Bob Dylan was asked about his 1965 hilariously surreal rock ‘n roll masterpiece “Tombstone Blues” for the 1985 box set Biograph by interviewer Cameron Crowe. Dylan recalled the inspiration for the composition of the song 20 years later:
“I felt like I’d broken through with this song, that nothing like it had been done before…just a flash really. There was this one bar I used to play where cops would always come and hang out, mostly off duty, they’d always be talking stuff, saying that like ‘I don’t know who killed him or why, but I’m sure glad he’s gone,’ that kind of stuff, you’d hear things like ‘the guy should have stuck to ripping off his own people,’ you’d hear stuff like that all the time…I think I wrote this either in that place or remembering some conversations.”
He added a quick addendum to that response, saying: “I had it for a while before I recorded it.” Before recording the song in the studio, Dylan performed it at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival’s Contemporary Songs Workshop, the day before Dylan turned everything upside down by plugging in an electric guitar and murdering the audience:
This early, solo acoustic, non-band version of “Tombstone Blues” has a different chord progression than what would eventually be heard in the studio. It’s also without a chorus, making it sound similar to “Gate of Eden” or “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” two solo acoustic songs recorded earlier in the year for Bringing It All Back Home. The audience laps up this performance of “Tombstone Blues,” laughing at key parts of the song. Dylan is certainly proud of the song, and he delivers it as if he is saying, “You like that part? Wait until you hear the next verse.”
Dylan entered the studio a few days later after debuting the song and recorded it with the full band. It was released the next month on Highway 61 Revisited:
In the transformation of “Tombstone Blues” from the solo acoustic version heard at Newport, Dylan adds the now-familiar chorus, but, most of all, he has created a rock ‘n roll song with a relentless, propulsive rhythm. The key component of the instrumentation is the lead guitar by Mike Bloomfield, who proved that lightning can strike at the same place multiple times with a surging, dynamic solo following each chorus. His solo before the last verse at the 4:34 mark is extraordinary, sounding like an angry snake lashing out and biting the victim’s hand over and over again.
It is with this incredible musical accompaniment that Dylan presents an array of surreal imagery. There’s no clear narrative to the song as Dylan pushes together words, icons, the names of historical figures, and an abundant amount of unique turns of phrase to see how they work in relation to one another. Anti-authority themes emerge from this tangle of visions, reflecting Dylan’s later recollection of the cops openly saying the unsayable at the bar. This can be seen immediately in the first verse as Dylan sings:
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse.
Dylan’s tongue is thoroughly in cheek as he shares the town leadership’s ridiculous notion to produce notoriety for their community as a way to generate tourism dollars or some other nonsense. Dylan immediately adds the ironic sentiment, “But the town has no need to be nervous.” From the start, Dylan is thumbing his nose at those in power, revealing their desperate cluelessness. Dylan’s reveling in the powerlessness of those in charge can be seen again later in the song when he sings:
Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
In these lines, John the Baptist is forced by the Commander-in-Chief — the one who exercises ultimate authority of the armed forces — to not perform a baptism, the ritual of purification for which he is known, but rather undertake torture, the complete opposite of the washing away of sins. John the Baptist is sickened by what he is expected to do in the name of this Commander-in-Chief. Dylan twists the knife further for John the Baptist by showing that he is forced to call this awful figure of authority a “great hero.” Dylan goes on to sing:
The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken.”
The last line, of course, is one of Dylan’s great laugh lines, playing off the double-meanings of both “yellow” and “chicken” to stand for “cowardice.” This line is uttered by the Commander-in-Chief after making seemingly bold pronouncements of bravery and grandeur. Dylan undercuts the Commander-in-Chief’s position of strength by showing that he needs a barbell to keep up his strength, revealing that his opponent is one without any apparent power, something as insignificant as a fly. It’s an “emperor has no clothes” moment for those in power. Dylan delights in pantsing authority figures who boast and brag in public, but who in reality are filled with bluster and false strength.
Among the many characters presented by Dylan within “Tombstone Blues” a few are historical figures in the world of music as seen in the following verse:
Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns out their camps
With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps
With a fantastic collection of stamps
To win friends and influence his uncle.
“Gypsy Davey” is a reference to an old folk song about a man who returns home to find his wife has run off with a traveling gypsy musician whose song she cannot resist. Dylan’s hero Woody Guthrie recorded the song as “Gypsy Davy”:
Variations of the ballad title include “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy”, “Gypsy Davy”, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies O”, “The Gypsy Laddie(s)”, “Black Jack David” (or “Davy”) and “Seven Yellow Gypsies”. Dylan himself recorded a version called “Black Jack Davey” on Good as I Been to You, his 1992 collection of folk and blues covers:
Within all of these variations of the folk ballad, the singing of the character Black Jack Davey/Gypsy Davey is irresistible to the woman, so much so that she is willing to forsake her “house and home” to travel the world with the singer. In “Tombstone Blues,” Gypsy Davey does not exhibit these singing skills, and is in fact some sort of dandy explorer, who unnecessarily uses excessive force. Dylan transforms a held folk music trope, undercutting the power and draw of Black Jack Davey/Gypsy Davey as he did with other authority figures in “Tombstone Blues” such as the Commander-in-Chief.
Dylan goes further by referencing even more characters from the world of music:
Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole.
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college.
The 1920s and 1930s blues singer Ma Rainey and classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven are lumped together as hobos as if they are taking on the attributes normally associated with Black Jack Davey/Gypsy Davey. But within the world of “Tombstone Blues,” their music has now been forgotten as they are presented in the past tense. Dylan sees the significant musical contributions by both musical geniuses as being replaced by a vacuous, dummy presentation (i.e., “Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”). What is the goal of this new music? Grift, of course, as Dylan says that the “National Bank” is able to “profit” by selling “road maps for the soul.” New age enlightenment is nothing but snake oil medicine in the form of music as envisioned by Dylan. He offers himself up as a solution by inserting himself into the song:
Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge.
Dylan’s desire to comfort the “dear lady” with music is in actuality the song “Tombstone Blues” itself. The melody is indeed plain. Dylan wants to ensure that the listener will not go crazy with “useless and pointless knowledge,” though, it’s Dylan himself who is the holder of this “useless and pointless knowledge” as evidenced by the array of characters, events, figures, and images cataloged within “Tombstone Blues.” In the song, Dylan presents the surreal nature and insanity of our world and he delights in this chaos. The visions of “Tombstone Blues” as written by Dylan reflect the words of William Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
“As I was walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their proverbs, thinking that as the sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the proverbs of Hell show the nature of infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments.”
Here, Blake delights in “the fires of Hell,” finding “Genius” in the teachings instead of the “torment and insanity” that one normally attributes to the infinite punishment of the damned. The delight that Blake feels provides an energy for inspiration and creation. Dylan himself is fueled by a similar delight. Earlier in 1965, Dylan presented the song “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” as a cheeky, origin story of the founding of America. Only a few months later, Dylan composes, records, and releases “Tombstone Blues” as a cheeky illustration of the breakdown of American society. It undercuts figures of authority and reveals the profit-for-profit’s-sake nature of American culture that is replacing traditions and art that we hold dear. In “Tombstone Blues” we see Dylan delighting in this chaos, both in the words he writes as well as the music created by Dylan, Bloomfield, and the other musicians to accompany those words.
Image: Matt Jones, Kinondoni Cemetery Celebration, Watercolor. Many thanks to Matt for the use of this beautiful image on Recliner Notes. Check out his Instagram account for more information on this piece and other examples of his work.