“Napoleon in Rags” is a phrase from Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone,” which was released on his 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited”.
As with much of Dylan’s work, the lyrics are dense with imagery and open to interpretation. “Napoleon in Rags” could be seen as a reference to someone who once held power or importance but has since fallen from grace or status. The song has often been interpreted as a critique of someone who used to live a life of privilege but has now been reduced to a state of loneliness and uncertainty, which could certainly fit with the image of a ‘Napoleon in rags.’ However, Dylan has been known for his ambiguous and evocative lyrics, and he seldom provides clear explanations for his meanings, leaving the interpretation up to the listeners.
Like a Rolling Stone
“Ahh princess on a steeple and all the pretty people
They’re all drinking, thinking that they’ve got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal”
Predictions about the topic
Can’t help you with the rest, but I read somewhere years ago that
‘Napoleon in rags’ refered (specifically) to Andy Warhol and (more
generally) the assorted Factory hangers-on. It was to do with the 60s
art-house trappings of style triumphing over content and Warhol and his
friends attempting to conscoiusly generate a subculture incorporating art
(his own work), films (his own and his ‘in-house’ actors like edie
sedgewick etc.) and music (exploding plastic inevitable/velvet
underground). It’s probably been stated before, but I’ll just include it
as a suggestion.
In 1965, thirty years ago, when I was a student at Brandeis, I went to
the village with a friend who knew people there. We met a black guy
(about 30-40 years old?, hard to know because I wasn’t thinking of it at
that time) in some apartment who talked ‘rag’ and claimed he was
“napoleon in rags” and talked me out of a great 6 foot orange scarf I
was wearing. This is who I always thought the lyric referred to.
Research by Cansu Demir