Westerns over Science Fiction: A Look at a Limitless World Through Songs

When I was little I never liked westerns. I thought they were boring. They didn’t have spaceships or new planets, and worst of all, they took place in the past. Yuck. I always went for more Star Wars replays over watching a dated Western. Even the combination of western and sci-fi, the 3rd Back to the Future movie, was a bummer for me as a kid (and still is, sort of). And now, as I age, I realize westerns might be more dear to me– because they take place here, on Earth. I think the magic of westerns comes from the “anything is possible” framwork of the chaotic Old West. But it’s an “anything is possible” within boundaries– there are still deeds, and laws, and justice. And only a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of beaucracy (which is always vilified). I think we’re attracted to westerns on an unconscious level because they take place in nature, and in a version of America hasn’t yet turned into Pavement-Land. It certainly appears that living in the present was a whole lot easier when adventuring in frontier territory.

I grew to love westerns as I came into adulthood. I’m realizing now, it was thanks to music, and not TV or movies. I’m still not completely taken with western movies or TV shows. HBO’s Deadwood is the closest I’ve come to really being taken by show set in the West (the show is essentially Game of Thrones without the dragons and it’s set in an Old West frontier town. Also explicit like Game of Thrones).

Now I can recognize that I have Bob Dylan to thank for my love of the Old West. And Josh Ritter, too.

I found Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in late college years. I remember buying the album, thinking “Everyone says this guy is good but I can’t get a grip on him. This is your last chance, Bob.” Well, in case you ever need to know, Blood on the Tracks is the greatest Bob Dylan album, peroid-point-blank.

There’s a song on the album called Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. It’s a long song, clocking in at almost 9 minutes. And there’s no chorus, just a series of verses. But Bob Dylan weaves together this musical short story, that’s vague and full of vibrant characters at the same time.

As far as I can tell, the song decipts a cabaret show, a game of poker (of course), a bank heist, a love triangle, a murder, a hanging, and lovers riding off into the sunset. Phew, is that all?

And it’s all involving this engamtic character only referred to as the Jack of Hearts. But it sounds like he’s all of the Ocean’s 11 characters rolled into one person. He sweeps the young damsel off her feet, stands up to the town’s rich-man-bully, masterminds a bank heist in the background, and escapes cleanly with his new love.

Dylan’s masterful talent at painting characters is on full display on this song. Take Lilly:

Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child
She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled
She’d come away from a broken home, had lots of strange affairs
With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere
But she’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts

Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, Bob Dylan

And then Rosemary:

Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife
She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife
She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide
Was lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died
She was gazin’ to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts

Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts by Bob Dylan

The full lyrics are below. To me, it reads like a story, even without a melody (but this might be because this song is ingrained into my DNA). Also, legend has it that the frantic harmonica playing at the beginning of the song is because Bob Dylan accidently picked a harmoica in the wrong key. The up-and-down harmoica scales are him trying to find the right notes for the key of the song.

Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts by Bob Dylan, lyrics:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

He moved across the mirrored room, “Set it up for everyone,” he said
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin’ before he turned their heads
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin“Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?”Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts

Backstage the girls were playin’ five-card stud by the stairs
Lily had two queens, she was hopin’ for a third to match her pair
Outside the streets were fillin’ up, the window was open wide
A gentle breeze was blowin’, you could feel it from inside
Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine
He made his usual entrance lookin’ so dandy and so fine
With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place
He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste
But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts

Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town
She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown
She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear
“Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,” but he didn’t seem to hear
He was starin’ into space over at the Jack of Hearts

“I know I’ve seen that face before,” Big Jim was thinkin’ to himself
“Maybe down in Mexico or a picture up on somebody’s shelf”
But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the houselights did dim
And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him
Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts

Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child
She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled
She’d come away from a broken home, had lots of strange affairs
With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere
But she’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts

The hangin’ judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined
The drillin’ in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind
It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring
And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king
No, nothin’ ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts

Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife
She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife
She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide
Was lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died
She was gazin’ to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts

Lily washed her face, took her dress off and buried it away
“Has your luck run out?” she laughed at him, “Well, I guess you must have known it would someday
Be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand-new coat of paint
I’m glad to see you’re still alive, you’re lookin’ like a saint.”
Down the hallway footsteps were comin’ for the Jack of Hearts

The backstage manager was pacing all around by his chair
“There’s something funny going on,” he said, “I can just feel it in the air”
He went to get the hangin’ judge, but the hangin’ judge was drunk
As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk
There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts

Lily’s arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch
She forgot all about the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much“I’ve missed you so,” she said to him, and he felt she was sincere
But just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts

No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick
The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked
And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised
Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes
She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts

Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
And cleaned out the bank safe, it’s said that they got off with quite a haul
In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town
But they couldn’t go no further without the Jack of Hearts

The next day was hangin’ day, the sky was overcast and black
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn’t even blink
The hangin’ judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink
The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts

The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, “Closed for repair”
Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair
She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw
Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary and thinkin’ about the law
But most of all she was thinkin’ ’bout the Jack of Hearts


My love of westerns continues with Josh Ritter’s Lillian, Egypt. This song is from his 2006 album The Animal Years. The Animal Years is the best album of this millennium so far. Even Stephen King agrees (kind of). I feel like this song is a nod to Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. The song begins with the protagonist and his love interest (“the daughter of the biggest big town banker”) but she falls under the sway of a Hollywood “movie man” who ends up making the protagonist the role of the villian in his silent movies.

Even the title, Lillian, Egypt, has to be some sort of nod to Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts and the character of Lillian / Lily. The protagonist ends up being an actor, where in Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, the protagonist dresses up and plays as a monk as some point.

I wonder if the ” La di-di da da da da da da daLa di-di da da da da da da da” of the chorus is supposed to conjure a Native American link. There’s a certain cadence to the way he sings it that sounds like a Native American chant.

Similar to Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, our protagonist rides off into the sunset with his love. The tune is entirely different than Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. It’s a jangley romp with killer western-piano breakdowns.

Lillian, Egypt music video by Josh Ritter

Full lyrics to Lillian, Egypt by Josh below:

I remember back in Illinois, I found her
The lily of the valley, the lily of the West was a rose
The daughter of the biggest big town banker
He kept her like a princess, I stole her like the Fort Knox gold

She used to pour Four Roses like it’s goin’ down the chimney
Like the bottle was on fire, the boiler was about to blow
She’s up on the table when we hit Missouri
Dancin’ with a movie man, he’s holding her a little too close

[Chorus]
La di-di da da da da da da daLa di-di da da da da da da da

He made her the star of the silent movies
But all she did was mouth the words, all she did was mouth the words, “Oh no!”
And cast me as the villain, as the sheriff’s worst enemy
I practiced falling off of buildings and out windows

[Chorus]

The last time I saw she was tied to the train tracks
I was up there with the extras, riding on a tiger roan
The villain on the left with the studio mustache
Winkin’ at Lillian, blowing kisses from the second row


Now, thanks to music, I take in westerns with open fascination. I usually prefer them over another mundane money-grab sci-fi “space opera.” I watch The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with a nostalgia for a past I never really belonged to. There is a certain freedom found in the fictional rememberance of that time. It’s like watching a movie while sitting on the edge of the inside.

Author: johncatoe

Recovering from brain surgery. Dealing with metastatic melanoma. Hoping to build some community and maybe help people out in someway.

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