In the days after my wife and I told our friends that we were expecting our first child, a friend handed me an article torn out of GQ or Esquire with examples of music that parents can play for their kids that won’t turn the parents’ stomach. Included on the list was Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes. A few of those Basement Tapes songs became regular bedtime songs, especially this one:
Dylan was asked about “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” by Cameron Crowe when the original Basement Tapes version of the song was first officially released on the 1985 box set Biograph. Dylan replied:
“Quinn The Eskimo, I don’t know. I don’t know what it was about. I guess it was some kind of nursery rhyme.”
Despite Dylan’s initial inability to comment on the song in this quotation, the nursery rhyme explanation that he lands on aligns with its utilization as a bedtime song in my household. In a passage from his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan remembers an instance with the song while he is recording in New Orleans:
“On the way back to the house [in New Orleans] I passed the local movie theater on Prytania Street, where The Mighty Quinn was showing. Years earlier, I had written a song called ‘The Mighty Quinn’ which was a hit in England, and I wondered what the movie was about. Eventually, I’d sneak off and go there to see it. It was a mystery, suspense, Jamaican thriller with Denzel Washington as the Mighty Xavier Quinn, a detective who solves crimes. Funny, that’s just the way I imagined him when I wrote the song ‘The Mighty Quinn,’ Denzel Washington.”
That Bob – what a cut-up! Denzel Washington wouldn’t get his first onscreen role until 1977. Here’s the trailer for The Mighty Quinn:
The initial idea for the composition of the song in 1967 is in fact from a movie, but not one starring Denzel Washington. Greil Marcus in his 1997 book The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes explains:
“Dylan fans long ago concluded that the inspiration [for the song] was the Eskimo Anthony Quinn plays in the 1960 Nicholas Ray film The Savage Innocents.”
In the movie, actor Anthony Quinn plays an Innuit hunter who is fighting for survival in a clash of cultures. When composing the song, Dylan does not use the name of the character that Anthony Quinn plays in the movie, but rather names the central subject of the song after the actor himself, the newly dubbed Quinn the Eskimo. Before introducing him in the song, Dylan establishes the context:
Ev’rybody’s building the big ships and the boats
Some are building monuments
Others, jotting down notes.
In these lines, Dylan is attempting to encompass all aspects of creation from the largest, such as Mount Rushmore or a large ocean-going liner, to the smallest, which could include capturing thoughts on a piece of paper. What is the result of these endeavors? It causes despair in “Ev’ry girl and boy.” Here, Dylan is trying to communicate the everyday struggle of being a creative person, to make something new and expressing oneself. These attempts can be laborious, but the rewards of creation are imminent:
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Ev’rybody’s gonna jump for joy.
Quinn the Eskimo is a symbol for celebration as seen throughout the song, but it’s also fascinating to read him as a figure representing the finished product of the artistic process. After monuments and big ships have been built, a poem has been composed, or a song has been written, the release after the completion of the project brings a thrill that makes the creator “jump for joy.” Quinn the Eskimo is a personification of the satisfaction felt after artistic creation.
As in other Basement Tapes songs, the narrator of “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” is building anticipation for the impending arrival of someone else, the one who will offer not only relief, but joy. In the Basement Tapes songs “King of France” and “Tiny Montgomery,” I make the case for the narrator as a hype man figure, but in “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” the narrator is instead more of a town crier, calling publicly to everyone who can hear:
Come all without, come all within
You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn.
Dylan has used this town crier function before in his work, notably “The Times They Are A-Changin’”:
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
These lines are a call for imminent change, an almost apocalyptic change. Dylan is heralding this change with the opening line: “Come gather ’round people / Wherever you roam.” In an enormous contrast, the town crier in “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” is instead announcing the arrival of a figure and with his appearance will be the start of an absolute blast of a party.
In the next verse, we see an introduction of a character, who is actually the narrator of the song:
I like to do just like the rest
I like my sugar sweet.
Using the parlance of our times, it’s good that this narrator is using “I statements” as a way to establish himself. These lines by Dylan have always been favorites. They also align well with a phrase from another song from The Basement Tapes, “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood).” In that song Dylan, quoting from Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues,” sings:
Well, it’s sugar for sugar
And salt for salt
If you go down in the flood
It’s gonna be your own fault.
In that song, the usage of “sugar for sugar” is a case of measuring a set of expectations, perhaps a different way of saying “all things being equal” or the phrase “pound for pound” as used for comparison in boxing. In “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” the narrator says that he likes his sugar sweet “just like the rest” as a way to connect himself with the collective, those he is calling to meet the arrival of Quinn the Eskimo. But to contrast himself from this crowd, he says:
But guarding fumes and making haste
It ain’t my cup of meat.
The narrator has no use for the demands of everyday life. How does he describe this existence? “Ev’rybody’s ’neath the trees / Feeding pigeons on a limb.” The narrator thinks this is a pointless act, unnecessary and unrewarding because there’s a different way to operate in the world. In other words, check out this guy: “When Quinn the Eskimo gets here / All the pigeons gonna run to him.” In the final verse, the narrator says the following:
A cat’s meow and a cow’s moo, I can recite ’em all
Just tell me where it hurts yuh, honey
And I’ll tell you who to call.
