Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

In 1965, Bob Dylan recorded “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as part of the album Highway 61 Revisited:

When Dylan first featured electric instrumentation in his music with Bringing It All Back Home, the sound of the music was boisterous rock ‘n roll as if Dylan was so excited to play with other musicians that he couldn’t help but put the pedal through the metal so that it broke through the floorboard. For Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan started experimenting with different tones and textures for the music, as discussed in the “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” post.

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is another experiment with the band’s sound as the song starts with an electric guitar and a tack piano – straight out of an old West saloon –  doubling each other on the opening riff. In the second go-round of the riff, an electric keyboard joins to give an even more woozy feel to the song with an insistent drumbeat entering to keep everyone in line. The music already has an alien sound, compared to other songs on the radio in 1965, even before Dylan starts singing.

As the music immediately puts us on notice about the foreign nature of the song, Dylan’s opening line assures us of such:

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too.

Dylan is employing the second person tense in these opening lines, propelling the listener into the setting of the song. There’s an everyman feel to these words, as if Dylan is saying, “Hey, we’ve all been there.” Even though the listener may have never been lost in Juarez while it’s raining during an Easter celebration, the sound of the music and Dylan’s ensuring delivery puts us in that scene.

Juarez or Ciudad Juárez is a city in Mexico across the Rio Grande from El Paso, TX. It’s a border town with a long history of acting as a beacon for Americans who want to cross the border to search for trouble, escape, or revelation. Cormac McCarthy’s 1998 book Cities of the Plain, the last in McCarthy’s so-called “Border Trilogy,” gives a feel for how Juarez felt like for Americans in the 1950s, only a decade before Dylan’s composition of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” The novel tells of an American ranch hand who falls in love with an epileptic prostitute in a Juarez brothel. McCarthy writes in the book about the brutality found in Mexico at the time, from the perspective of one of the book’s characters, the older father-in law:

“There were thousands who went to war in the only suits they owned. Suits in which they’d been married and in which they would be buried. Standing on the streets in their coats and ties and hats behind the upturned carts and bales and firing their rifles like irate accountants. And the small artillery pieces on wheels that scooted backwards in the street at every round and had to be retrieved and the endless riding of horses to their deaths bearing flags or banners or the tentlike tapestries painted with portraits of the Virgin carried on poles into battle as if the mother of God herself were authoress of all that calamity and mayhem and madness.”

In May 2009, when Juarez and other cities along the Mexican-United States border were overflowing with violence, Douglas Brinkley interviewed Dylan for Rolling Stone, and asked him about the border violence. Dylan responded:

“That’s always been dangerous ground. It has a different kind of population than Austin or Dallas or other big cities. Texas is so big. It’s a republic; it’s its own country. The Texas borderlands are like a buffer zone for Mexico and the rest of the States. You get that leftover vibe from northern Mexico, central Mexico, where you have that legacy of Aztec brutality. That’s where they used to slash the hearts out of people, captives and thousands of slaves offered up on bloody altars. On the other hand, you have Cortez and all those conquistadors who were coming out of the Spanish Inquisition-type scene. So I can imagine it got pretty brutal. And I think it’s got a lot of spillover from that time, in our times. I see the violence as some kind of epidemic that has lasted until this day, maybe.”

The brutal and otherworldliness of Juarez gives Dylan the opportunity to introduce a number of different characters into the song. Saint Annie is probably a prostitute and has paralyzed the narrator. The case is so bad that “my best friend, my doctor” is either unable to diagnose the narrator or is so far gone himself in Juarez that he can’t perform the basic duties of his profession. In the song, it is well understood that Sweet Melinda – known as “the goddess of gloom” by the peasants in the city – will leave you howling at the moon. The final character introduced in the song is Angel, who has a short trip in and out of Juarez. She is forced to flee town, “looking just like a ghost.”

There’s a delight in Dylan in the performance of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” He seems pleased with the composition as he relishes singing the various rhymes in the song. This can be seen in the fifth verse when he extends the pronunciation of “boast,” “post,” and “coast,” emphasizing the vowel sound in each word. Finally, he pauses right before singing the word “ghost.” That word completes the rhyme structure, and Dylan’s pause ensures that the listener feels the full impact of that final word in the verse.

Dylan’s joy in the performance continues with a strong harmonica solo and his vocal delivery in the masterful final verse. Dylan presents this verse with gusto despite the harrowing nature of what he is describing. He sings:

I started out on burgundy
But soon hit the harder stuff.

The implication of this line is that the people of Juarez – everyone that the narrator has met over the course of the song – has led him to drink burgundy wine and to then seek out “the harder stuff.” Is the usage of the word “burgundy” an opportunity for Dylan to play off the double meaning of the word? It’s not only a type of wine, but also a color. The ordeal in Juarez has led the narrator’s eyesight to have a burgundy filter similar to holding a reddish scrim over one’s face. Things get so bad in Juarez that the burgundy makes way for “harder stuff,” stronger, more vivid, and stranger colors than the narrator has never experienced before.

