Ballad of a Thin Man

“Who is Mr. Jones?” Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston asked Dylan in an August 1965 interview. Dylan responds:

“He’s a real person. You know him, but not by that name….He’s actually a person. Like I saw him come into the room one night and he looked like a camel. He proceeded to put his eyes in his pocket. I asked this guy who he was and he said, ‘That’s Mr. Jones.’ Then I asked this cat, ‘Doesn’t he do anything but his eyes in his pocket?’ And he told me, ‘He puts his nose on the ground.’ It’s all there, it’s a true story.” 

At the time of release, many speculated about who the song is actually portraying. Many also said that it didn’t even matter because you just don’t get it, maaaaan. Robert Shelton, in his 1986 Dylan biography No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, calls Mr. Jones “a Philistine” who is “superficially educated and well bred but not very smart about the things that count.”

In March 1986, Dylan introduced “Ballad of a Thin Man” to his audience: “This is a song I wrote a while back in response to people who ask me questions all the time. You just get tired of that every once in a while. You just don’t want to answer no more questions. I figure a person’s life speaks for itself, right? So, every once in a while you got to do this kind of thing, you got to put somebody in their place.”

In 1990, Dylan told reporter Bill Flanagan, “There were a lot of Mister Joneses [in the 60s]. Obviously there must have been a tremendous amount of them for me to write that particular song. It was like, ‘Oh man, here’s the thousandth Mister Jones.'”

As Dylan moved forward during his career and sang “Ballad of a Thin Man” over and over again, the idea of Mr. Jones evolved from one particular guy who has no idea what’s actually happening in the world around him and Dylan has no choice but to depict him in song to representing the cluelessness of the mainstream media and the ruling class about the underworld and counterculture of the mid-60s. 

Dylan has never put the song aside and returns to it continually. “Ballad of a Thin Man” was released on two live albums that Dylan put out in the 70s (1974’s Before the Flood and 1979’s At Budokon) and then on Real Live in 1986. That’s four officially released versions of the song in 21 years. According to the song page on bobdylan.com, Dylan has performed the song 1,253 times as recently as November 2019, right before he stopped touring due to the global pandemic. It was the closing encore of the first and only time I saw Dylan perform under the ferris wheel at Six Flags Darien Lake in Corfu, NY in July 1991. It has never left Dylan’s repertoire. It’s become a legend. 

On first listening to the song, it’s easy to see Dylan’s perspective since he’s the narrator. You roll your eyes along with Dylan. You share Dylan’s disgust at this Philistine. But after hearing the song so many times, you have to ask yourself the question: is Mr. Jones such a bad guy? Okay, he’s clueless. The world is changing all around him, and he has no idea how to cope or even understand. Let’s give him some credit, though. He’s engaging with Dylan, asking him questions, and trying to comprehend the world. He’s not putting his head in the sand. At least he’s there! He’s placed himself with professors who like his looks. He’s been able to build up contacts in niche employment groups such as the lumberjack community when he needs it. He’s resourceful! IS IT A CRIME TO LIKE THE WORK OF F. SCOTT FITZGERALD? 

Dylan sees the future with “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It portrays the freak show (said lovingly, of course) that was mid-60s New York City, made up of naked men, one-eyed midgets, and sword swallowers. This milieu will no longer be underground. It became mainstream entertainment (e.g., Twin Peaks, the American Horror Story series), thanks in some part to Dylan letting the beasts out of the box in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Whatever Mr. Jones doesn’t know is happening in 1965 is known by everybody today. Dylan won! And he doesn’t let Mr. Jones forget it by returning to the song over and over again. Dylan is piling on! Maybe it’s time we give Mr. Jones some credit for the part he played for being Bob Dylan’s straw man. 

One reason that “Ballad of a Thin Man” is a significant work for Dylan is that when he went electric in 1965 and left his folkie days behind him, the first songs he played with an electric band were all blues-based songs. Dylan’s first album featuring electric music is Bringing It All Back Home. In songs such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm,” we hear the sound of Dylan mixing surrealistic lyrics with a rock and roll band. This was a new sound for Dylan and popular music. And while it was cutting edge, the structure of those songs were still familiar 12 bar blues-based rock and roll songs. They were Little Richard songs. 

“Ballad of a Thin Man” was written and recorded for Dylan’s next album, Highway 61 Revisited. With that album, Dylan knew he wanted to have an electric, rock and roll sound, but to start experimenting with the structure. “Ballad of a Thin Man” is the result as it is his first electric song in a minor key. Additionally, it’s the first song in which Dylan leads the band on piano rather than guitar. This is Dylan pushing the envelope and creating a new form in popular music. We can draw a line from “Ballad of a Thin Man”  to “I Am the Walrus” to “Station to Station” to “Paranoid Android.

A personal story about this song: Back when I was first getting into Dylan and I was introducing his music to my friend Mike Vago (introduced in our “Angelina” post), I knew there was a song in which a character yells “You’re a cow!” at another character. I thought it was hilarious, but could not remember which song. There was no internet to look up lyrics, and I only had Dylan on cassette tapes that I bought at Buffalo’s Record Theater for $4.99 each. I have a distinct memory of listening to those tapes endlessly with Mike looking for the “you’re a cow” line. We finally found it and the verse is still hilarious to me:

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”

Arguably the most famous live version of “Ballad of a Thin Man” is from May 17, 1966 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall and later released on 1998’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. (The release was titled that way because of the famous bootleg recording of the concert which was widely circulated with the misattribution of Royal Albert Hall instead of Manchester Free Trade Hall.)

As documented in many books and the No Direction Home: Bob Dylan documentary, this concert is notoriously contentious as the crowd pushes back towards Dylan and his backing band, booing and slow clapping during song breaks. Eventually an audience member yells “Judas” at Dylan, awakening the dragon and Dylan sneers back, “I don’t be-leeeeeeeive you.” Dylan commands the band to “Play it fucking loud” and their ensuing performance “Like A Rolling Stone” summons fire and blood.

Right before the concert ends with “Like a Rolling Stone” and immediately before the “Judas” cry happens, they perform “Ballad of a Thin Man.” At this point in the concert, Dylan’s outright disgust towards the audience is apparent and is reinforced during the performance of “Ballad of a Thin Man” as he sneers and yells throughout. The Hawks – Dylan’s backing band during the tour and who would eventually become The Band – is right there with him. Dylan’s piano part begins the song, but it’s Rick Danko’s bass that begins the ground assault, followed closely by the electric guitar of Robbie Robertson swooping in and attacking from the sky. Throughout the song, Garth Hudson inserts insane, otherworldly organ fills. Dylan and The Hawks weaponize the expectation of giving a check to tax deductible charity organizations. The sheer power of the musical accompaniment is the perfect vehicle to deliver Dylan’s contempt. 

3 thoughts on “Ballad of a Thin Man

  1. Hey, it’s me, the guy you mention in the story!

    I’ve also heard a theory that Mr. Jones is a closeted gay man, citing the naked man in the opening verse, and implying that “with your pencil in your hand,” the “sword swallower” in high heels, “as he hands you a bone,” “one-eyed midget” and “give me some milk” are all double entendres. I don’t really believe that’s Dylan’s intention, as it doesn’t really jibe with the refrain or the last verse, but it’s an interesting take.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard that theory as well. I don’t think it’s that Mr. Jones is closeted, but rather Dylan is showing that Mr. Jones is utterly clueless about what’s happening around him. He’s basically surrounded by queer men, getting hit on, and it’s passing Mr. Jones by.

      Like

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