Mary Queen of Scots and Mary Queen of Arkansas

On July 24 in 1567, the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate her crown. Eventually, she would be beheaded.

]The abdication came after Mary’s second husband died under mysterious circumstances.  Mary subsequently married the main suspect, leading the nobility to have her imprisoned.  She was forced her to abdicate her throne in favor of her son.

After Mary escaped and went to England, she became connected to plots to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. So, Mary was beheaded.  But when Elizabeth died, Mary’s son King James VI became King of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

A Mary Who Was Queen of Arkansas

More than four hundred years later, Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about another Queen Mary, “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” which appeared on Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973).  Springsteen earlier included the song among the first demos he recorded for John Hammond at Columbia.

When I first got the album, “Mary Queen of Arkansas” was one of my least favorite songs on the record.  Hammond did not especially like it at first either, and Springsteen rarely plays the former concert opener live these days. But gradually, the song grew on me.

“Mary Queen of Arkansas” is a love song, with some circus references:  “Well, I’m just a lonely acrobat, the live wire is my trade.” Beyond that, I never thought too much about the meaning.

But checking some sources for this post, I found various interesting theories. Some say Mary has religious significance or that she was a prostitute. Similarly, Springsteen has commented on how he often uses the name “Mary,” saying “I’m sure it’s the Catholic coming out in me, y’know? That was always the most beautiful name.”

Here, though, the title’s similarity to Mary Queen of Scots seems less than a coincidence.  Reportedly, Springsteen got the idea for the title from the 1972 film Mary, Queen Of Scots, which starred Venessa Redgrave.

The song, though, is not about the Queen of Scots. Wikipedia concludes, “The song appears to be sung in the first person, by a slave in the antebellum American south, to his white mistress, with whom he is having a clandestine affair.”

I never saw that the slave connection in the song, although some of the lyrics support that theory.  For example, consider the lines: “your white skin is deceivin’ . . . But on your bed, Mary, I can see the shadow of a noose.” Hmmm. . .

Either way, it is a beautiful song.  It also makes one think fondly of Mary Queen of Arkansas.

The song also captures the escape theme that arises in other Springsteen songs like “Born to Run.” While Mary Queen of Scots was unable to escape a tragic end, we can hope that Mary Queen of Arkansas and her lover were able to get away clean to Mexico without either one of them losing their head.

The above version of “Mary Queen of Arkansas” is from a 1974 Houston radio show.

Do you think Mary Queen of Arkansas is in the voice of a slave having an affair or is it just an Arkansas love song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    3 thoughts on “Mary Queen of Scots and Mary Queen of Arkansas”

    1. As I read this I thought of a very rare bootleg I have from 1974 of BS doing the song live with Danny Federici doing some great and sensitive accordion accompanyment. But then I got to the bottom of the article and there it was! Well done!

      1. Cool, I had not heard this version until preparing the post. It is a nice version and Federici does a wonderful job. It is a nice contrast to the original, which has Springsteen’s harmonica instead of the accordion. Thanks for the comment.

        1. It’s from a live radio recording done, I think, in Austin. It also has great versions of ‘Does this bus stop at 82nd Street’ and ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’

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