One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee 'fore I go
To the valley below
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Saints Maries de la Mer, France, Sunrise at the Beach. Thanks, Wolfgang Staudt
Bob Dylan attended a Romani (the people commonly referred to as gypsies) celebration in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France, for his 34th birthday. The experience made a powerful impression on him.
"I'll never forget this one man played Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber!" Dylan said of the event.
The celebration was being held for Saint Sarah, also known as Sarah the Black (Sara-la-Kali
in Romani) or Kali Sara, patron saint of the Romani people. Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the saint's holy place, owing to the legend of her arrival.
Legend has it that Sarah was a black Egyptian maid of Lazarus and his three sisters, the Three Marys, who all arrived at the location in the year 42 in flight of persecution of Christians. Sarah often collected alms from the people, which led to the mistaken idea she was a gypsy.
Another version of Saint Sarah's origins has her already living in the area that is now Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. She received a vision that the saints present at Jesus' crucifixion would be coming. She went to the shore, and sure enough there were the Three Marys. This important event marked the transition from Romani practicing polytheism to practicing monotheism.
Every May 24th, which is also Dylan's birthday, the Romani people honor Saint Sarah by carrying her statue down to the sea and reenacting her arrival to France.
Ritual Bath of the Gypsies, c 2006. (Thanks, Fiore S. Barbato)
As Dylan was preparing to leave the celebration, his hosts asked if he'd like anything else. Dylan responded that he'd like a cup of coffee for the road. The Romani gave Dylan the coffee and he looked down at the ocean, "And it was like looking at it in the valley below where I was standing."
Before getting carried away assuming this was a literal retelling of that experience, keep in mind that Dylan is rarely ever so obvious. He also said in 1991 that the "verses came from someplace else," and that "'valley below' could mean anything."
So the celebration was more of a jump-off point to the song than the literal subject matter.
Today, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the second largest "commune" in France, with the term commune being roughly the French equivalent of a US township or municipality.
In "One More Cup of Coffee," Dylan discusses his love for a mysterious, exotic (to Americans) woman whose "voice is like a meadowlark" and whose "heart is like an ocean, mysterious and dark."
Again, it's never safe to take Dylan's music too literally, and just as the "valley below" can be anything, so too can the girl. She may be an embodiment of the Romani people, a symbol for love and death all wrapped up into one, or just about anything else. That's how Dylan's art works, and probably why his music continues to captivate and fascinate listeners. He leaves things ambiguous.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He writes for The Prague Revue, and has a blog about Pacific Northwest travel (Northwest Nomad.com). He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com.
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