Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #66: Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

When I was writing for Treble Magazine (go check it out - music reviews done right!), I had the pleasure of contributing to their Top Albums of the 1990s list, both through casting a ballot and writing up mini-reviews of some of the albums that made the final list. One of them was the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head, an absolutely fantastic album that basically reinvented the group's career. And, as I noted in the review, my very first taste of Bob Dylan came from that one little snippet from "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", inserted with casual, winking glee for the hipsters who would appreciate the reference (and only for $700, bargained down from 2 grand - quite a bargain!). Back then, of course, my 13-year old self was just wondering what the hell this guy with the weird voice was doing being slammed onto the last verse of the song that came before "So Whatcha Want". How times change, eh?

One reason, as I noted way back in this blog, that I love sample-driven music so much is that the samples can work as a roadmap to new bands or songs I'd never considered listening to before. In a way, that makes people like Girl Talk all the more valuable - how many kids younger than us would have ever thought to hear "In A Big Country" before it was matched up with "Whoomp! There It Is" (and it works, too)? For that matter, how many people my age that aren't musicphiles would have thought to give that 80s one-hit wonder a shot? In a funny way, that makes that sort of music both aurally pleasing AND educational, as anybody with Google and an iTunes account (or, ahem, other ways of procuring music) can play connect-the-dots and immerse themselves in music they might never have been exposed to. And that's really the only way you can keep your music fandom viable; unless you can expand your horizons, you're doomed to staying in the same box, and that's no fun.

So it wasn't for a few more years until I actually heard "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" properly, and I've loved it ever since. There's so much about the song that just grabs me - the way the two pianos and guitar beautifully mesh together in the intro, Dylan's throaty vocals, the harmonica coming in perfectly before the final verse, and (it has to be said) that brilliant final line. Dylan's vocals always work for me because of just how casual they sound, as though he has a bet to see how poker-faced he can stay while singing about some crazy shit. Granted, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" might be the most straightforward song lyrically on the album, but there's still a cornucopia of wild images to be found, like Sweet Melinda stealing your voice or the white-faced Angel being nabbed by the police. And Dylan never gives you the impression that these images are supposed to be wild or out there compared to normal pop songs. That might be interpreted as distance, but I like to think of it as Dylan allowing the words to speak for themselves, like a director that knows he has a great screenplay and lets the words carry the film.

It hadn't occurred to me until I started pondering what to write about for this post, but "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" reminds me a little bit of Kerouac's On The Road, a book that most of us are probably very familiar with. In fact, the lyrics of this song could serve as one of the episodes of the novel, with Sal Paradise being caught up in Mexico amongst thieves, prostitutes, and all the wine he can drink, and finally saying "screw it" and heading back to NYC to his wife and his small apartment (with, presumably, the massive roll of paper that served as the book's scroll still taking up space). And yes, the song's lyrics don't have the same tripping-over-themselves feel of Kerouac's writing style, nor is there a Neal Cassidy hanging around to make things even wackier. But there's a lot that feels the same, like the world-weariness of the narrator travelling through a world beyond his grasp, and seeming trivialities that manage to feel epic at the same time - I mean, one verse is basically about an extradition snatch-and-grab, and yet Dylan turns it into something remarkable. Doesn't that sound like Kerouac turning a bunch of goofuses slumming around Denver into poetic genius?

I try not to wonder too much about where Dylan's lyrics come from (at least if there's not pat explanation like, say, the one for "To Ramona), because that game will simply lead you down a rabbit hole with no bottom to it. But with "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues", it's hard not to ask yourself where he got the idea for this tale of woe and heartache in Juarez, Mexico. What the hell, maybe he was writing yet another song about the folk movement and how terrible it was being stuck there - beautiful women steal your voice! Don't go putting on any airs, it's all serious business here! The authorities picked up an Angel and now he looks like a ghost! And now I'm going back to New York (the hipster part, not the folkie part), because doggone it, I've had enough!

You know what? I kind of like the Kerouac comparison better. It's nicer to have a song that tells a tale, no matter how self-contained it may be, than serve as a metaphor we've heard more than enough times. I hope Dylan felt the same way, too.

