King of France

Scheherazade is the major female character and the storyteller in the framing narrative for One Thousand and One Nights also known as Arabian Nights, the essential collection of stories from the Middle East. As the framing story goes, the ruler of the land finds out that his wife has been unfaithful and vows revenge by marrying, bedding, and subsequently killing all of the virgins in the kingdom. This happens over and over again until the king’s servant cannot find any more virgins for the king besides his own daughter, Scheherazade. She volunteers to marry the king, and, on their wedding night, begins to tell the king a long story. When morning comes, Scheherazade has not finished her tale and so the king puts off her execution in order to hear the conclusion of the story. That pattern is repeated: Scheherazade tells story after story to keep the king entertained and stay off her own death. This happens over one thousand and one nights, thereby saving the land from the king. The stories she tells include classics such as “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” and many more.

Scheherazade is understood to be literature’s greatest storyteller, which she needed to be in order to keep the king enthralled and save her own life. High stakes indeed. Scheherazade is a provocative analogy to Bob Dylan and the creation of The Basement Tapes. From June to October 1967, Dylan and members of what would soon become known as The Band holed up to make music together. Over the course of that time, they performed 138 total songs. Accounting for the alternate takes, they recorded 115 distinct songs. 

None of these songs were recorded to be released by Columbia Records as the music made during this time was a sort of workshop, covering songs by other artists that might inspire new songs to be written. But most of all, the making of this music was an end to itself. Dylan and The Band were making music simply for the joy of making music. Fortunately, the tape recorder was rolling to capture it, but often the recording was an afterthought. Sometimes the music created was deathly serious and other times it was a group of people having the times of their lives.

The time of The Basement Tapes is at the very beginning of The Band finding their collective voice. Soon after, they would tell their own stories and start their own career, independent from Dylan. But for The Basement Tapes recordings, Dylan was the main songwriter, storyteller, and instigator for the music. The only goal for him during this time was to create something new with his friends and experiment. It was a clubhouse and a workshop. There was no expectation of public consumption for this work. It was creating art as an end to itself, to entertain himself and the others in the room. With The Basement Tapes, Dylan is both Scheherazade and the king. He is creating music and telling stories to enthrall himself and to keep himself alive from his own compulsions.

We know from the title that The Basement Tapes refers to recordings made in the basement of Big Pink, the house that several members of The Band rented near Dylan’s home. The first Basement Tapes songs capture Dylan and The Band recording music in the so-called “Red Room” in Hi Lo Ha, Dylan’s mansion in the Byrdcliffe section of Woodstock, NY. At some point, Sara Dylan must have said to her husband: “I love that you are writing and making music and hanging out with your friends, but does it have to happen in our home?” Who can blame her.

From the rough recording, it is assumed that the song “King of France” dates to the earliest recordings of The Basement Tapes in the Red Room:

The extreme distortion of the recording shows that Garth Hudson, The Band’s keyboard player, was still learning the art and science of recording. It’s nearly impossible to understand the words that Dylan is singing and even what instruments are being played. There may be an electric piano and a bass playing as the song starts and even a little percussion. The sound is reminiscent of a sidewalk performer, strapped into a device of their own making, which enables the playing of multiple instruments at the same time by one person. Eventually, Robbie Robertson enters on electric guitar to provide fanatical rockabilly guitar.

This sound of “King of France” is the sound of Hasil Adkins, the West Virginian outsider rockabilly musician who loved Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. According to his New York Times obituary:

“He had heard Hank Williams and others on the radio and had assumed that the one named musician in the band played all the instruments himself.”

Adkins set out to do the same, playing guitar and drums at the same time in his earliest recordings, chasing the idea of a monster sound created by a single individual all at once. Listen to Adkins’s song “Chicken Walk” to hear the same feel as “King of France”:

Be careful: if you listen to this music while driving, your car’s gas tank will explode. Let’s hear one more Hail Adkins song for good measure:

The words that Dylan is singing on “King of France” are hard to determine. Another reason we can’t make out the words is because Dylan is probably making the words up as he goes along. For his book The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus asked Robbie Robertson about the song, and Robbie answered:

“I’m not sure it is a song.”

If “King of France” is a song, it is a song in its rawest form. It purportedly tells the story about the King of France, who is coming to the USA to tell everybody “what it’s all about.” There have been a few brave souls who have attempted a transcription of the words that Dylan is singing in “King of France.” All of them are right and none of them are right. It almost doesn’t matter what the words are because the sounds that Dylan makes fit the context of this quasi-rockabilly framing so well.

For “King of France,” Dylan adopts a specific character for the narrator of the song; it’s not actually the King of France, but the one who tells you about the King of France and what will happen when he arrives. The narrator is the King of France’s hype man, a term from hip-hop culture. In Mickey Hess’s ​​Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture, he explains that a hype man is

“a figure who plays a central but supporting role within a group, making his own interventions, generally aimed at hyping up the crowd while also drawing attention to the words of the MC.”

The hype man says: “Let me tell you a story ’bout the King of France / When he come to the USA.” There are references to a crowd and how they should “bow down to him” since “he knows what it’s all about.” The hype man/narrator finishes the song with: “But I wagered time and rolled another crime.” Why did he do this? “And now they know what it’s all about.” The hype man is in on it with the King of France to ensure the crowd is hearing what he has to say.

