Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
|"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"|
|Song by Bob Dylan|
|from the album Blonde on Blonde|
|Released||May 16, 1966|
|Recorded||February 16, 1966|
|Blonde on Blonde track listing|
"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" is a song by Bob Dylan. First released on the album Blonde on Blonde in 1966, the song lasts 11 minutes and 22 seconds, and occupied the whole of side four of the double album.
Bob Dylan began to record the Blonde on Blonde album in New York in October 1965. Frustrated by the slow progress in the studio, Dylan agreed to the suggestion of his producer Bob Johnston and moved to Columbia's A Studio on Music Row, Nashville, Tennessee, in February 1966. Bringing with him Robbie Robertson on guitar and Al Kooper on keyboards, Dylan commenced recording with the cream of Nashville session players.
On February 15, the session began at 6 p.m., but Dylan simply sat in the studio working on his lyrics, while the musicians played cards, napped, and chatted. Finally, at 4 a.m., Dylan called the musicians in and outlined the structure of the song. Dylan counted off and the musicians fell in, as he attempted his epic composition, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands". Drummer Kenny Buttrey recalled, "If you notice that record, that thing after like the second chorus starts building and building like crazy, and everybody's just peaking it up 'cause we thought, Man, this is it...This is gonna be the last chorus and we've gotta put everything into it we can. And he played another harmonica solo and went back down to another verse and the dynamics had to drop back down to a verse kind of feel...After about ten minutes of this thing we're cracking up at each other, at what we were doing. I mean, we peaked five minutes ago. Where do we go from here?" The finished song clocked in at 11 minutes, 23 seconds, and would occupy the entire fourth side of the album.
Four takes of the song were recorded, three of which were complete. The recording session was released in its entirety on the 18-disc Collector's Edition of The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 in 2015, with the first take of the song also appearing on the 6-disc version of that album.
The technique employed by Dylan to write the song was to construct the verses as a series of "lists" of the attributes of the eponymous Sad Eyed Lady. These "lists" are complemented by a sequence of rhetorical questions about the Lady which are never answered within the song. Thus, the first verse runs:
- With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
- And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
- And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
- Oh, who do they think could bury you?
- With your pockets well protected at last
- And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass
- And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass
- Who could they get to carry you?
- Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
- Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
- My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
- Should I put them by your gate
- Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?
Many critics have noted the similarity of 'Lowlands' to 'Lownds', the name of Dylan's wife Sara, and Dylan biographer Robert Shelton wrote that "Sad Eyed Lady" was a "wedding song" for Sara Lownds, whom Dylan had married just three months earlier.[a 1] Her maiden name was Shirley Noznisky, and her father, Isaac Noznisky, was a scrap metal dealer in Wilmington, Delaware. Critics have noted the link between "sheet metal memories of Cannery Row" and the business of Sara's father, as well as the quote "with your sheets like metal and your belts like lace". Similarly the line "your magazine husband who one day just had to go" could be a reference to Sara's first husband, magazine photographer Hans Lownds.
Written over the space of eight hours in the CBS recording studio in Nashville, on the night of February 15–16, "Sad Eyed Lady" eventually occupied the whole of side four of Blonde On Blonde. In his paean to his wife, "Sara", written in 1975, Dylan amends history slightly when he sings:
When Dylan played Shelton the song, shortly after recording it, he claimed, "This is the best song I've ever written." Around the same time, Dylan enthused to journalist Jules Siegel, "Just listen to that! That's old-time religious carnival music!" However, in 1969, Dylan confessed to Rolling Stone's editor, Jann Wenner, "I just sat down at a table and started writing...And I just got carried away with the whole thing...I just started writing and I couldn’t stop. After a period of time, I forgot what it was all about, and I started trying to get back to the beginning [laughs]."
Because the song was recorded at around four in the morning, critic Andy Gill feels the work has a nocturnal quality similar to "Visions of Johanna". Gill comments on the "measured grace and stately pace" of the song's rhythm, characterising the mood of the song as "as much funeral procession as wedding march". Gill notes that, though the song has its share of enigmatic imagery, there is no trace of the jokey nihilism that marks out much of the rest of Blonde on Blonde. "This time around", writes Gill, "it's serious."
Heard by some listeners as a hymn to an other-worldly woman, for Shelton "her travails seem beyond endurance, yet she radiates an inner strength, an ability to be re-born. This is Dylan at his most romantic." Writing about "Sad Eyed Lady", historian Sean Wilentz comments that Dylan's writing had shifted from the days when he asked questions and supplied answers. Like the verses of William Blake's "Tyger", Dylan asks a series of questions about the "Sad Eyed Lady" but never supplies any answers.
Critic Clinton Heylin has described "Sad Eyed Lady" as both "possibly the most pretentious set of lyrics ever penned", but also "a captivating carousel of a performance". Heylin suggests that Dylan was driven to try to create a song that would reach a new level of writing and performance. Heylin quotes from Dylan's San Francisco press conference on December 3, 1965, when he stated he was interested in "writing [a] symphony... with different melodies and different words, different ideas... which just roll on top of each other... the end result being a total[ity]... They say my songs are long now. Some time [I'm] just gonna come up with one that's gonna be the whole album." This ambitious plan ultimately gave birth to "Sad Eyed Lady", a song Heylin describes as "a thirteen minute one-trick pony."