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11 comments:

joe butler said...

tony i think I'm with you. the song speaks with beat cadences which are softened by dylan's lyricism.
sweet melinda is whoever you want her to be. I also love the way the narrative is introduced, like we all been lost in Juarez at easter when it's raining. hope you like my illustration
http://joebart.blogspot.com/2008/12/bob-dylan-just-like-tom-thumbs-blues.html

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite "sing along Bob songs". I love they way most lines end with the last word extended... "leaving his pooooossttt" for example. Who cares if the song doesn't seem to make sense, it's just fun.

Anonymous said...

Re: Kerouac. Read Mexico City Blues, the only poetry collection Kerouac published in his lifetime. It always seemed to me the song was pretty "directly" inspired by that work and the events surrounding it's creation.

LostChords said...

Here's Lonnie Johnson, Got The Blues For Murder Only (1930), another song about a trip to Mexico. Obviously it was even more rough there in the 30s!


Down in old Mexico where a child will slap your face
Down in old Mexico where a child will slap your face
They make a bread with cayenne pepper, drink gun powder to kill the taste

Women down in Mexico they's bad as bad can be
Women in old Mexico they're bad as bad can be
They eats rattlesnakes for breakfast and drink the rattlesnakes' blood for tea

Down in old Mexico their bed is made out of thorns and trees
Bed is made out of thorn trees and the pillows out of rocks and stones
They got rattlesnakes for body guards, wildcats will watch over them all night long

I'm going back to old Mexico where there's long, long reaching guns
I'm going to old Mexico where there's long, long reaching guns
When they want real excitement they kill each other one by one

Down in old Mexico where's everybody's wild and free
Down in old Mexico where everybody's wild and free
'Cause over here in this country they don't kill 'em fast enough for me

Down in old Mexico where they kill 'em both night and day
Down in old Mexico where they kill 'em both night and day
Where the chief locks up the jail house and the judge goes home and stays

rob! said...

i never get tired of this song, don't know why, but i don't.

like "It Takes A Lot To Laugh", my favorite part of the song aren't any of the lyrics, but at the end, when you hear the guitar (Bloomfield?) strumming at the end--it gets me every time. again, don't know why.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed, one of my favourites of those many favourites. The connection with Kerouac is self evident. By the way, Meil Young does great things with this song on the Anniversary concert.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited rated & discussed

Anonymous said...

Tom Thumb incidentally, was a little guy, no bigger than a thumb,

According to the Grimm Brothers [Spoilers]:

"Two strangers...said, ’That little urchin will make our fortune, if we can get him, and carry him about from town to town as a show; we must buy him.’...

To cut it short, by the end Tom tells his parents,

’I have travelled all over the world, I think, in one way or other, since we parted; and now I am very glad to come home and get fresh air again...I have been in a mouse-hole–and in a snail-shell–and down a cow’s throat– and in the wolf’s belly; and yet here I am again, safe and sound.’...
’Well,’ said they, ’you are come back, and we will not sell you again for all the riches in the world.’

Seems to tally with both the song and maybe Dylans outlook at the time.

Anonymous said...

Tom Thumb incidentally, was a little guy, no bigger than a thumb,

According to the Grimm Brothers [Spoilers]:

"Two strangers...said, ’That little urchin will make our fortune, if we can get him, and carry him about from town to town as a show; we must buy him.’...

To cut it short, by the end Tom tells his parents,

’I have travelled all over the world, I think, in one way or other, since we parted; and now I am very glad to come home and get fresh air again...I have been in a mouse-hole–and in a snail-shell–and down a cow’s throat– and in the wolf’s belly; and yet here I am again, safe and sound.’...
’Well,’ said they, ’you are come back, and we will not sell you again for all the riches in the world.’

Seems to tally with both the song and maybe Dylans outlook at the time.

Matthew Edgeworth said...

I'm surprised there is no mention of Rimbaud in this article, though it was still excellent as is always the case. The name Tom Thumb comes from the poem My Bohemian Life.

To me this song was always, at least on one level, about the harsh reality of 'bohemian' life in contrast with the romanticism surrounding it.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello there Tony, Thank you for this interesting essay. Come and join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/338/Just-Like-Tom-Thumbs-Blues and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers and so much more.