Dylan eloquently describes Key West as “the enchanted land,” “land of light” and “paradise divine” in the 9:35-minute ode on his new album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” — the 79-year-old artist’s first release of original songs in eight years.
The song begins with protagonist McKinley, who travels down the famed Overseas Highway to Key West, the continental United States’ southernmost island city.
“Key West is the place to be/ If you’re looking for immortality/ Stay on the road, follow the highway sign/ Key West is fine and fair/ If you lost your mind, you will find it there/ Key West is on the horizon line,” Dylan sings.
Historian-author Douglas Brinkley, Dylan’s friend and a Key West visitor, calls the song “a piece of poetry.”
“It’s a meditation on life and a love of place … it’s a beautiful piece of art,” said Brinkley, a humanities chair and history professor at Rice University and a CNN presidential historian. “Dylan’s like many artists: he found solace in Key West.”
With an insider’s familiarity, Dylan lyricizes Mallory Square, Bayview Park and Key West’s storied history: “Truman had his White House there.”
He also wrote ”I must find that Florida Key” in the track “Florida Key,” released in 2014 on the album “The New Basement Tapes.”
Dylan’s Key West connection is symbolized by a bar stool with his name painted on it at Capt. Tony’s Saloon, a popular watering hole established more than 60 years ago by colorful former mayor Tony Tarracino. Joe Faber, who purchased Capt. Tony's in 1989, recalled that Tarracino, who died in late 2008, knew Dylan.
"I remember Tony speaking about him," Faber said. "Dylan was a quiet guy and he would come in here, sit and hang out."
The saloon was also a favored hangout for literati such as Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Shel Silverstein — the latter a friend of Dylan’s who owned a home at 618 William St. until his death in 1999.
Silverstein wrote the quirky Key West poem, ”The Great Conch Train Robbery,” which later evolved into a song on his album of the same name.
“Dylan was very good friends with Shel,” Brinkley said, adding that Dylan has frequented Key West “off and on throughout his life.”
Like Hemingway, who lived in Key West for most of the 1930s, Dylan is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was awarded it in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
“Bob Dylan’s music has kept me forever young,” former Key West resident Jimmy Buffett told AARP Magazine in a tribute to Dylan several years ago.
Dylan once cited Buffett as a favorite songwriter, naming memorable Buffett songs “Death of an Unpopular Poet” and “He Went to Paris.”
The lure of Key West has long attracted poets as well as songwriters, playwrights, novelists and artists seeking inspiration and a haven.
Perhaps the island’s most famous poet was Elizabeth Bishop, who resided in Key West from 1938 to 1946 and later became a U.S. poet laureate. Bishop’s home at 624 White St. was acquired by the Key West Literary Seminar organization in 2019.
Bishop’s first Key West poem was titled “Late Air” and includes the lines, “On the Navy Yard aerial I find/ better witnesses/ for love on summer nights.”
Robert Frost, who served as U.S. poet laureate in 1958-59, first visited Key West in 1934 and wrote one of his best-known poems, “The Gift Outright,” on the island. He paid winter visits to Key West from 1945 to 1960, staying in a small cottage behind the 410 Caroline St. home of local hostess and preservationist Jessie Porter.
Bard Wallace Stevens penned “The Idea of Order at Key West,” an anthologized work, in 1934. Stevens’ poems were influenced by stays at the historic Casa Marina hotel, where he walked on the beach with Frost and once broke his hand in a brawl with Hemingway.
Poets Richard Wilbur, James Merrill and John Ciardi also wintered in Key West.
John Malcolm Brinnin — a poet-biographer known for bringing Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to the United States and his works “Dylan Thomas in America” and six volumes of poetry — lived in Key West and died in the island city in 1998.
Unveiled June 19, Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is the artist’s 39th studio album. He holds 11 Grammy Awards and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama.
Mused Brinkley, reflecting on Dylan’s ode to Key West: “It’s a poem that’s going to endure. It’s an idyllic poem honoring a particular place.”