Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts

Album: Blood On The Tracks (1975)


  • This song, which comes in at just under nine minutes, is well known for its rather befuddling plot. While Bob Dylan fans, nor Songfacts, are yet to come to a fixed decision on its one true meaning, this is what we have managed to decipher: The song is occupied by multiple archaic characters, including the enigmatic bank robber, "Jack of Hearts." This charming rogue seduces two women, "Lily" and "Rosemary," both of whom are romantically linked to "Big Jim," the wealthiest, greediest man in town. Big Jim is ultimately murdered by Rosemary, who is subsequently hung for her crime. Meanwhile, Jack of Hearts escapes into the night having accomplished his robbery, leaving Lily alone to ponder the events that have taken place.

    Dylan is yet to comment on the plot, so debate continues to rage about the true meaning behind the song. Some fans have suggested Jack of Hearts is an embodiment of our closet criminal desires. Others argue Lily, Rosemary and Jack of Hearts are three facets of one individual and that the song therefore represents the struggle we have with social identity. Some claim gambling metaphors are used to represent abstract ideas of coincidence and fate. Others think the song is criticizing justice systems. Then there are a select few fans who think it's just a simple song about a simple bank robbery!
  • The song's vivid plot inspired two screen plays - one that was commissioned by Dylan and written by John Kaye, and a second written by James Byron. Neither were made into a film.
  • Dylan called up folk singer, Joan Baez, about this track. Baez told The Huffington Post: "He read me the entire lyrics to 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' that he'd just finished from a phone booth in the Midwest." The phone call prompted Baez to write "Diamonds & Rust," which is about the relationship she had with Dylan in the '60s. Baez said she later lied to Dylan that "Diamonds and Rust" was about her husband, David Harris.
  • Blood on the Tracks is Bob Dylan's 15th album and widely considered to be one of his greatest works. The album peaked at #1 on the US charts. At the time of its release, Dylan was separating from his then-wife, Sara Dylan. This personal turmoil is said to been the inspiration behind many of the album's songs. Dylan would later deny this, instead claiming the album took inspiration from Anton Chekhov's short stories. In 2003, Blood on the Tracks was ranked at #16 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
  • Dylan accidentally used the wrong harmonica during recording, so it is a bit off-key.
  • The lone live performance Dylan ever did for this song was on May 25, 1976, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He wrote some of the lyrics on his sleeve in case he forgot them mid-performance.

Comments: 17

  • Amber from ColoradoA few things to look up:
    “Diamond Jim” Brady
    “Diamond Lill” Davenport and Lillian Russell (I believe Lily is a mash-up of these two
    And fortune-telling with playing cards: The Jack of Hearts indicates s fair haired, friendly young man.
    Also note the symbolism of the diamonds and hearts as card suites.
    Those are a few of the clues that I picked up on. I think this song is loosely based on real characters. Any thoughts on Rosemary?
  • Tim Pollard from S. Central TexasBlack Queen - Steve Stills - about a poker game.
  • Cleveland Steve from OhioLily and The Jack cannot be the same person. For one thing, it is clear that Big Jim is having an affair with Lily:

    "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."

    For another thing, Lily is playing cards on the stairs with the other girls when The Jack is in the front of the cabaret being scrutinized by Jim:

    "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."

    Finally, she was still at the cabaret after The Jack had left town:

    "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."
  • Raymond Bullock from Somerset Tasmania AustraliaDriving along a road one night with this song pumping out loud on car music deck was an experience I still remember some 37 years ago.
    That pumping vocal and beat made the stone I was also having one of the most enjoyable moments in my life.
  • Mark Simpson from AustraliaThis is my interpretation of the song..

    The festival was over, the boys were all plannin' for a fall?
    The festival to celebrate the end of the civil war was over and the “boys” were planning for an economic downfall because now slavery was outlawed there businesses shut down and they would have to go out and work for there money.

    The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin' in the wall?
    later the drilling in the wall will be referenced to a bank robbery 2 doors down.?

    The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin' wheel shut down
    A war induced curfew had been lifted in the town and the gambling wheel shut down due to a lack of money.

