer. 
Said: “Mr. Bartender, 
Has my loving Johnny been here? 

He was my man, he won’t do me wrong.” 

Frankie, I’ll cause you no trouble; Frankie I’ll tell you no lie; Your love left an hour ago With a girl named Nellie Bly.

He was your man, but he’s doing you wrong.” 

Frankie looked over the transom 

There to her great surprise- 
There on her couch sat her Johnnie 
Making love to Nellie Bligh. 
He was her man, but he was doing her wrong. 

Frankie pulled back her kimona, 

Drew out her little forty-four turuute; (toot root toota) 
Three times she shot 
Right through that hardwood door. 
Killing her man ‘cause he done her wrong. 

Bring on your rubber tired horses 

Bring on your rubber-tired hack 
Taking my man to the graveyard— 
And I’m not going to bring him back. 
I killed my man cause he done me wrong. 

Frankie went to the warden Said, “What are you going to do?” The warden said to Frankie; “It’s the electric chair for you. You’ve killed your man ;cause he done you wrong.”

Frankie went to the policemen. Said, “I don’t want to live another day. Lock me up in a dungeon And throw they key away. I’ve killed my man ‘cause he done me wrong.

This story has no moral. 

This story has no end. 
This story only goes to show 
That there ain’t no good in men. 
She killed her man ‘cause he done her wrong.

Lost Jimmie Whalen:

As lonely I strayed by the banks of the river, I was watching the sunbeams as evening drew nigh; As on way I rambled, I spied a fair damsel; She as weeping and wailing with many a sigh

Crying for one who now lies a-sleeping, she was crying for on that no mortal could save; As the dark rolling waters that roll all around him, As onward they sweep towards young Jimmie’s grave.

“Darling,” she cried, “won’t you come to my bosom, And give me sweet kisses as oft time you gave? You promised to meet me m darling, this evening-

Slowl there rose from the depths of the waters, A vision of splendor more bright than the sun; With robes of crimson around him were shining; For to speak to this fair maid, these words he began.

“Why have you called me from realms of glory, Back to this world I soon have to part? To fold you again in m strong loving arms, For to see you once more I have come from m grave.”

“Oh, hard were my struggles from the wild, rushing waters, That encircled around me on everyside; And the last thought I had was of God-darling, I was hoping that one day that you’d sure to be my bride.”

“Jimmie,” she cried, “won’t you tarry here with me, And never, no never, no more from me part? Then take me away with you, Jimmie my darling, For to sleep with you, down in your cold silent grave

:darling,” he says, “you are asking a favor Which no mortal person can grant unto thee; For death is the dagger that keeps us asunder, And wide is the gulf lies between you and me.”

‘Still, as you wander alone by the waters, I will ever be near you to guide and to save; I will ever endeavor to keep you from danger, I will guide you, my darling, from my silent grave.”

“Adieu,” hen he said, and he vanished before her; And straight to the skies he did seem for to go; Leaving this fair maid alone and distracted, A-weeping and wailing in sorrow alone

As she sank down on the ground she was standing, With the deepest of sorrow, these words she did say: “Me darling, she cried, “O my lost Jimmie Whalen, I will sigh till I die by the side of your grave.”


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