Bob Dylan’s best songs: Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel,
Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you.
~”Sara” (Bob Dylan)

That song is an example of a song… it started out as just a little thing, Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, but I got carried away, somewhere along the line. I just sat down at a table and started writing. At the session itself. 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.
~Bob Dylan (to Jann Wenner Nov 1969)

This is the best song I’ve ever written.
~Bob Dylan (to Robert Shelton)

First released as the closing track on Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, the song lasts 11 minutes and 22 seconds, occupying the entire side four of the double album. Dylan has revealed that the song was written about his future wife, Sara Lownds.

Recorded

Columbia Music Row Studios
Nashville, Tennessee
16 February 1966

The 8th Blonde On Blonde session, produced by Bob Johnston.

  • Bob Dylan – vocals, harmonica
  • Hargus “Pig” Robbins – piano
  • Al Kooper – organ
  • Charlie McCoy – guitar
  • Wayne Moss – guitar
  • Joe South – bass
  • Kenny Buttrey – drums


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?

Wikipedia

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.

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.
–>Tom Waits (1991)

Other versions

Renaldo & Clara version

However, it was a song he occasionally liked to rehearse. There is a haltingly marvelous stab at it in Dylan’s 1977 movie, Renaldo and Clara, part of the lengthy “Woman in White” sequence. Derived from 1975 rehearsals with Rolling Thunder core musicians Scarlet Rivera, Rob Stoner, and Howie Wyeth, Dylan mixes up his lines, and slurs everything but the chorus, yet still seems on the verge of tapping into that wild mercury moment again.
~Clinton Heylin (Revolution in the air)


Denver Hotel version

A Hotel Room in Denver, Colorado – March 12, 1966.

Studio outtake – February 16, 1966

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace
And your basement-clothes and your hollow face,
Who among them could think he could outguess you?
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes, where the moonlight swims,
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns,
Who among them would try to impress you,
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes?
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I put them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Joan Baez cover version

From the album “Any Day Now” (1968)

2 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s best songs: Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

  1. “Sublime” is good word for this post. Bobby created this supreme masterpiece out of that pure place where all poets want to go and he gets there, singing this anthem with great nuance and a bit of Dylan grit. Verse after verse he creates images of poetry and music that seem to fall from the sky. They will live forever. Joan’s beautiful singing of a song that has many phrases about herself is unique and shows that she knows and understands the story.. JRW

  2. ~ Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
    Who among them can think he could outguess you?
    Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
    And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this
    they all did decide
    To show you the dead angels that they used to hide
    And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show ~

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