It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

We listened to this wonderful song in class. The version we listened was the Van Morrison cover version:
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (performed by Them, Van Morrison’s first band)

However, Bob Dylan’s own version is wonderful too, of course:
Bob Dylan’s Original (an early live version)

And here are the lyrics to this wonderful song:

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last;
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.
Look out the saints are comin’ through;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense;
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.
This sky, too, is folding under you;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home;
All your reindeer armies, are all going home.
The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor.
The carpet, too, is moving under you;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you;
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

From an English language perspective, the first thing to notice is the very precise – and very artistic – grammatical structure of the song. I have added punctuation to Dylan’s lyrics. You can see that each verse contains two lines of one sentence, which I have separated with a semi-colon (you can do this with closely related sentences), followed by a sentence of two lines, then another sentence of two lines – with the refrain (a very short chorus, or repeating line, is termed a refrain) as the second line.

Let’s look at the text in more detail. The next thing to notice about Dylan is the way his lyrics are profoundly poetic (in my opinion), but use natural, modern language. Dylan is an educated man; and was influenced by 20th Century poets like T.S. Elliot and W.H. Auden, who also write highly structured poetry in natural, modern language. Dylan is every bit the equal of these great poets, in my opinion.

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last;
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.

These lines are almost like dialogue from a movie – starting with the abstract simplicity of “you must leave now,” and ending with the urgent and colloquial – and quite dramatic – expression, “you better grab it fast.” He then follows with a classic Dylan image:

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.

(orphan: a child whose parents have died)
(yonder: archaic: over there)

“Yonder” is an archaic expression, but still very common in songs, which means, ‘there’ or ‘over there’. The image itself is wonderful: simple and evocative, but with unanswered questions (who is the orphan ? And why an orphan? Is he a real orphan, or just someone without other emotional attachments? He is ‘your orphan’; were they lovers? If so, why is he crying?) and that image! A fire in the sun. It’s not a clear metaphor; it invites questions but doesn’t answer them. It’s mysterious – it evokes – it’s an unnatural, disturbing image. It’s not a comforting night-time fire, but a fire where there shouldn’t be fire – a dangerous fire.

Look out the saints are comin’ through;

This line references a popular old song, ‘When the Saints Come Marchin’ In,’ a cheerful song which became a jazz standard, but which describes the ‘Second Coming,’ at the end of time – when, according to the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, the world as we know it will come to an end and Christ will return. Bob Dylan loves apocalyptic images, using them many times in his songs. This is the first such image in this song; and the song itself describes what one might think of as a ‘personal apocalypse’ – a point where one’s life as one has known it comes to an end, a point where you could die, or you could live and begin a new life.

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

The refrain from this song is so beloved in English that it has become idiomatic. Like many lines from Shakespeare, many people may know and quote this line without even the song it comes from.

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense;
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.

Again the grammatical structure builds up to a bizarre and disturbing image, of an “empty-handed” painter (empty-handed: having no money), “drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.” And then follows another, mysterious, even more apocalyptic image:

This sky, too, is folding under you;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

This is an even clearer apocalyptic vision, which for me references this passage from the Book of Revelation:
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away” (Revelation 21:1)
However, it also suggests the hallucinations of drug use; and severe panic – the sense that the firm foundations of the earth beneath your feet have gone- sky, earth, up, down, all mixed up – and you are falling. If you have never experienced panic of this sort, I hope you never do.

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home;
All your reindeer armies, are all going home.

These lines to me are mysterious, conveying childish, storybook images, but sad and final – the story is over; the characters are leaving. ‘Baby Blue’ is an old ‘pet name’, like sweetheart or darling, and these fairytale images suggest a young woman, scarcely out of childhood, whose fairytale, fantasy world is ending.

Then another very sad couplet (couplet: two linked lines in a poem or song):

The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor.

This is an image of squalor. She is a woman; she has had at least one lover; but he is too poor to have a bed – his blankets are his possessions. It reminds me of stories that have been told of the lives of the hippies of the 60s, in places like Haight Ashbury, believing themselves to be living in a romantic utopia, but actually living in a squalid poverty of sad, unattached sex in the haze of heavy drug use.

The carpet, too, is moving under you;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

This is an idiomatic image in English. When we say ‘the carpet was moving,’ we generally mean it was infested with insect vermin, like fleas – although it could be read as a hallucinogenic or apocalyptic (‘earth-shaking’) image as well.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you;

A ‘stepping stone’ in English is an idiom for a person whom one uses to advance one’s career. It’s a negative, cynical image – that we should ‘step on’ other people to get ahead. For me, there is also a sexual suggestion in this line. Sadly, in certain industries and high social circles, young women have sometimes been known to move ‘up the ladder’ by using sex, by sleeping with people for advancement. However, poor Baby Blue’s ladder has apparently proven to be nothing but a fantasy.

Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

Years after this song was written, Bob Dylan became a Christian, but even before this he incorporated a lot of Christian imagery, references and messages in his songs. This is not at all unusual in Western culture – even in modern times, when few people are practising Christians, our culture is deeply influenced by Christian literature and imagery (very deep and beautiful literature and imagery, in my opinion). I consider this line to be a subtle reference to a saying of Jesus: “Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” (Matthew 8:22).

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

(vagabond: an archaic word: a person with no home and few possessions who wanders the world)

Here we have another image of hippy squalor; and another mysterious image that asks questions without answering them: who is this vagabond? How did he get the clothes? Did he steal them? And to ‘wear someones clothes’ can be an image of taking over someones role or position. ‘Rapping’ (before it was a form of music) meant to knock urgently and loudly – this is another dramatic image: the orphan, the vagabond, these are subtly frightening images – we need to get out of here; let’s go!

Strike another match, go start anew;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

(anew: poetic: the adverb form of ‘new’)

The final lines for me are the most beautiful and hopeful of the song.

Grammatically, note the adverb ‘anew’, one of a class of special adjectives and adverbs, of the type that add a- to an existing adjective or noun. They are archaic, often poetic; as adjectives they cannot precede  their noun; they must follow it (in the French style), or be linked to it by a ‘to be’ verb. They are part of the ancient ‘heart language’ of English; and to ‘start anew’ or ‘start afresh’ is a beautiful, emotional and hopeful phrase in English.

A candle, or to light a candle, is also an image of hope in English (another Christian reference). But in this case, it’s sad and small hope: Baby Blue doesn’t have a candle, just a match. Nevertheless – it is hope.

This song paints a sad and disturbing picture of a naive young woman, who has become trapped in a fantasy world of squalor – including unhappy or unhealthy sex perhaps – and has had a serious crisis, a personal apocalypse, that has brought an end to the world she knows. For anyone who has suffered a life-changing or life-destroying crisis, this song has deep and moving resonance. However, she has rescuer, and she has hope. I hope you never have a personal apocalypse, but if you do, I hope you have rescuer (even if it is just yourself), strike a match and start anew.

It’s a beautiful song, one that I love; and the class loved it too.

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