Bob Dylan's "False Prophet" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 2
In this part we take a detailed look at the verses 2 and 3 of this song.
Hello Mary Lou - Hello Miss Pearl
My fleet footed guides from the underworld
No stars in the sky shine brighter than you
You girls mean business and I do too
In the first verse we have seen that the deceptive influence of the False Prophet crept into the body and soul of the ancient Egyptian culture, but the story does not end there. The False Prophet is a trickster of all times and ages who is also active in our modern times, and even more so because he knows that soon his active days on earth days will come to an end. Therefore, when the False Prophet goes on to say: “Hello Mary Lou - Hello Miss Pearl” the camara is focussed on our modern times. When “My fleet footed guides from the underworld” is added, it seems that a sardonic and sinister game is played with these two ladies. “Fleet footed” means nimble and fast on one’s feet , something one might expect from juveniles like Miss Mary Lou and Miss Pearl. “The underworld” represents this luminal world, the abode of the dead and imagined as being under the earth. “The underworld” is also the place, the pit, where the fallen angels are kept until judgement day (2 Peter 2:4). The underworld is the Sheol of Ezekiel 32:17-32, where Egypt and her allies, slain by the sword, lay.
The False Prophet is a trickster by profession and a master of distortion and has the habit of twisting and turning things round. Therefore, the sardonic irony in the words “My fleet footed guides from the underworld” show that the False Prophet knows that he is not guided by Miss Mary Lou and Miss Pearl but it is the other way round, Miss Mary Lou and Miss Pearl are guided by him.
Now “Hello Mary Lou - Hello Miss Pearl” seems an obvious reference to “Hello Mary Lou”, a love song from Ricky Nelson, and to “Miss Pearl” a song by Jimmy Wages. However, to call these two ladies “My fleet footed guides from the underworld” and to describe the intention of these two ladies as “You girls mean business and I do too” seems problematic and in the case of Mary Lou -when you examine the innocent lyrics of the song “Hello Mary Lou” - even farfetched. It requires no stretch of imagination to picture where the words “You girls mean business” refer to. “Business” in this context brings to mind the world of prostitution, red-light districts or some escort service. Now when you examine the lyrics of “Miss Pearl” an allusion to wantonness, if not prostitution, seems by no means farfetched. Some of the lyrics point in this direction: ”Miss Pearl, Miss Pearl, daylight recalls you, hang your head, go home, the way you look right now ,I know you never, I know you never more gonna roam” and “The signs on you show, you've been out so late”.
As far as Mary Lou is concerned, it is not for the first time that the poet seems to put Mary Lou in the realm of the luminal world, the kingdom of darkness. In Dylan’s song “Dignity” the part Mary Lou plays seems spooky: “I went to the wedding of Mary Lou. She said, “I don’t want nobody see me talking’ to you”, said she could get killed if she told me what she knew about dignity”.
However, for the connection to Mary Lou, we feel we’d better not focus our attention on Ricky Nelson’s song “Hello Mary Lou”, This song may merely function as some sort of a red herring to lead us to another song from Ricky Nelson: “Garden Party”. For Dylan it is not so difficult to identify himself with “Garden Party” because Dylan himself is referred to in the lyrics of the song: “And over in the corner, much to my surprise, Mr. Hughes hid in Dylan's shoes wearing his disguise”.
As far as the Mary Lou connection is concerned, there are a number of reasons why we should pay attention to Ricky Nelson’s song “Garden Party” rather than to his song : “Hello Mary Lou”. First of all, Mary Lou is mentioned in “Garden Party”: “I said hello to "Mary Lou", she belongs to me”. Secondly, when you closely examine the lyrics of “Garden Party”, it appears that in this garden party, people are dressed up, people are trying to hide their true identity: “When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name, no one recognized me, I didn't look the same” and “No one heard the music, we didn't look the same”. Thirdly, Nelson’s song “Garden Party” breathes the atmosphere of disguise, deception and trickery, a world with which the False Prophet- alias Satan- is all too familiar with. In some sort of a way Dylan’s “Man of Peace” also very much breathes the same deceptive atmosphere as “False Prophet” , albeit seen from a different perspective. In “Man of Peace” there is also a garden party going on: “I can smell something cooking, I can tell there’s going to be a feast, you know that sometimes Satan comes as a Man of Peace”. Now it seems as if the poet identifies the protagonist in Nelson’s “Garden Party” with the ways of the False Prophet. It is as if we hear the False Prophet, through the voice of the protagonist, speak: “I said hello to "Mary Lou", she belongs to me”. By stating that Mary Lou belongs to him, the False Prophet pulls Mary Lou into his own sphere, the underworld.
The use of the word “garden”, here and later on in the song, when it says: “Let’s walk in the garden - so far and so wide” may be an allusion to the Garden of Eden, the place where Man was deceived by the serpent (Gen. 3).
When the False Prophet says of Miss Mary Lou and Miss Pearl that “No stars in the sky shine brighter than you” this can be interpreted as a defiance of Jesus who is called the shining morning star in Rev.22:16. As we have seen, one of the attributes of the False Prophet, alias the devil, is that he encourages people to worship and idolize the creature – in this case Mary Lou and Miss Pearl – rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). Apart from this, in Isaiah 14: 12-14 (NKJV)the False Prophet awards the title of morning star to himself: ”I will exalt my throne above the stars of God”. The False Prophet laughs in his sleeve when divine stardom is bestowed upon his mortal epigons, like Miss Mary Lou and Miss Pearl. “No stars in the sky shine brighter than you” fits Rick Nelson and Janis Joplin well, because both died young, when – according to human standards- their stars where shining brightly.
I’m the enemy of treason - the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet - I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go
On the face of it, the words “I’m the enemy of treason - the enemy of strife, I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life” do not fit in with the negative image of a False Prophet. But things are not what they seem. The False Prophet -alias the devil - has two faces and pursues alternately two seemingly opposite tactics. The one tactics is a violent one of persecution and brutal oppression resulting in imprisonment, torture and killing of his victims. The other tactics is peaceful deception. When he pursues this latter tactics, the False Prophet proclaims to be a peacemaker who pretends to hate treason and strife. The Prophet Jeremiah debunks this sort of false prophecy: “from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely, they have healed the wound of my people lightly saying “peace, peace” when there is no peace” (Jer.6:13,14). Dylan’s song “Man of peace” resonates here: He – Satan, the False Prophet – “is a great humanitarian, he’s a great philanthropist”. Now the refrain of “Man of Peace”: “You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace” is a parody on 2 Cor. 11:14 where it says: “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light”. And it is this tactics of disguise which the False Prophet deploys in this stanza, the False Prophet pretends to be an angel of light who of course is very reasonable being and full of the best intentions.
Now “Treason” is usually regarded as an act of criminal disloyalty against a state, the nation and its sovereign. "Peace for our time" were the words the False prophet seems to have laid in the mouth of the UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in his 30 September 1938 speech with regards to the Munich Agreement he made with Hitler; an agreement which soon turned out to be an act of high treason towards the Czechoslovakian people, selling them to Hitler.
“I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life” faintly resonates Socrates who is said to have said: “The unexamined life is not worth living". According to Wikipedia: “The unexamined life is not worth living" (Ancient Greek: ὁ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ) is a famous dictum apparently uttered by Socrates at his trial for impiety and corrupting youth, for which he was subsequently sentenced to death, as described in Plato's Apology”.
Bob Jope may be right in his weblog article ‘False Prophet: ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” when he observes that “Blake considers Energy to be opposed to Reason, the force which, he believes, restrains desire. He exalts the life of the passions over that of Reason and the true poet/seer/prophet should exalt passionate life and deny imprisoning restraint, the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ (in ‘London’) that chain us down. Comparably, Dylan’s prophet declares: “I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life”. Intriguingly, too, where Blake is the enemy of reason (mocked punningly as a god, Urizen) Dylan’s prophet – or seer – declares himself ‘the enemy of treason’.
In the eyes of the False Prophet, however, “an unlived meaningless life” is a life is not worth living when it does not pursue the slogan ‘Carpe Diem’. ‘Carpe Diem’ means “seize the day”, a phrase used by the Roman poet Horace to express the idea that one should enjoy life while one can. But the False Prophet encourages people to pursue ‘Carpe Diem’ in a hedonistic way, so that pleasure and satisfaction of desires is the highest good and proper aim of meaningful human life. But the downside of this so-called meaningful life is, that an unpleasant feeling creeps into your mind, a feeling as if you are on the Titanic, heading for disaster, like it says in in 1 Cor. 15:32: “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”.
For the first time we now here the refrain of the song: “I ain’t no false prophet”. In our introductory remarks above, we already outlined that there might be an autobiographical undercurrent in this statement. We concluded that the more fervently the False Prophet denies being a False Prophet, the clearer it becomes that indeed he is a False Prophet. Here the False Prophet states two reasons why he pretends not to be a False Prophet: 1. “I just know what I know” and 2. “I go where only the lonely can go”.
1. “I just know what I know” may be valid claim and a claim which is false. A valid claim can be proven and a false one not. When Jesus, the Prophet of all Prophets, makes the claim “I just know what I know”, this claim is valid. When the False Prophet makes this claim, this claim is false. We read of Jesus’ claim that he knows what he knows in John 8: “Jesus told them, “These claims are valid even though I make them about myself. For I know where I came from and where I am going, but you don’t know this about me. You judge me by human standards, but I do not judge anyone. And if I did, my judgment would be correct in every respect because I am not alone. The Father who sent me is with me. Our own law says that if two people agree about something, their witness is accepted as fact. I am one witness, and my Father who sent me is the other.”(John 8:14-18 NLT). In the eyes of the Pharisees the claim of Jesus that he knows what he knows is not valid because in their eyes – and according to their human standards- this claim cannot be proven. But Jesus has an important and decisive second witness: God, the Father. God the Father testifies about Jesus in the Old Testament and validifies Jesus ‘claim.
But there is another factor which validates the claim “I know what I know” and that is Deut. 18,21,22. Deut. 18:21,22 says that the words of a true prophet come true and the words of a false prophet do not come to pass or come true. “I know what I know “and “I just said what I said” is not decisive but whether or not the contents of these words come true. E.g. Jesus, during his stay on earth, prophesied the fall and destruction of the city of Jerusalem (Matt. 24) . This prophecy came true and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.
The False Prophet, on the other hand, “climbs into the frame and shouts God’s name, but you’re never sure what it is”” (Dylan’s “Political world”).The only thing he can go by on is 2:“I go where only the lonely can go”. The loneliest place you can ever imagine is the so-called “depths of Satan” and the False Prophet has access to this place, in fact it is his natural habitat. A false prophetess named Jezebel also had access to these depths of Satan (Rev.2:20-24). In this lonely place “the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay” as Dylan assesses in his song “Mississippi”. This “depth” of Satan stands diametrically against the depth of God.
Only the Holy Spirit is capable to search the depth of God (1 Cor 2:10). In this depth of God there is not only an immeasurable and inexhaustive amount of riches, wisdom and knowledge (Romans 11:33) but also communion, a harmonious place bristling with love communion within the Trinity. Quite the opposite of the lonely place where “only the lonely can go”.To end up in a place“ where only the lone can go” is bad but the final conclusion which the False Prophet draws in this the song, the conclusion that he is “ nobody’s bride” is much worse.
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‘ Enemy of a meaningless live’ for himself, it’s ironic because to get a meaningful live for himself, he makes his own version of the victim you can say, and with the result a meaningless life for the victim.
— Merel01-11-2022 13:15
Dylan's reference to the 'garden' and 'fountain' could also be references to different songs, such as the clearly Christian In the Garden, or references in a song such as Ain't Talkin' from Modern Times...
— Pamela Brown22-02-2021 20:20
I am glad to have found your website. I Too, am a lover of Jesus and Bob Dylan. I have a rather different, simpler view of 'False Prophet'. While I appreciate your analysis, personally I think the narrator of the entire song is the Lord speaking in the first person. He is talking directly to Satan when he says 'You rule the land but so do I. You lusty old mule, you got a poison brain, I'll marry you to a ball and chain' clearly suggests the ultimate plight of the devil in the lake of fire. Also the final verse speaks plainly and lovingly to us, the believers, His church. He is saying he 'ain't no false prophet' like all the others, and that He is the true bridegroom, hence 'nobody's bride'. I will make my own full analysis of the song and forward it to you later. I wonder if you know Phil Mason's excellent book on Dylan as prophet, ' A Voice From On High'?
— simon sheridan29-01-2021 17:46
There's someone sneaking 'round the corner
Could that someone be Fredrich the Nietzsche?
"And I forgot when I died"
— Larry Fyffe29-11-2020 11:51
Ah yes, that elusive floating pronoun 'he'???
— Larry Fyffe29-11-2020 10:30
I see this is about how his Trumpness sees the world. And now we can see he really even forgot when he died.
— Uncle Ted29-11-2020 01:28
Spelling - "Jordan"
— Larry Fyffe28-11-2020 11:25
As punishment, in the 'Old Testament', Moses does not get to cross the Jordon for his taking credit as a human for God's doing:
Because you trespassed against me among the children of Israel....in the wilderness of Zin ...
Yet thou shalt see the land before thee
But thou shall not go thither unto the land
Deuteronomy 32: 51, 52)
— Larry Fyffe28-11-2020 11:18
Deuteronomy speaks of 'great prophet', to come forward after Moses to lead the Jewish people, as well as warning of false ones, but it is only with the benefit of hindsight that Christians can interpret that this 'Old Testament' prophet be Jesus Christ, and their idea of the Messiah in the 'New Testament'.
The narrator in 'False Prophet" certainly does not take a firm stand in regards to this matter ....and what Dylan himself believes has always been difficult to pin down even taking into consideration the songs of his 'Christian' phase.
— Larry Fyffe28-11-2020 09:56