Drinking way too much and seeing in different colors, the narrator is abandoned by his friends who promised to help him out. Dylan sings, “I’m going back to New York City / I do believe I’ve had enough.” The narrator has endured so much in Juarez that he has to leave as soon as possible, humbled and in retreat with his tail between his legs. The irony in this line is that New York City has always been upheld as the toughest city; as the song says, “If I can make it there / I’ll make it anywhere.” New York City ain’t got nothing on Juarez.

Despite the harrowness of this final verse, the rhymes are so much fun to sing. Over the years, my friends and I took the final verse as an opportunity to over-emphasize the pronunciation of the last words in each line in our best Dylan impersonation. The joy with which Dylan is singing in the studio version transitions to a different approach when Dylan hits the road with an electric band for the first time soon after the recording of this song. As documented in earlier posts, Dylan’s 1966 tour of England was a showdown between Dylan and the audience night after night. Dylan would play a solo acoustic set, take a break, and return for the second set with his lock-away-the-valuables rock ‘n roll band, The Hawks. Throughout England, he would be met with boos, heckles, slow-clapping between songs, and more. This culminated in the “Judas” moment at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966, later released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. The music created on this tour, especially at this show, is captivating. Listen to the recording of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from this concert:

The Hawks, who would later become The Band, have a fearlessness to them as Robbie Robertson is especially excellent, playing a guitar that is so hot that it can bend steel. Dylan uses the words of the song to convey his disgust, spitting out the lyrics in defiance to these people who would pay tickets and then insult him. By the last verse, he is yelling the words, “I’m going back to New York City / I do believe I’ve had enough.” Dylan’s retreat to New York City is not a humbling experience as in the narrator’s experience in Juarez, but rather a dismissal with utter contempt. When Dylan sings, “I do believe I’ve had E-NUFF,” it is a giant FUCK YOU.

Knowing all of this, it should be asked: who is Tom Thumb? He is an abiding character from English folklore, who, according to Wikipedia, is “no bigger than his father’s thumb, and his adventures include being swallowed by a cow, tangling with giants, and becoming a favourite of King Arthur.” The first references to Tom Thumb start in the 16th century, but during the 19th century, he becomes absorbed by the nursery rhyme industrial complex. 

In the 1621 version of the Tom Thumb story by Richard Johnson, Tom is the size of his father’s thumb, and the Queene of Fayres, who attends Tom’s birth, provides him with “an oak leaf hat, a shirt of cobweb, a doublet of thistledown, stockings of apple rind, and shoes of mouse’s skin.” Because of his diminutive stature, the story revolves around Tom being ingested by humans or animals, whether by a tinker, red cow, raven, or a fish. He eventually gains exalted status at the court of King Arthur. In “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” the narrator is also swallowed by the characters in Juarez, chewed up, digested, and excreted. Unlike the hero’s journey undergone by the Tom Thumb of folklore, the narrator of the song does not become a favorite of a legendary king. There’s no hero’s journey for him. He returns to New York City, his place of origin, a changed man, humiliated and in disgrace.

While Dylan was touring the world in 1966 and before the confrontation detailed above in England, Dylan played the song with The Hawks in Australia. This is how he introduced the song in Sydney:

“This is, this is called Tom Thumb. This story takes place outside of Mexico City. It begins in Mexico City and it ends really in Des Moines, Iowa, but it’s all about this painter, he’s a quite older fellow, he comes from Juarez, Juarez is down cross of Texas border, some few feet, and he’s a painter. He’s very very well-known painter in the area there, and we all call him ‘Tom Thumb’ and when Tom Thumb was going through his blue period, this is one of the most important times of his whole life and he’s going to sell many many paintings now taken from his blue period and this is all about Tom Thumb and his early days and so this is ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.’ Isn’t that right.”

Dylan is creating a new framing for the song and building a new myth for Tom Thumb, separating him from the Tom Thumb we know from childhood nursery rhymes and stories. According to Dylan’s framing, Tom Thumb is going through his blue period and, yet, during the song, he starts out on burgundy. A few nights later in Melbourne, Dylan has a slightly different variation for his “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” introduction saying,

“This is about a painter down in Mexico City who travels from North Mexico up to Del Rio, Texas all the time. His name is Tom Thumb. Right now, he’s about 125 years old, but he’s still going. Everybody likes him a lot down there. He’s got lots of friends. This is when he was going through his blue period of painting. He’s made countless amounts of paintings. You couldn’t think about ‘em all. I dedicate this song to him, it’s called ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.’”

At this point, a woman in the audience screams. Dylan laughs onstage. Then the audience starts laughing. With perfect timing, Dylan asks, “You know Tom Thumb?” Immediately, the band starts playing.

Image: Tom Thumb illo., 1621, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

6 thoughts on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

  1. Helluva song and a post. Just one thing: Tomás Pulgar. . . the song is about him and/or his character. Hatmaker from Tepotzlan. Got on the wrong bus one day, led to some misadventures. Burgundy is slang for some fabric he needed to finish a particularly garish lid for a local priest. get your facts, man.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Awesome post, awesome song about John T. Thompson who first fought in the Spanish-American war and is the inventor of the Tommy Machine Gun. Unlike most automatic weapons you have to use your thumb to balance the grip. As most gun inventors he was sad about the carnage wrought with his invention, hence Tom Thumb’s Blues.

      Get your facts right

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: