Now for ten years we've been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone
But that's not how it used to be
When the Jester sang for the King and Queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In a voice that came from you and me
Oh, and while the King was looking down
The Jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died
We were singin'
The song was written about ten years after the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly. Hence "ten years we've been on our own."
So what are the origins of the next line? Well the phrase "A rolling stone gathers no moss" has been explained as: "A person who never stays long in one place will never be encumbered by responsibilities. Conversely, the person who is on the move all the time will never accomplish much either. The proverb is based on the Latin: Saxum volutum non obducitur musco. It has been traced back to around the first century B.C. (Publilius Syrus). In 1546, it was included in John Heywood's book of proverbs. First cited in the United States in 1721 in 'A Word of Comfort to a Melancholy Country' by John Wise (1652-1725)." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman,1996). (Ref: bulletin board - no longer available)
This said, the phrase features in a number of other songs. Most notably in Buddy's "Early in the Morning" with the line "Well you know, a rolling stone, don't gather no moss." It could therefore have been Buddy who was the "rolling stone" that didn't gather any moss but now dead, the moss is growing fat upon him (also the gravestone) but perhaps Don will always see him as a rolling stone. (Ref:Jessi)
Jimi Hendrix also uses a play on this phrase in the song "Highway Chile" with the lyrics "And everybody knows the boss, (was boss) a rolling stone gathers no moss" (Recorded 04/03/67)
Muddy Waters's also had the song "Rolling Stone Blues", which following his English tour, The Rolling Stones named themselves. The line could refer to them. They were seen, as selling out and at one point became citizens in countries outside of Britain to avoid paying taxes.
Or is it Brian Jones, a member of the Stones. He died on July 10th 1969, hence "moss grows fat on a rolling stone." (Ref: Rainer Walinski)
The 'Rolling Stone,' could also be Bob Dylan who did the song 'Like a Rolling Stone,' in 1965 which was his first big hit. In this time Dylan stayed at home and collected royalties from his songs.
"But that's not how it used to be" appears to be recollecting what it was like when musicians such as Buddy Holly were still around and before money took over the music industry.
The Jester is Bob Dylan as will become clearer later in the song.
In 1962 Dylan went to England to star in a BBC programme as a rebel of some sort. During his visit, he sang in a few clubs, these were his first gigs in the UK. On the 23rd December of that year he performed at "The King & Queen" pub in 1 Foley Street, London. So Dylan literally "Sang for the King & Queen". (Ref: internet) Dylan was also known in his early years as a comic singer, hence "The Jester" because of his light funny comical material. (Ref: Coseo)
In Dylan's song "Down in the Flood", the lyrics say "Now it's king for king, Queen for queen."
Another take on this line, is that President and Jackie Kennedy are the "King and Queen". While not present at the March on Washington, (August 28, 1963) they are said to have watched on TV. (Ref: Doug L) Originally Kennedy tried to stop the march going ahead, but as this failed, he publicly embraced it. Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech & Dylan (the Jester) sang with Joan Baez. Perhaps King & Baez were the "King & Queen.
(Image courtesy of United States National Archives and
Records Administration. Modifications © Jone Lewis 2001.)
Kennedy did however meet King and other civil rights campaigners after the march for talks.Kennedy's Presidency was also known as Camelot. This was seen to be like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This fairy tale like time was shattered with JFK's assassination. Things became more cynical with the onslaught of the Vietnam War that followed. There was also a popular play at the time by Lerner & Loewe that was called 'Camelot.' The play, which showed on Broadway, starred Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet. It portrayed optimism and innocence and the quest for the good and noble. Many people felt this reflected how they felt about JFK and his presidency as well as his cabinet and those in the White House.
The March on Washington: A view of the rally from the Reflecting Pool.
Photo by Nat Herz ©Estate of Nat Herz, courtesy Barbara Singer
James Dean the late teen idol, who starred in the film Rebel Without a Cause, wore a red wind breaker. The coat is symbolic in the film. In the film Dean lends the coat to a friend who is later killed. Dean's father sees the shot guy wearing the coat and thinks it is Dean. Also, when Dean puts on the coat, it meant it was time to face the world and do what he thought had to be done. The week after the movie was released virtually every clothing store in the U.S. was sold out of red windbreakers. On the cover of the album 'The Freewheelin,' Bob Dylan is seen in a red wind breaker in a street shot resembling Dean in the film. Both Dean & Dylan had a similar impact as a symbol for the youth - they had something to say and demanded to be listened to.
