Notes

Why Is Bob Dylan Serenading A Hen Called Lady?

Lay, Lady, Lay

Lay, lady, lay; lay across my big brass bed

So begins the classic Bob Dylan song.

What is going on here? Surely I’m not the only one baffled by these mysterious lyrics, curious about this intriguing relationship?

No, not mysterious, some might say, Dylan is merely asking his human paramour to position herself horizontally across the bed.

But no! Think again. For if he were, he would sing

Lie, lady, lie; lie across my big brass bed

Rather, he’s asking the object of his song to lay, not lie. And the only sentient being I can think of that’s capable of laying is a hen. Which suggests that ‘Lady’ must be a particularly beguiling piece of poultry.

If we take the song literally, then perhaps we have here a man who simply wants his eggs close at hand upon waking, who likes a snappy whipping up of of his breakfast omelet.

But Dylan is a deep songwriter, and it’s likely we must probe deeper for the true meaning.

My own theory is that ‘Lady’ represents the muse, that fecund bestower of creative inspiration, who lays ‘eggs’, or ideas and insights giving life and resonance to an artist’s work, on the artist’s ‘bed’, his subconscious, where he dreams, the source of all his art. Dylan is asking his muse to bring forth her creative gifts while he rests, so he can awake refreshed with ideas, and ready to work.

Another classic song misunderstood for its use of the word lay is Eric Clapton’s Lay Down Sally.

Lay down, Sally, no need to leave so soon

The misconception is that Clapton is telling a girl named Sally to rest herself, prone, on a supporting surface.

But if that were his meaning then the lyric would be

Lie down, Sally, no need to leave so soon

No, he is not talking to Sally, he’s talking to a person carrying Sally.

As with Dylan’s song, a literal meaning presents itself. ‘Sally’ could be a baby, or a puppy, or a disturbing life-sized anime pillow that the song’s addressee takes everywhere. For the love of Pete put Sally down, says Clapton, let’s catch up!

But again, we expect more of Clapton, and can find a deeper meaning.

I believe ‘Sally’ represents the emotional baggage we all carry around, the fear and self-doubt and bad memories that can stop a burgeoning relationship before it even has a chance to get started. Clapton is asking his would-be lover, or perhaps he’s asking all of us, to release our history and defensiveness, to simply put it down, to let it go, to be open to the now.

We’ll probably never know what these musical geniuses were thinking when they penned these songs.

Then again, they’re both still alive – we could just ask them.

Or we could take a leaf out of their lyrics notebooks and simply ponder the questions for ourselves, not seeking certainly, but instead believing that the answer is blowing in the wind.

Image: Red Hen by kara under CC by 2.0

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