Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts"

Most Bob Dylan fans can point to a favorite Dylan lyric, song, or album, and offer their own assertion: “THIS . . . THIS is why he is THE Rock Poet, THE Master Storyteller.” And the diversity in what any group of fans will tell you is astounding because, of course, he has written many wonderfully crafted tales. My favorite Dylan story is the one he tells of Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.

Musically, there really isn’t anything special about the song. In fact, it could probably be outright tedious for many listeners. It is an 8 and a half-minute, ragtime style song with 15 verses and no chorus. But as with most Dylan songs, it isn’t the music that makes it special, it is his calculated weaving of the tale. Calculated, because this is a song about deceit and murder in which there are few known conclusions, several perceived outcomes, and a whole world of open interpretation left for the listener. I know that I will never solve the mystery of this story, and yet I listen intently time and time again for any clues I may have missed the first one hundred times I listened.

There is too much to this story for me to detail, so if you are not familiar with the song, read the lyrics or have a listen by clicking the play button below before reading further.

So . . . Dylan’s a tease, huh? What is interesting is that much of the detail in this story is supposed, but not definitively stated, so on a superficial level the listener understands what happened. On first listen, you likely come away from the song thinking: Big Jim’s dead, Rosemary stabbed him, she got the gallows, Jack ran off with the money, and Lily is left without both of her lovers. But that is an outcome based on assumption, because only these absolutes are stated: Big Jim was stabbed, Rosemary is accused of a crime, and the Jack of Hearts is “missing.” The rest is speculative.

And, oh, how fans have speculated on this puzzle that will never be solved. Reading listener interpretations of this song reveals that no two people have the same perceived outcome of what happened, or even of who are the true villains of the story. THIS IS WHAT MAKES DYLAN A MASTER STORYTELLER – the clues he does not give the listener are equally important to building intrigue as the clues he does give! Did Big Jim shoot and kill the Jack of Hearts? Was it really Rosemary who stabbed Big Jim? Was Rosemary executed? Was Lily an outlaw who orchestrated the whole thing? Were Rosemary and Lily mother and daughter? All of these missing pieces can be resolved in our own imagination; Dylan has given us the ability to shape shift the outcome at our will.

In addition to the mysterious outcome, the weaving of Old West themes – a cabaret-style saloon, outlaw gangs, and especially poker and gambling – paint a vivid picture of the scene. Cards and gambling are referenced throughout the song; Big Jim is referred to as “the king” who owns a diamond mine, Rosemary is a “queen without a crown,” and of course, there is the Jack of Hearts. Although we will never know, I believe that Lily was the Ace of Spades – the “death card” - in this game; the character that deceived them all and came out of the story unscathed.



  1. Very thought provoking! Though a devoted fan of Dylan, I never took the time with that particular song to analyze the story line on even a superficial level. From review of your blog and some web search, I now know that there are more theories on the latent meaning of Dylan's lyrics than suspects in the Kennedy assination. For example, the King fired killing the J of H, the "click of the gun" was when it was cocked but the King didn't fire cause R stuck him in the back ; the King's gun was "cold" as in not loaded; Lillie has a multiple personality disorder and R, L and the J of H are all facets of her persona, as reflected in the line that she had two queens and drew the J of H. There are more interps out there of course. I haven't developed my own theory, but would note that when one uncouples Dylan lyrics from its most obvious or apparent storyline, the result is a free-for-all of interpretations as partially listed above. Still, I wonder about Dylan's central character, referred to in every stanza, the J of H, or in its historic form, the Knave of Hearts. Hearts denotes emotion and Knave as deceitful. I also wonder whether some of the lyrics are throw away lines for rhyme and cadence or have some meaning that escapes my grasp, e.g. the line about "paint". All very stimulating. Got to run. Yoda

  2. Richard - Fascinating! You introduce some clues that I had overlooked. I had missed the detail about the gun being “cold.” Again, why I come back to this song; I feel that the clues are there, I just haven’t found them yet. I was also not aware of the term and meaning of “Knave.” Were I a card sharp, I might catch more clues hidden in the song. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments!


    P.S. – Loved your line: “When one uncouples Dylan lyrics from its most obvious or apparent storyline, the result is a free-for-all of interpretations.”

  3. AZ:

    Further to our discussion of L, R and the J of H, I'm still puzzled by the line..."Be careful not to touch the wall, there's a brand-new coat of paint." Is there any purpose to the line other than cadence and rhyme to set up the following line..."I'm glad to see you're still alive, you're looking like a saint."

    Incidentally, you can call me by my nom de plume ("Yoda") or if you prefer, my Maidu indian name ("Meda").

    1. Yes I think the reason is to make it clear that the J of H and L are getting naked together and messing around in the bed, and it's part of the whole subtlety of the lyrics in that scene, since nothing about sex or love is ever mentioned but if you're following the lyrics it's pretty clear what's happening. So I think it's an oblique way of narrating. It's actually one of my favorite lines of the song.

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  5. Great song because it has so many interpretations. Love, deceit, loss and crime all wrapped up in a delicious eight minutes. Beauty of the song is that everyone can come to their own conclusions. Even about who is the villian, if any.

  6. Dylan never runs out of lyrics, but he always uses just as many as he needs. Here he weaves a murder mystery with several suspects, the central one being the Jack of Hearts. The getaway wasn't complete without him. The Jack of Hearts is the author, of course. You can't end the story without him. All the others are players on his stage.

  7. The paint on the wall... I was wondering if it had anything to do with the drilling in the wall! ?
    Paint is usually touchable soon after applying. Could some thing have been passed through that wall and hidden?