The 'voice that came from you and me,' refers to Dylan's untrained, common voice of the people. He also sings folk music that is seen as music of the masses.
The "thorny crown", a reference to Christ, also implies McLean is saying that Elvis ("The King") was a martyr, though I prefer to think that McLean is intimating that Dylan is stepping into Elvis's place taking the "crown" that was tainted. (Ref: R.E. Prewitt) In the 60s Elvis was losing popularity & was off starring in films. Many of the fans were listening to Bob Dylan & the Beatles instead. Elvis did make a comeback in 1969 (Ref: Shawn, Damian McCready) But perhaps this was too late. Music would be changed forever.
Dylan ("The Jester") had said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis who had been one of his idols. Elvis has become known as the King, but does this link with the "King" in the previous verse? It wouldn't surprise me if McLean used different references of "King & Queen" & "The King was looking down". He could simply be using different word plays like the Lennon / Lenin references. (see below)
The King looking down could also be about Kennedy in heaven. The reference to Christ with the 'thorny crown,' implies that kids looked up to Dylan more than to the president.
There was no verdict by the Warren Commission on who killed Kennedy as the alleged assassin had been killed. "The Commission has found no evidence that either Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby was part of any conspiracy, domestic or foreign, to assassinate President Kennedy." Warren Commission Report.
"The courtroom" could also be about the Chicago 7. Late in 1969, a group of protesters were prosecuted over inciting riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (August 21-26, 1968) The jury convicted all but Weiner and Froines, but ultimately all the riot charges and contempt-of-court jail sentences were dropped by higher courts or the government. (Ref: Internet )
Prosecutor Thomas Foran and Judge Julius Hoffman clashed continually with the defendants. In particular, Seale's manner of conducting his own defense led to his spending three days in court bound and gagged; his case was then declared a mistrial, and he was sentenced to four years for contempt of court. The Chicago Eight thus became the Chicago Seven. In February 1970, five of the seven were found guilty, but an appeals court overturned the convictions in the fall of 1972, citing Judge Hoffman's procedural errors and his overt hostility to the defendants. (Ref: Internet)
"Lenin read a book on Marx," is perhaps one of the best lines in the song due to the double meanings. Vladamir Lenin, Stalin's predecessor as leader of Soviet Russia who founded Communism & was popular due to his interpretation of Communism must have learnt and followed the ideology of Karl Marx who had the basic idea of Communism / Socialism.
Or could it be John Lennon learning about Marxism which would also make a lot of sense as it influenced The Beatles music. Marx could also be Groucho Marx, though this doesn't fit quite as neatly.
However the John Lennon / Groucho Marx play on words was a common one at the time the song was written. A comedy group called The Firesign Theatre have an album called 'How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all?' The cover shows a picture of John Lennon and Groucho Marx. A famous French witticism translated as; I'm a Marxist of the Groucho variety.
The quartet may be The Beatles, and the park may be taken from the song Strawberry Fields. Another Beatles take could be based on the movie "Yellow Submarine". In it the Blue Meanies attacked Pepperland with "Anti-music" missiles among other things. The music died in Pepperland as the projectiles landed on people, draining them of colour. In the park the Beatles quartet were playing along with the mayor who was practicing in a chamber music quartet. The Beatles are stopped from playing by the music missile & one by one the three players in the other quartet are picked off by the missiles, leaving only the Lord Admiral to escape. The movie was not a U.S one, but Beatles based. Bizarrely, their own voices are not used except in the final scene. The film was commercial & may have threatened the integrity of the music industry. Despite this it was still big in the US. (Ref: Ed Chapin)
Alternatively "The Quartet" could be the group The Weavers. Under the McCarthy era they were blacklisted. McLean was friends with Lee Hays of The Weavers in the early 60s while performing in coffee houses & clubs in upstate New York & NYC. Hayes was well acquainted with Pete Seeger who was also a member of The Weavers. Seeger, McLean & others took a trip together on the Hudson River.
Dirges or funeral songs could again be referring to the death of rock & roll, in particular Buddy Holly & 50s music, but also mourning rock & rolls comparative innocence at the time (Ref: M Green)
"Dirges in the dark" could be linked with the East coast power blackout on November 9th 1965. Radio spread news within 10 minutes. Soothing, calming, continuous dialogue, was played enjoining people to stay put. Citizens directed Manhattan traffic. There were reports of singing in the streets, on Third Avenue there was the sound of Christmas Carols (Ref: J K, internet)
The blackout stretched 80,000 square miles: New York to
Canada and from Lake Huron to Boston.