These lines could be read as a minor dig by the narrator: “You can tell me all of your troubles, but I really can’t help you out.” Despite the jibe, the mood of the song and Dylan’s delivery makes it seem much more playful than the words read without the musical context. The cheekiness of the words mixed with the intimacy of how the words are spoken even makes it seem flirtatious.
The second half of the final verse allows for some open interpretation:
Nobody can get no sleep
There’s someone on ev’ryone’s toes
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Ev’rybody’s gonna wanna doze.
On the face of it, these lines seem like simple wordplay; rhyming games by Dylan. Though when the band Phish has covered the song in concert, their reading of the final word is not “doze,” but rather “dose,” implying a partaking of psychedelic drugs which would result in a massive group mind-bending experience. The joyous response of their fans to that word choice is obvious in this version.
Throughout the song, the narrator has built expectations for the Mighty Quinn. The narrator makes his case, but within the framework of the song, Quinn the Eskimo never actually arrives, turning him into a Godot-like figure. What do we make of this? Perhaps the anticipation of what may happen while waiting is the point of the song. Or, going back to the interpretation at the beginning of this analysis, maybe Dylan is saying that the act of artistic creation in and of itself should be the goal of art. The celebration that comes when arriving at the end of the process — in this case, the Mighty Quinn — can be welcomed, but the end product is besides the point. If this is the message of the song, it has resonance with the larger project in which “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” was composed. As discussed in previous posts on Recliner Notes about The Basement Tapes, the songs created in the basement by Dylan and The Band weren’t ever meant to be released publicly. The entire project was about music creation for the sake of making music. In one sense, “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” is a representation of The Basement Tapes as a whole, a celebration of the act of making art.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1969, Dylan said of the group of songs that eventually came to encompass The Basement Tapes:
“They were just fun to do. That’s all. They were a kick to do. Fact, I’d do it all again. You know…that’s really the way to do a recording– in a peaceful, relaxed setting–in somebody’s basement. With the windows open…and a dog lying on the floor.”
Of course, the music created for The Basement Tapes was too good not to be shared. Dylan’s management put together a set of demos from those recordings to be shared with other musicians so that the songs could be recorded, thereby securing songwriting royalties. In the same Rolling Stone interview, Dylan expressed misgivings about this decision:
“They weren’t demos for myself, they were demos of the songs. I was being PUSHED again…into coming up with some songs. So, you know…you know how those things go.”
One of the first covers of a Basement Tapes song to be released publicly was by the English group Manfred Mann, who recorded the song as “The Mighty Quinn”:
Manfred Mann recorded the song immediately after receiving the demo in December 1967. Their arrangement includes a lot of whistles and an overriding emphasis on the chorus, putting it right at the beginning of the song and then repeating it over and over again at the end. The single was a hit, reaching number one in the United Kingdom and number ten in the United States. Perhaps because of the popularity of the Manfred Mann version, Dylan performed a rendition in his big return to the stage at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969:
This performance by Dylan and The Band is much more raucous and lively than The Basement Tapes version. The ensemble lay down the funkiest of grooves to start the song. The bass, drums, and guitars are all working together as Dylan swoops in with his Nashville Skyline voice to start the celebration to welcome the Mighty Quinn. Dylan and The Band are having a blast; the vocals in the chorus are all over the place expressing the jubilation of playing music together. When it’s time for the big musical break, Dylan yells “GUITAR NOW” and Robbie Robertson breaks into one of his great rock ‘n roll guitar solos with a heat so intense that the metal supports supporting the stage were in danger of melting. Dylan would go on to release this version of the song on 1970’s Self Portrait as well as 1971’s Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II. The Basement Tapes rendition would not see a public release until the aforementioned 1985 Biograph box set.
In addition to Manfred Mann and Phish, the song has been covered by a number of musicians, including Julie London, Noel Gallagher, Leon Russell, and even The Beatles. Peter Jackson’s 2021 mind-blowing, fly-on-the-wall documentary The Beatles: Get Back shows The Beatles during the sessions for what would eventually become the album Let It Be. The Beatles perform a number of Dylan’s Basement Tapes songs, including “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).” It’s a goofing around moment in the sessions, not a serious attempt to capture the song. But it’s representative of the theory — not original with this post’s writer — that the Let It Be project was supposed to be The Beatles’ attempt to do their own Basement Tapes. George Harrison had visited Dylan in Woodstock in 1968 and supposedly jammed with him and The Band in the basement of Big Pink. George must have learned about Dylan’s working process and shared it with the other members of his band, in their last-ditch effort to save The Beatles.
For The Beatles and everyone else who has covered the song or simply sang it as a lullaby to their children before turning out the lights, the song can be irresistible to sing once started. It’s a joyous occasion to sing those rhymes and join in on the chorus. Come all without, come all within.
Image: Winslow Homer, Shipbuilding, Gloucester Harbor, 1873. Wood engraving printed in black ink on wove paper. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons