Originally Published: 23 June, 2012.
One of my favourite Dylan songs is ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ from his masterpiece ‘Blonde on Blonde’. It is one of Dylan’s most lyrically brilliant songs and illustrates his poetic genius. Dylan himself considers it to be one of his finest works.
Goddesses are a constant theme throughout Dylan’s work. Dylan’s work is steeped in biblical imagery. Both these themes are explored in ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. In ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ Dylan creates his ideal woman; ‘saint-like’, mystical and unobtainable. He establishes the lady in the tradition of a religious icon with ‘your silver cross’ and ‘voice like chimes’ emphasising her angelic, ethereal qualities.
Christopher Ricks suggests ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ is inspired by the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament. Ricks argues Ezekiel is the ‘sad-eyed prophet’ (Ezekiel 13:1). He suggests Dylan’s lyrics ‘Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes’ and ‘Should I leave them by your gate’ are based upon Ezekiel 44:2; ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it.’ Ricks suggests the phrase ‘My warehouse eyes’ is based upon the statements in Ezekiel which label Tyrus, ‘thy merchant by reason of the multitude of the wares of thy making’ (Ezekiel 27:16). Ricks argues the title of the song is based upon chapter twenty six of Ezekiel where ‘the pride of Tyrus is brought low, for Tyrus will be set “in the low parts of the earth” (26:10), the low lands.’ It is also worth bearing in mind that Joan Baez sang a traditional folk song called ‘Lowlands’.
Now the million dollar question: Who is the Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands? It has been argued that the title is a play on Sara Lownds, who would become Dylan’s first wife. Dylan often played on names for poetic effect and to create a sense of mystery. Other examples include, ‘Visions of Johanna’, perhaps a play on Joan as in Joan Baez and ‘Queen Jane Approximately’, again a play on Joan Baez but this time on her being the Queen of Folk. For my part I see images that are about both these women.
There are many lyrics in the song which conjure in my mind images of Joan Baez. The most striking image of Joan Baez in the song is ‘voice like chimes’. How could that be anyone else? Another image of Baez is ‘your silver cross’ as Joan famously wore a signature silver cross throughout the 60s. The phrase ‘matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns’ also conjures up images of Joan Baez. The ‘Arabian drums’ could been seen as referencing the time Joan Baez spent in Iraq as a child.
The lines ‘The kings of Tyrus with their convict list’ and ‘the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide, To show you the dead angels that they used to hide, But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?’ could be seen as a references to Joan Baez’s tireless work on behalf of the underdog. ‘With your mercury mouth in the missionary times’ is also evocative of Joan Baez; ‘missionary times’ could be a reference to Joan’s characteristic missionary devocation to social causes whilst ‘mercury mouth’ conjures the image of her majectic, otherworldly voice.
Another image which is suggestive of Joan is ‘Spanish manners’. I always felt the image ‘cowboy mouth’ was reminiscent of Joan Baez too. Judy Collins said of Joan Baez, ‘There was that hurt in her eyes, and her voice soared like saints rising.' This comment pretty much sums up ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’.
Similarly there are many images which can be seen to be alluding to Sara Lownds. The most striking of these is ‘sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row’ as it is believed Sara’s father was a scrap metal dealer. The phrase ‘your magazine-husband’ appears to be a blatant put-down of Sara’s husband, Hans Lownds who was a magazine photographer. Sara Dylan had a signature necklace which may be the inspiration for the ‘holy medallion’ in the song. Observers said that what was most striking about Sara’s beauty was her sad eyes.
In ‘Sara’, dedicated to Sara, Dylan states ‘Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you’. However writing something for someone does not necessarily mean that every line is about them. Most likely the song is an evocation of an idealised goddess inspired by different people and images.
 Christopher Ricks, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) p. 104
 Judy Collins, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, (New York: Random House, 2011), p. 71