And they wandered in From the city of St. John Without a dime Wearing coats that shined Both red and greenColors from their sunny island
There are two stories being told at the same time, that despite being separated by than 200 years, are very similar. The story of the German palatines in the early 1700's and that of the Puerto Ricans in the early 1900's and 1950's. The first six lines interweave both stories first alluding to the city of St. John, better known as the city of San Juan. Their coats of red and green alludes to the colors of the flag of Westphalia, a region of Germany.
From their boats of iron They looked upon the promised land Where surely life was sweet On the rising tide To New York City Did they ride into the street See the gloryOf the royal scam
Both groups then simultaneously step off of their boats and enter into "the promised land". New York was and still is seen around the world as a bastion of prosperity and opportunity. Both in the 1700's and 1900's two peoples from different parts of the world walked the same path, both falling prey to the "Royal Scam". Given the cynical nature of most of their songs the opening lyrics set up a scenario where another wide eyed foreigner falls prey to the american dream.
They are hounded down To the bottom of a bad town Amid the ruins Where they learn to fear An angry race of fallen kings Their dark companions
If you thought the tone wasn't dark enough the second verse delivers a darker image. Now in New York both groups end up in typical poor neighbor hoods of New York. The use of alliteration emphasizes the state that they were living in. The fallen kings that are referred to both the Spanish and Portuguese monarchy with ties to both New York and Puerto Rico. To keep it brief, the Portuguese crown felt that Spanish royalty had stolen the rights to America. Then through marriage Portugal comes to be ruled by the Spanish. Essentially there are the ghosts of Spanish and Portuguese monarchs looming over the Puerto Ricans.
While the memory of Their southern sky was clouded by A savage winter Every patron saint Hung on the wall, shared the room With twenty sinners
We now return to the Palatines. Their mass migration was halted in London where they experienced a winter so harsh birds fell from the sky frozen. As as the religious sentiments of both groups. Both clinging to their religion yet they their self were sinners.
By the blackened wall He does it all He thinks he's died and gone to heaven
The last Verse is where we reach the darkest depths of reality that the song reaches for. The "blackened wall" and "died and gone to heaven" are references to heroine usage. People would use Sterno burners ,to keep warm in those harsh New York winters, that would coat the walls in black soot. The high from heroine was an escape from their miserable existence. The bliss could only exist in heaven.
Now the tale is told By the old man back homeHe reads the letter How they are paid in gold Just to babble in the back room All night and waste their time And they wandered in From the city of St. John without a dime
The ending is what delivers to us the name of the song. Despite the terrible life people have found they still write home of riches and being payed to laze around, both day and night. Then coming full circle to the first line of the song because the whole story is cyclical. It has been repeating since the dawn of American and will continue on, perhaps for ever. They are delivered unto a land of promise. Only to find a land of lies and pain. They shall bear witness to "the glory of the Royal Scam".