Who is the King of France? The last official monarch of France was Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon, who ruled France as Emperor until 1870. As of the performance of the song in 1967, there was no monarchy in France, though there must have been someone claiming themself as a rightful heir to the French throne through murky familial claims. In The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus has two thoughts about the source of the song’s conceit. The first is Child Ballad 164 – “King Henry Fifth’s Conquest of France” – which tells the story of the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War in which Henry V seeks tribute from France and, in return, the King of France sends “three tennis-balls, that with them you may learn to play.” According to the fictionalized story of the ballad, Henry then marches on France, killing “ten thousand of the French” and forcing the King of France to send a new and rightful tribute:

Ten ton of gold that is due to he,
And the finest flower that is in all France
To the Rose of England I will give free.

Listen to Richard Thompson perform his own version of “King Henry V’s Conquest of France”:

If “King of France” is indebted to Child Ballad 164, Dylan has rethought the idea of the song with the King of France exacting revenge on the tennis ball incident by traveling to the New World and laying waste to the USA – the former colony of England – by telling the assembled crowd “what it’s all about.”

The other supposition by Greil Marcus is that “King of France” is a reference to the Duke and the King sequence in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this part of the novel, the Huck and Jim take on two obvious liars, who, sensing an opportunity with the young boy and the runaway enslaved man on the raft, pass themselves off as the English Duke of Bridgewater and the Dauphin. If this man is truly the Dauphin, he is the rightful King of France. When the so-called Dauphin “reveals” his “true” identity, the Duke – not wanting to lose his own advantage – calls it into question:

“You! At your age! No! You mean you’re the late Charlemagne; you must be six or seven hundred years old, at the very least.”

“Trouble has done it, Bilgewater, trouble has done it; trouble has brung these gray hairs and this premature balditude. Yes, gentlemen, you see before you, in blue jeans and misery, the wanderin’, exiled, trampled-on, and sufferin’ rightful King of France.

These two con men decide to join forces and go on to conduct various money-making schemes to trick various townspeople along the river. The ruses include painting Jim blue and calling him the “Sick Arab” and performing “The Royal Nonesuch” in another location. The grifters from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fit the hype man characteristics of the narrator from “King of France.” With each of their schemes, both the Duke and the King are promoting each other and their plans to take advantage of the naive townsfolk. In pulling off their scam show, “The Royal Nonesuch,” the Dauphin says, “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

Similarly, the narrator of “King of France” is pulling off his own confidence game, trying to get his own majority in town by boasting of the King of France’s exploits, “Over telephone and five hundred wars.” Sensing doubt, the narrator of the song says, “What other would I tell you so?” And then the hype man commands:

So bow to him for the proud of men
Buddy, from here to Mexico.

Reading into the lyrics of “King of France” — such as they are — are fraught because Dylan is improvising and playing with the sound of the words. The hype man concept is something that Dylan returns to in other Basement Tapes songs. Listen to “Tiny Montgomery”:

The audio recording in this song is much more audible so we can assume that this performance is later in The Basement Tapes period. It’s not clear if Dylan is deliberately building off of “King of France” for “Tiny Montgomery,” but there are similarities between the two songs. For all its nonsense wordplay, “Tiny Montgomery” is probably composed ahead of the performance, as opposed to “King of France,” which is improvised in the moment. In “Tiny Montgomery,” Dylan is playing around with the narrator as hype man again:

Now ev’ry boy and girl’s
Gonna get their bang
’Cause Tiny Montgomery’s
Gonna shake that thing
Tell ev’rybody
Down in ol’ Frisco
That Tiny Montgomery’s comin’
Down to say hello.

He is certainly generating a lot of excitement for Tiny Montgomery! The narrator tells us more about Tiny Montgomery, including that he is a monarch, though a different type of royalty than the King of France:

Now he’s king of the drunks.
An’ he squeezes, too.

Take that as a warning, the narrator says:

Watch out, Lester
Take it, Lou
Join the monks
The C.I.O.
Tell ’em all
That Tiny Montgomery says hello.

It’s going to be quite the party as the hype man starts barking out orders:

Now grease that pig
And sing praise
Go on out
And gas that dog
Trick on in
Honk that stink
Take it on down.

That’s a lot to prepare! Tiny Montgomery and the King of France both have a lot to answer for because the hype men in both songs are making sure that the town in which they are arriving is ready for anything. Both songs are about building expectations, whipping up the crowd. We never hear what happens in the songs after the arrival of these two figures. We can probably guess that the town is none the better as seen with the Duke and the King in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What matters in the song is the anticipation of the arrival.

With both “King of France” and “Tiny Montgomery,” Dylan is playing around with his powers as a storyteller. He even sings in “King of France”: “let me tell you a story.” With both Basement Tapes songs, Dylan is Scheherazade, making up stories to tell to his pals in The Band, but also to entertain himself as his own king, ensuring that he lives another night to come back the next day to make up another story.

​​Image: Illustration by E.W. Kemble from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

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