    ?Anyone with any sense had already left town?
    The festival was over so nothing more exciting is happening in town.?

    He was standin' in the doorway lookin' like the Jack of Hearts?
    Unsure of who “he/it” is however.. Jack of Hearts will later be a reference to Gambling with romance and the consequences. (Jack) referencing to the gambling card “Jack of Hearts” and (Hearts) referring to what is being gambled which is romance / or hearts. Or simply referring to an unfaithful desire of betrayal.

    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?
    The backstage manager organising the night's show. Stressing the stage won't be ready on time.?

    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?”
    ?The backstage manager asked a worker backstage what time the show begins, giving the impression to hurry up and get his job done.?

    Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts?
    Backstage manager then disappeared from the scene leaving only a disliked impression in everyone's mind.?

    Backstage the girls were playin' five-card stud by the stairs?
    The performers (the girls) were playing five-card stud (a style of poker invented in the civil war) backstage before the show.?

    Lily had two queens, she was hopin' for a third to match her pair?
    First introduction of the first character “Lily” . Setting the scene of what is going on backstage.

    ??Outside the streets were fillin' up, the window was open wide
    A gentle breeze was blowin', you could feel it from inside
    ?Setting the scene of how it must have felt inside the cabaret.?

    Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts?
    As Lily was gambling Backstage with the girls she caught a glimpse of Big Jim entering the cabaret. Instantly she felt an attraction or desire for him.?

    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?
    First mention of Big Jim. Instantly describing him as a rich powerful well presented man.?

    He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste?
    Big Jim was greedy wasteful and didn’t have much respect for others.?

    But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts
    ?It doesn’t matter how powerful one is they are still able to be caught up in romantic heartbreak and cannot be immune from the consequences it may bring.

    Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town
    First mention of Rosemary later to be reviled as Big Jim’s wife.?
    She slipped in through the side door lookin' like a queen without a crown?Rosemary was late to the performance. She looked pretty but also looked emotionally flat.

    She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear
    "Sorry, darlin', that I'm late, " but he didn't seem to hear?Rosemary wanted attention from her husband (Big Jim) but was ignored by her distracted husband.

    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”
    Big Jim was in a deep daydream fantasising about Lilly after catching a glimpse of her backstage ( possibly caught her eye)?He also recognised her and realised / pretty sure they had been together before.

    ?But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim
    And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him?
    The start of the show. Applause and the lights dimmed, however Jim was still fantasising about Lily. “Him” referring to the jack of hearts (Jim’s unfaithful desire for Lily)?

    Starin' at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts?
    Tho Big Jim could no longer see Lily he was still staring at the mental image of her in his mind. He referred to Lily as a Butterfly, being delicate and pretty.?

    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 introduction of Lily. Instantly describing her as a pretty delicate young hard working woman with an attractive smile and a mysterious life. Lily has had boyfriends from all walks of life but never anyone like she imagined Big Jim to be.?In Lily’s eyes Big Jim is described as the Jack of Hearts because she knows he has a wife yet she still desires him therefor this is an unfaithful desire.?

    ?The hangin' judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined
    ?First mention of the hanging judge.?

    The drillin' in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind
    The drilling (bank robbery) was still going unnoticed.

    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?
    Everyone had an idea that Big Jim was deeply infatuated by Lily. The only way this could change is if something bad was to happen to one of them.?

    Rosemary started drinkin' hard and seein' her reflection in the knife
    ?Rosemary realised Big Jim was infatuated with another woman this upset her and she started heavily drinking and getting emotional. She was staring at her reflection in a knife then the idea came to her to kill Big Jim.?

    She was tired of the attention, tired of playin' the role of Big Jim's wife?
    Rosemary didn’t like the “High Life” that Big Jim lived. She felt as if she was merely co-existing alongside Big Jim.

    She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide
    Was lookin' to do just one good deed before she died?
    Rosemary was thinking about how she could get revenge on Big Jim. The revenge is the good deed.
    She was gazin' to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts?
    Rosemary daydreaming about her future hoping that revenge by killing Big Jim would make her finally feel better.?

