Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts

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"Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"
Song by Bob Dylan from the album Blood on the Tracks
Released January 17, 1975
Recorded December 30, 1974 at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Genre Folk rock
Length 8:51
Label Columbia
Writer Bob Dylan
Producer Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks track listing

"Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts", is a song by Bob Dylan released on the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, known for its complex plot and long running time. There have been two screenplays written based on the song: one by John Kaye and commissioned by Dylan, and another written by James Byron.[1] Neither screenplay ever became a film.

According to his official website, Dylan has played the song live only once on May 25, 1976 in Salt Lake City.[2]

Hearing the lyrics read to her by Dylan just after they had been written is thought to be the inspiration for the 1975 Joan Baez song, "Diamonds & Rust"— which is based on their own relationship ten years earlier.

Main characters[edit]

The song has a long list of characters. The role of several characters in the plot has been long disputed among fans.

  • The main character in the song is "The Jack of Hearts", who has recently come into town as a leader of a gang of bank robbers. ("The boys finally made it through the wall and cleaned out the bank safe... but they couldn't go no further without the Jack of Hearts.")
  • Major women in the song are Lily and Rosemary. The two hold a special relationship, and both are referred to in royal terms ("like a queen without a crown" and "Lily was a princess").
  • Big Jim is the wealthiest person in town: "he owned the town's only diamond mine". He also had relationships with Rosemary and Lily ("Rosemary was... tired of playin' the role of Big Jim's wife" and "It was known all around that Lily had Jim's ring").

Clues and interpretations[edit]

There is an extra verse on the Bob Dylan website that is not in the album version (right after the "backstage manager" verse):

Lily's arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch,
She forgot all about the man she couldn't stand who hounded her so much.
"I've missed you so," she said to him, and he felt she was sincere,
But just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear.
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts.

This verse can be found on the Blood On The Tapes and Blood on the Tracks (New York Sessions) bootleg version. This version is slower and more somber, even mournful, reflecting the approach of the other New York sessions. The version on Blood on the Tracks was recorded later, in Minneapolis, and reflects Dylan's attempts, following his brother's advice, to make the album less difficult and intense. The same contrast can be seen with the New York (Bootleg Series) and Minneapolis (album) versions of "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Idiot Wind".

Incidentally, the characters of Big Jim and Lily may be derived from the historical figures Diamond Jim Brady and his sometimes romantic partner, Lillian Russell, who had a long affair in and around operetta houses of New York before WWI. A movie called Diamond Jim (1935) was made about their tempestous relationship.


There are a vast variety of interpretations of the story line, and at this time it is unknown which is the most accurate since Dylan has yet to comment on the plot.

