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 1975
Recorded December 30, 1974 at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Genre Folk rock
Length 8:51
Label Columbia
Songwriter(s) Bob Dylan
Producer(s) 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. It is one of five songs on Blood on the Tracks that Dylan initially recorded in New York City in September 1974 and then re-recorded in Minneapolis in December that year; the later recording became the album track.

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 her and Dylan's 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 about 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 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 and in the published sheet music 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". The verse also appears in the Joan Baez recording of the song.

The song also contains a number of references to playing cards – the Jack of Hearts himself, the fact that Big Jim owns the town's "only diamond mine", the description of Rosemary looking "like a queen" and Big Jim like a "king", and in the third verse, Lily is playing a game of poker with the other girls in the cabaret.


The song takes place in a cabaret that is being renovated in an unnamed town where most of the residents "with any sense" have already left. The town's bank is being targeted by a gang of thieves led by an enigmatic figure called "The Jack of Hearts", and are using the renovations at the cabaret as a cover for their robbery – they are able to drill into the bank without causing suspicion. The Jack of Hearts appears inside the cabaret right before the show, with the intention of meeting up with Lily, a beautiful dancer in the cabaret (Lily and the Jack of Hearts have a history together which is never explained). Big Jim and his wife Rosemary are in attendance of the show, though they arrive separately and it is apparent that Big Jim intends to use the night to pursue his affair with Lily. After her performance, Lily meets the Jack of Hearts in her dressing room with romantic intentions, but Big Jim makes his way to the dressing room as well, followed by Rosemary who has been driven to despair by her years of mistreatment at the hands of Big Jim. Big Jim is going to shoot the Jack of Hearts but is killed by a penknife in the back wielded by Rosemary (her "one good deed before she dies"). "The next day," Rosemary is executed, a hanging overseen by "the hanging judge", another figure in town who is in attendance at the cabaret the night before.

The fate of the Jack of Hearts is left ambiguous, but it is implied that he reunites with his gang, who have fled to the nearby riverbanks waiting for their leader with the safe from the bank (having drilled through the wall to retrieve it). The next morning, after Rosemary's execution, Lily thinks about her father, whom she rarely sees, along with Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.


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."


  • 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.
  • In 2002, Mary Lee's Corvette included "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" in their song-for-song live cover performance of "Blood on the Tracks"
  • American singer-songwriter Tom Russell recorded a cover of the song with Eliza Gilkyson and Joe Ely for his 2004 album, Indians Cowboys Horses and Dogs.

In popular culture[edit]

  • "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is heavily referenced in the song "The Getaway" by the American indie pop band TV Girl on their first studio album French Exit.
  • The Dylan recording was featured in Manchester by the Sea (2016) starring Casey Affleck.


External links[edit]