    Lily 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?
    Lily has now got Big Jim alone and getting undressed whilst laughing at the fact that Rosemary is no longer in the picture. Rosemary now knows that Big Jim is having an affair and Big Jim's luck has run out because he has been caught cheating.??

    Be careful not to touch the wall, there's a brand-new coat of paint?
    Lily telling Big Jim not to leave any evidence that he was with her because she doesn’t want everyone to know what they had been up to.

    I'm glad to see you're still alive, you're lookin' like a saint”
    Lily is glad Big Jim is still alive… lightheartedly saying Rosemary hasn’t killed him for his betrayal. In Lily's eyes he can do no wrong by her.

    ??Down the hallway footsteps were comin' for the Jack of Hearts
    ?Revenge is just around the corner for the betrayal.?

    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"?
    Lily was nowhere to be seen and this is out of character for her, this gave the backstage manager a feeling something funny was going on.??

    He went to get the hangin' judge, but the hangin' judge was drunk
    ?Went to see if a judge had a feeling that something funny was going on also (professional opinion) but got no reassurance as he was drunk.?

    As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk?
    Possibly the Monk costume refers to Lily simply returning quietly and Innocently as if she was never gone whilst the backstage manager was out. ?

    There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts
    ?To be deceitful you need to be a good actor.?

    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
    ?A bank robber found Big Jim in the dressing room and wanted revenge on him possibly for some dodgy business they had done. However he did not kill Big Jim because Rosemary would have been a witness. Rosemary had already found Big Jim in the dressing room.?

    She was with Big Jim but she was leanin' to the Jack of Hearts?
    Rosemary was married to Big Jim but she was leaning towards her desires of revenge.?

    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
    ?The bank robbery was complete referring back to the drilling in the wall.?

    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 robbers were waiting for there other member who was meant to kill Big Jim.They couldn’t go any further without fulfilling their desire to kill him.??

    The next day was hangin' day, the sky was overcast and black
    Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back
    ?Rosemary had stabbed Big Jim in the back with her knife.?

    And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn't even blink
    ?Rosemary was given the death penalty for killing Big Jim but she didn’t seem to care as she felt she had satisfied her desire.?

    The hangin' judge was sober, he hadn't had a drink
    ?The scene is now serious. Coincidentally the hanging judge was at the cabaret where the murder happened.

    ??The only person on the scene missin' was the Jack of Hearts
    ?Everyone from the cabaret the night before was at the hanging, coincidence maybe? everyones desires had been fulfilled therefore there was no Jack of Hearts.?

    The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, "Closed for repair"?
    The cabaret was now a murder scene and was being discreetly cleaned up.?

    Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair
    ?Lily felt as tho she didn’t want to be recognised as somebody involved in Big Jim’s death so she changed her look. ?

