Johnny: you like desolation road?
Mandy Marie: yeah, why?
Johnny: it’s odd, long and rambling.
Mandy Marie: I’m odd long and rambling.
This memorial now stands at the site of the hanging.
Recorded on August 4th, 1965, “Desolation Row” closed out Dylan’s sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited. At 11 minutes and 21 seconds it was the longest song on the album.
The song is predominantly acoustic, although an earlier take with electric instrumentation was recorded on July 29th, 1965. Many believe the first verse was influenced by a tragic event in the city of Duluth history in which three African Americans were lynched in downtown Duluth. Postcards were sold of the lynching. The three men worked for a carnival passing through Duluth. The first verse states:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown,
The beauty parlor’s 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 is restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row
There are nine more verses in the song. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the song at #187 in their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Some have suggested that the first verse could have been influenced by a tragic event in the city of Duluth’s history where three African Americans were lynched in downtown Duluth on July 15, 1920. Postcards were sold of the lynching.
The three men worked for a carnival passing through Duluth. Since Duluth is a seaport accessible to oceangoing vessels via the Great Lakes Waterway and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, there would have been sailors in Duluth. Bob could have heard the story from his father, who at the time of the hanging lived just two blocks from where the tragic event took place.
If you’re coming in from out of town, the monument pictured above can be found at the corner of Second Avenue East and First Street, on the corner where this tragic event occurred. At the time that it was erected it was the only memorial to a lynching in the United States. For further information on this event see Michael Fedo’s The Lynchings in Duluth.
For the record, these original handwritten lyrics went on display today here in Duluth at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum as part of this week’s 2019 Duluth Dylan Fest. This manuscript is just one of numerous rare and original items on display at an exhibition titled Which One Is The Real Bob Dylan.
Duluth Dylan Fest will also include art, poetry, trivia, music and more music. Will you join us?
Meantime, life goes on all around you. Enjoy the music.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com