  • According to Tim Riley of National Public Radio, "'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' is an intricately evasive allegory about romantic façades that hide criminal motives, and the way one character's business triggers a series of recriminations from people he doesn't even know."
  • Others may say that the song is about criminal facades that hide romantic motives, ("In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground, for one more member who had business back in town, for they couldn't go no further without the Jack of Hearts.") and is more along the lines of some of Dylan's other work such as "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Isis". Like those songs the two main characters, Lily and the Jack of Hearts, come in and out of each other's lives ("...I'm glad to see you're still alive you're looking like a saint.") and a past relationship is implied between the two. Big Jim most likely viewed the face of The Jack of Hearts on a wanted poster due to The Jack of Hearts' implied criminal background (..."'I know I've seen that face somewhere' Big Jim was thinking to himself, 'Maybe down in Mexico or a picture up on somebody's shelf.'")
  • While probably incidental to the song itself, there is a Damon Runyon story entitled 'Lily of St Pierre.' The narrator and hero of the story goes by the name of 'Jack O'Hearts', while the tragic young heroine is the eponymous 'Lily.' Any connection with the song likely ends there; however, knowing Dylan's narrative style and his erudition regarding matters of American folklore, it likely that Dylan was acquainted with Damon Runyon and his unique prose style.
  • The song may be either a tale spun from whole cloth after too many late nights of poker and drink set against a backdrop of the game or representation of real life events and people against a backdrop of, and employing metaphores relating to, a game where the Jack of Hearts can win or lose fortunes in a single play. Either way, this much is certain; (1) In the end, Big Jim had been murdered "killed by a pen-knife in the back" most likely by Rosemary. Yet earlier at the theatre where Lily performs its stated "the door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked". Note he was stabbed, not shot. "Big Jim was standing there, you couldn't say surprised, Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes. She was with Big Jim but she was leaning to the Jack of Hearts". Who brandished the gun and who it was pointed at isn't stated, but noone else dies. (2) Rosemary was convicted of his murder and sentenced to hang. Her motives were explained as "Rosemary started drinking hard and seeing her reflection in the knife. She was tired of the attention, tired of playing role of Big Jims wife" and was "she'd done a lot of bad things".....but was....."looking to do just one good deed before she died", demonstrating desire to set things straight in the love triangle involving her, Big Jim and Lily for good and her willingness "she'd once tried suicide" to die in the process if need be. (3) The local bank was robbed by the Jack of Hearts and his gang. Big Jim's money likely constituting the majority of the banks deposits. In the days before federal banking rules and programs such as deposit insurance Big Jim would never legally be able to recover or enjoy his money ever again even if he had lived. And his heirs would inherit "the town's only diamond mine" providing them future income.
  • And this much is likely; There were two love triangles involving (1) Lily, Rosemary and Big Jim and (2) the ladies and the Jack of Hearts. Both women knew of each other's relationship with Big Jim and were understandably jealous. The Jack of Hearts had a previous relationship with Lily yet was admired too by Rosemary "she was with Big Jim, but she was leaning to the Jack of Hearts" and "she was gazing to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts". He had likely come to town for a simple robbery. Once assessing the situation the plan changed to include Big Jim's murder so a) Jack could vanquish his rival for Lily, get rich, and not have to worry Jim and his bodyguards would pursue him after the robbery b) Lily would get Jack "she'd never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts" and revenge for her treatment by Big Jim "his luck ran out and she laughed at him, well I guess you must have known it would one day" and Rosemary would realize her revenge for the way Big Jim and the town treated her as Jim's wife in name only. Rosemary may have been promised rescue from hanging in an elaborate plot of impersonations and shear daring by the other two to get her to murder Big Jim despite her anger with him and resentment of Lily. She could obviously no longer "play the role of Big Jim's wife" with him dead and while not ideal, a chance at a comfortable new life is possibly better than the status quo or life in prison.
  • The Hanging Judge was likely the Jack of Hearts in disguise to effect Rosemary's escape. In a middle lyric, its stated "(he) went to get the Hanging Judge but the Hanging Judge was drunk" yet later "the Hanging Judge was sober, he hadn't had a drink. The only person *on the scene* missing was the Jack of Hearts". Lily also did impersonations, she was an actress after all, kidnapping or possibly killing the Hanging Judge disguised as Rosemary so that Jack might impersonate him during the escape. "Lily took her (blood splattered) dress off, buried it away" and later "Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair". She likely met up with Jack, his gang and Rosemary later having deniability to their crimes should the others be caught if they failed to show down at the river. In the end, its Rosemary who would be "wanted" for Big Jim's murder, the sheriff being the only official with knowledge of the crime outside of the local Dr or Coroner. Jack, Lily and his gang likely got away at least temporarily with the loot having removed evidence of their crime "be careful not to touch the wall, there's a brand new coat of paint" at the bank, going unrecognized during Rosemary's escape and heading to a part of the country where they're simply settlers from "back East" with a little money and a murky past.


  • The song makes numerous references to card games: "Lily had two queens", "like a queen without a crown" (a wild card), "owned the town's only diamond mine" (cheated using the suit of diamonds), "nothing would ever come between Lily and the King", and of course the "Jack of Hearts".
  • The song ends with Lily thinking about some of the other characters, thereby tying together the different characters' stories:

"She was thinking about her father, who she very rarely saw,
Thinking about Rosemary, and thinking about the law,
But most of all she was thinking about the Jack of Hearts."

The same kind of ending would be used years later in the song "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" by The Traveling Wilburys - a musical group that included Dylan - which was written by Dylan and Tom Petty:

"Sometimes I think of Tweeter, sometimes I think of Jan,
Sometimes I don't think about nothing but the Monkey Man."

  • Coincidence: The plot is contingent upon a series of events that are shaped by each other, thus combining the ideas of coincidence and fate, symbolized by the card game.
  • Identity/Duplicity: The setting is a cabaret, and the theme of multiple identities ("there was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts") underlies the symbolic card game in which bluffing and acting are common motifs. "As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk" could be interpreted as a clever way that the "Jack of Hearts" leaves the crime scene disguised. Against this background are the main characters, who struggle between their personal and social identities ("tired of playing the role of Big Jim's wife").
  • Justice: Like other Dylan works, this song could be said to parody conventional justice ("he went to get the Hanging Judge but the Hanging Judge was drunk"). Later the Hanging Judge is sober during the execution of the law at Rosemary's hanging, but was ironically unable to prevent the preceding events, despite the manager's concerns and the incessant drilling in the wall.


  • Joan Baez included a performance of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" on her 1976 live album From Every Stage. This includes the extra verse from Dylan's first recording.
  • The group Mary Lee's Corvette also covered this song on their tribute album Blood on the Tracks.
  • Swedish Singer/Songwriter Ola Magnell recorded a version of the song for his album "Nya Perspektiv", released in 1975. The song was entitled "På snespår".


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