Dylan scholar Michael Gray expressed a similarly contradictory attitude to "Sad Eyed Lady". In his book Song & Dance Man III, Gray writes of the song's imagery: "Dylan is... cooing nonsense in our ears, very beguilingly of course. The only thing that unites the fragments is the mechanical device of the return to the chorus and thus to the title... It is, in the end, not a whole song at all but unconnected chippings, and only the poor cement of an empty chorus and a regularity of tune gives the illusion that things are otherwise."
In a footnote to this passage, written later, Gray adds: "When I read this assessment now, I simply feel embarrassed at what a little snob I was when I wrote it... When I go back and listen, after a long gap, to Dylan's recording, every ardent, true feeling I ever had comes back to me. Decades of detritus drop away and I feel back in communion with my best self and my soul. Whatever the shortcomings of the lyric, the recording itself, capturing at its absolute peak Dylan's incomparable capacity for intensity of communication, is a masterpiece if ever there was one."
Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers writes that "Sad Eyed Lady" stands with "Mr. Tambourine Man" as "perhaps the most insidiously haunting pop song of our time". Mellers claims that Dylan has succeeded in concentrating contradictory qualities into the Lady: "It's impossible to tell... whether the Lady is a creature of dream or nightmare; but she's beyond good and evil as the cant phrase has it, only in the sense that the simple, hypnotic, even corny waltz tune contains... both fulfilment and regret. Mysteriously, the song even erases Time. Though chronologically it lasts nearly 20 minutes (sic), it enters a mythological once-upon-a-time where the clock doesn't tick."
Literary critic Christopher Ricks compares both the imagery and the meter of “Sad Eyed Lady” to a poem by Swinburne, “Dolores”, published in 1866. Ricks describes Swinburne’s poem as an “anti-prayer to his anti-madonna, an interrogation that hears no need why it should ever end”. Ricks writes that “Dolores moves…’To a tune that enthralls and entices’, as does ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’.” Ricks makes the point that “Dolores” “insists upon listing… all of her energies, her incitements and excitements, her accoutrements, her weapons” as does “Sad Eyed Lady”. Ricks describes the way in which Dylan’s song attributes so many objects and qualities to the Sad Eyed Lady as “part inventory, part arsenal, these returns of phrases are bound by awe of her and by suspicion of her”.
Referring to the phrase repeated in the chorus of the song, “Sad eyed lady of the lowlands/ Where the sad eyed prophet says that no man comes”, Ricks suggests that the prophet Ezekiel is relevant, noting that the phrase “no man” occurs several times in the Book of Ezekiel. Ricks also notes several references to “gates” in that Book, as in Dylan’s song. “This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man may enter in by it.” Ezekiel 44:2. Dylan’s song alludes to “the kings of Tyrus”, and Ricks points out that, in the Book of Ezekiel, Tyrus is described as “a merchant of the people for many isles” (Ezekiel 27:3); this chapter of Ezekiel lists the many commodities and luxuries which Tyrus trades in, including silver, gold, spices, precious stones, emeralds, ebony and ivory. Thus, for Ricks, Tyrus is “one huge warehouse of hubris”, but there is a force that can outwait the kings of Tyrus, “the Lord, he who speaks through his propher Ezekiel of the doom to come”.
The musicians involved in recording "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" in February 1966 are:
- Bob Dylan – vocals, harmonica
- Hargus "Pig" Robbins – piano
- Al Kooper – organ
- Charlie McCoy – guitar
- Wayne Moss – guitar
- Joe South – bass
- Kenny Buttrey – drums
Live performances, cover versions, and legacy
Dylan has never performed this song in concert. However, during the "Woman In White" sequence of Dylan's film Renaldo And Clara, a live performance of the song can be heard in the background. Heylin writes that Dylan, accompanied by Scarlet Rivera on violin, Rob Stoner on bass, and Howie Wyeth on drums, recorded this version at a rehearsal during The Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975.
Joan Baez covered this song on her 1968 album of Dylan songs Any Day Now. Steve Howe also covered this song on his 1999 album "Portraits of Bob Dylan" with fellow Yes member Jon Anderson on lead vocals. Richie Havens covered this song on his 1974 album Mixed Bag II.
In his autobiography, I Me Mine, published in 1980, George Harrison says that the chord changes of "Sad Eyed Lady" influenced the music of Harrison's song Long, Long, Long, which he wrote and recorded in October 1968 for the album The Beatles, sometimes known as The White Album. Harrison wrote: "I can't recall much about it except the chords, which I think were coming from "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" - D to E minor, A, and D - those three chords and the way they moved."
Tom Waits said of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" in 1991: "It is like Beowulf and it 'takes me out to the meadow'. This song can make you leave home, work on the railroad or marry a Gypsy. I think of a drifter around a fire with a tin cup under a bridge remembering a woman's hair. The song is a dream, a riddle and a prayer."
In a radio interview with Howard Stern on January 18, 2012, former Pink Floyd bassist, and principal composer of the band's songs Roger Waters revealed: "'Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' sort of changed my life. When I heard that, I thought, if Bob can do [such a lengthy song], I can do it... it's a whole album. And it in no way gets dull or boring. You just get more and more engrossed. It becomes more and more hypnotic, the longer it goes on."
- Bob Dylan married Sara Lownds on November 22, 1965, at a judge's office on Long Island, New York. The only guests were his manager, Albert Grossman, and a maid of honor for Sara; there was no publicity (Sounes 2001, p. 193). However, in his autobiography, Testimony, Robbie Robertson also claimed that he attended the wedding (Robertson 2016).
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