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 inspiration behind 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. Both are referred to in royal terms ("like a queen without a crown" and "Lily was a princess") though not royalty. Rosemary is Big Jim's long suffering wife, who ultimately is executed for his murder (though the song is very much nebulous towards whether or not she was innocent and was framed by the Jack of Hearts. Lily is a dancer who is Big Jim's mistress (wearing a ring symbolizing this) and also a former lover of the Jack of Hearts.
  • Big Jim is the wealthiest person in town: "he owned the town's only diamond mine". He is married to Rosemary and having a longstanding affair with Lily. He is killed at the climax of the song, though Dylan leaves it ambiguous towards who does the deed. The lyrics describe Big Jim as a greedy man who destroys all that he touches, which contrasts with his well groomed appearance.
  • The Hanging Judge; a patron of the bar where the plot plays out. The character is referred to as a drunk and is intoxicated for the bulk of the song. However, he is sober the next day when he oversees Rosemary being executed for Big Jim's death.

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".

This verse also appears in the Joan Baez recording of the song.


The song takes place in an unnamed town under curfew,[according to whom?] at a cabaret about to be closed in a town where most of the residents "with good sense" have left already. The cabaret is being targeted by the gang of thieves led by a mysterious figure called "The Jack of Hearts". "The Jack of Hearts" appears inside the cabaret right before the show in order to set up an alibi before stealing the cabaret's safe and the box office that night. Lily is a dancer in the cabaret and Big Jim and his wife Rosemary are in attendance of the show, though they arrive separately and with different motives (Jim to see Lily, Rosemary to kill Jim). After her performance, Lily meets an unnamed figure in her dressing room with romantic intentions but are interrupted by Big Jim, who Rosemary follows backstage to murder. What happens next is unstated, but Big Jim is killed and Rosemary arrested and ultimately executed by hanging the next morning, a hanging overseen by "the hanging judge", another figure in town who is in attendance at the cabaret's final night open.

The Jack of Hearts escapes, disguised as a monk, when Big Jim is found dead and reunites with his gang, who have fled to the nearby riverbanks waiting for their leader with the safe. The next morning, after Rosemary's execution, Lily thinks about her father, who she rarely saw, along with the Jack of Hearts and Rosemary.


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 facades that hide criminal motives, and the way one character's business triggers a series of recriminations from people he doesn't even know."
  • One popular[according to whom?] interpretation of the song and its plot is that "The Jack of Hearts" is Lily, who disguised herself as a man to carry out criminal activities and to carry out an affair with Rosemary. Lily killed Big Jim when he caught her in drag with Rosemary, who fainted and was framed by Lily for Jim's murder while she escaped to reunite with her criminal gang. Lily based her male alter-ego off of her father, hence her thinking about him in the wake of Rosemary's hanging.


  • 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.


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External links[edit]