    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
    ?Lily was thinking about life and how it had recently all gone wrong. Also she was thinking about Rosemary’s criminal revenge on Big Jim and his murder.
  • Doug from HomeAnd the back stage manager knew something was wrong since he watched Big Jim and Rosemary walk back to the dressing room, rosemary holding a knife. While he was getting the hanging judge, Lily snuck past in another disguise before taking the identity back as the Jack of Hearts
  • Doug from HomeI could be wrong but I think Lily and the Jack of hearts are the same person. Lily left home young and became a gang leader known as her Alias, the Jack of Hearts. Big Jim is Lily's father and he hounded her as a child before remarrying Rosemary, who Lilly couldn't treat as her new mother. Lily made a plan to come back home to rob her father and kill him that night. She dresses up as a dancer so she can get Jim alone in the back room without his bodyguards. They are no match for his daughter. And it's known all around that lily has his ring or heart. Jim loves her and misses her but Doesn't know what she had planned that night. Big Jim knew he recognized her and realized when the lights got dim she was his "butterfly" or daughter or princess. Jim asked her if her luck ran out since she came back, but she just laughed at him leaving him oblivious. It does make sense that she didn't want him to touch the wall and feel the vibrations of the drilling. When Lily hugged him she told him she missed him and that's when she stabbed him in the back. Then rosemary who was considering killing him herself, kicked in the door to find him already dead, hence why he was not surprised. Lilly was the one with the revolver caulking and pointing it at rosemary, who was seen walking to their room with a knife. Rosemary sat staring at Jim and let Lily sneak out undetected. Lily disguised herself as the Jack of hearts again and met up with the gang on the river. Rosemary didn't kill Jim, but since she wanted to do it, she let them hang her no contest. Lily riding off into the distance starts thinking of all the things and people from that night but most of all she's thinking about the jack of hearts, or her new life. Ya think?
  • Muriel from NevadaThe gambling and general vibe point to this being set in the West. When I first heard the song, I immediately thought Big Jim referred to Diamond Jim Brady, legendary in Nevada for his prodigious appetite. A "Brady cut" in Las Vegas is a double thick serving of prime rib. He was in a longtime relationship with the singer Lilian Russell, which also seems to fit the song.
  • Ken from Levittown, NyIt's one of the greatest "story" songs ever! It shows that Dylan is not just a songwriter
  • Cynthia from Shanghai, ChinaI think this song is related to Dylan's movie Renaldo and Clara. Lily is Sara, Rosemary is Joan Baez, Big Jim or Jack of Hearts represents Dylan himself. According to Mel Howard, Sara and Joan are opposing forces, in different mythological guises, Joan as a certain kind of energy, Sara as a different kind of energy, and Dylan in between, being attracted to both.
  • Steve from Philadelphia, PaIn a way, Dylan reprised the Jack of Hearts character years later in the form of the Monkey Man in Tweeter and the Monkey Man with the Traveling Wilburys.
  • Niles from Belpre, OhI first saw the "blood on the tracks" album at a friends house I had to run out and buy it.
    I still have it
  • Guy from Woodinville, WaWhat a great story! I feel like I'm attending a full-length Technicolor western movie when I listen to this! I remember when Blood on the Tracks was released--it was such a fine (spectacular!) album from Dylan after a real dry spell. This song is definitely one of the highlights.
  • Billy J from San Antonio, TxJoan Baez cover is really good,that was the first time I heard the song,back in the folk music days
  • Peter from Stockholm, Swedenthis is like a short novel, compressed. For every character he describes, he leavs clues for their history and goals and failures. This is Dylan as a great storyteller !
  • Josh from London, Englandone of my FAVOURITE songs!
    did u know it is the longest song of bob dylans!!! ( song with the most words!)
  • Greg from Paris, MiTo me, the Jack of Hearts represents something in people that allows them to step above their normal social confinements. This lets the characters do things they normally wouldn't do, ie. kill Big Jim, rob the bank safe. And no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts... acting is stepping outside of who you actually are. And when the Jack of Hearts is missing, everyone and everything is as it normally would be, the Hanging Judge being sober and all, and Lily can't do anything, the Jack of Hearts can no longer help her.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Strange Magnetics

Strange MagneticsSong Writing

How Bing Crosby, Les Paul, a US Army Signal Corps Officer, and the Nazis helped shape rock and Roll.

Dan Reed

Dan ReedSongwriter Interviews

Dan cracked the Top 40 with "Ritual," then went to India and spent 2 hours with the Dalai Lama.

Kerry Livgren of Kansas

Kerry Livgren of KansasSongwriter Interviews

In this talk from the '80s, the Kansas frontman talks turning to God and writing "Dust In The Wind."

Director Mark Pellington ("Jeremy," "Best Of You")

Director Mark Pellington ("Jeremy," "Best Of You")Song Writing

Director Mark Pellington on Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," and music videos he made for U2, Jon Bon Jovi and Imagine Dragons.

Mike Scott of The Waterboys

Mike Scott of The WaterboysSongwriter Interviews

The stories behind "Whole Of The Moon" and "Red Army Blues," and why rock music has "outlived its era of innovation."

Rock Revenge Songs

Rock Revenge SongsMusic Quiz

John Lennon, Paul Simon and Lynyrd Skynyrd are some of the artists who have written revenge songs. Do you know who they wrote them about?