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Ballad of A Thin Man by Bob Dylan

June 21, 2014

Ballad of a Thin Man has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs.  I saw him perform the song a couple of years ago at a concert on Mud Island in Memphis, Tennessee.    Previously, I had last seen a Bob Dylan concert in 2003 at Jubilee Jam in Jackson, Mississippi, where he sounded great and had his typically fantastic set of musicians.  But in 2003, Dylan seemed rather wooden and tired from where I stood in the front row by the stage as he opened with Maggie’s Farm.  An especially important  event I will always remember from that concert was the meeting of Charles Evers and Bob Dylan detailed in an article by Donna Ladd.  Mr. Evers is the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the subject of Dylan’s song Only a Pawn in Their Game.

At the recent Memphis concert Dylan seemed more engaged than I had ever seen him before.  The two stoners sitting next to us, who had followed the Dylan Tour on every stop for the two weeks previous alleged that Dylan was feeling better because he had gotten a more comfortable pair of boots to wear on stage.  Hmmm . . . regardless the concert was by far the best I had ever experienced by Dylan, and perhaps my best concert experience ever, including Roy Orbison back in the 1966, but I digress . . .

For much of the Memphis concert, Dylan stood center stage with only a harmonica and his animated gesticulations as a premier story-teller, telling a tale.  Such was the case when he performed Ballad of a Thin Man.  Dylan was like Homer telling the story of Odysseus.

I listened to a Bob Dylan play list the other day as I biked along the Greenline here in Memphis.  Like is so often the case, with earbuds stuck in my ears, I seem to hear the song differently, like never before.  That was the case when Ballad of a Thin Man came on.  So, as I had never really thought that much about this song lyrics before, like my experience when I posted the lyrics for My Back Pages, I Googled the title and found the results not too enlightening.  I will choose instead to live in relative ignorance of the intended meaning, and simply savor the images of sword swallowers, geeks, and Mr. Jones.

 

Ballad of A Thin Man by Bob Dylan

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You raise up your head
And you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says
“It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?”
And somebody else says, “Where what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God
Am I here all alone?”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
And then he kneels
He crosses himself
And then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice
He asks you how it feels
And he says, “Here is your throat back
Thanks for the loan”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word “NOW”
And you say, “For what reason?”
And he says, “How?”
And you say, “What does this mean?”
And he screams back, “You’re a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin’ around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ariel Miranda permalink
    June 22, 2014 11:42 pm

    I think its his greatest song. The lyrics are great. The bridge (you have many contacts etc) is magnificent and the melody is threatening, inexorable and endlessly interesting.
    I also think its one of the greatest songs ever written by anybody. My favourite is the original on Highway 61 but he did it well on Before the Flood 1974 and at Budokan in 1978 too.
    I saw him doing it in Adelaide, South AUSTRALIA in 1978 March18. It was the first time I saw Dylan not use a guitar for any song. Just for Mr Jones he put the guitar down and picked up a microphone. I was really surprised because he didn’t do that then as he does now a lot. When he got to “tax deductible charity organisations” he pointed his finger in a twirling motion for those words.
    I agree that it is a masterpiece. I think it is his greatest song lyrically and musically. Thats saying a lot since it is on the same album as Like a Rolling Stone- also a masterpiece.
    Ballad of a Thin Man is menacing, surreal, mysterious, sardonic and witty. My 100 year old father heard it back in 1968 and I remember him saying it is actually a kind song. It didn’t seem like that to me but there you go.

    • June 23, 2014 1:29 am

      Thanks very much for your comments. I like the Budokan version quite a bit too. I appreciate your telling your story.

  2. Ariel Miranda permalink
    June 22, 2014 11:53 pm

    “Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial” (Visions of Johanna)
    I feel like I am stuck in a painting hanging in the Louvre” (Don’t Fall apart on me Tonight)
    Couple of Bob quotes about museums (loosely defined)

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