Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues

By Tony Attwood

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is a strophic classic blues which takes the 12 bar structure and stretches to the limit by using an inventive melodic line.

What Dylan here is gives a nightmare story incorporating other nightmares through quick references.  This, Dylan is saying, is the nightmare of the real meaning of the blues, taken on 30 years from the days of Robert Johnson.  This is “Rats in the Kitchen” for the 1960s hippy.

The form is so stretched that it takes us a second or two to realise it.  We know it is strophic (verse verse verse… continuing for as long as you want), and that adds to the pain.  A chorus would simply reduce the pain level by increasing the familiarity.  A  middle 8 (to give us the standard tertiary form of A A B A) would scream “popular song” and Dylan doesn’t want either of these – he wants pain, pain, pain. This is why one verse piles in straight after the one before.  The pain never stops.

The pain reaches its ultimate perhaps on the No Direction Home version.  To hear it from the opposite perspective listen to Brian Ferry on Dylanesque.  The words lose their meaning, the world describes becomes a comedy circus, not a reality.

So what we have is a total song of despair, interestingly placed ahead of the ultimate song of despair – Desolation Row.  Each of these songs ends with no end to the situation.  OK, Dylan can return to New York to escape, but the pain still lingers.  In Desolation Row, there is not even that escape, because the doorknob has broken, and instead of running away all he can say is “Don’t send me no more letters no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.”

In other words in Desolation Row, you have to go back to Dylan which is why it is the last track on Highway 61 Revisited.  In Tom Thumb, Dylan can escape and get back to New York.  In Desolation Row, even the blues highway (Highway 61) is no escape.  In Tom Thumb the Blues Highway shows us everything, but then is there metaphorically to allow us to get out again.

Within “Just like Tom Thumb Blues”, Dylan is in Juarez – which could be one of many places.  It has Saint Annie, who could be any one of many people.  Mostly Juarez is interpreted as the city on the Rio Grande just south of El Paso in Texas.  El Paso and Ciudad Juárez is together a significant conurbation with a population of 2.1 million.

In a sense, the song is an attack on the Mexican border town – and indeed on Mexico – compared with the fun and games of Highway 61 itself, and by implication the recognised life within the Mississippi Delta. Mississippi ok, Mexico border town, too far gone, seems to be the message.  The notion that the album’s title song, and Tom Thumb are in any way connected through similarity seems to me utterly erroneous.  They are either contrasts, or (you could argue) that Highway 61 is simply the setting out of the blues as a structure.  Just as a road “says” here you are, follow this road or not, the choice is yours, Tom Thumb says, “this is the hell you get to if you travel south to the border and go over it”.

And then there are the cross references which are everywhere, including

Don’t put on any airs
When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue

Just to clarify that one, this is not just a passing reference to a short story that Dylan knows.  Because “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is so much more than a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  Published in 1841 is was the first ever (yes, really, the first) detective story.  From this story all detective fiction, and all the exceptional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Poirot and the notion of the detective’s less insightful assistant.

The sanitisation of Holmes through television and film versions has removed much of the horror that Holmes dealt with, but Dylan spares us nothing.

But beyond that, with all the other references that people have seen, I’m not too sure.  Rue Morgue Avenue is of course not the name of the original story – there is no “Avenue”, but an avenue of trees represents something pleasant – and there is nothing pleasant here, for it is a town of failure and despair.

There is the suggestion that the title of the song relates to a line in My Bohemian Life (Fantasy) by Arthur Rimbaud.

In the original French “Fantasy” is actually “Fantaisie,” which really isn’t the same thing at all.  The character goes off for a wander into a strange world where the poet imagines “Tom Thumb” making rhymes.

I went off, my fists in my torn pockets;
My coat too was becoming ideal;
I walked under the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;
Oh! Oh! What brilliant loves I dreamed of!

My only pair of trousers had a big hole.
Tom Thumb in a daze, I sowed rhymes
As I went along. My inn was at the Big Dipper.
—My stars in the sky made a soft rustling sound.

It is not really the same stuff as Dylan’s song.  Dylan is in a Poe like world

I cannot move
My fingers are all in a knot
I don’t have the strength
To get up and take another shot
And my best friend, my doctor
Won’t even say what it is I’ve got

As for “Up on Housing Project Hill” we are with Jack Kerouac, although not his most famous “On the Road” which would fit the overall notion of Highway 61, but is taken from Desolation Angels which itself relates to working on the fire watch on Desolation Peak in Washington state.   But the book is about a move away from Buddhism, which doesn’t really fit with Dylan’s work.  But it does fit with the next track: Desolation Row.

My conclusion, for what it is worth, is that it is not really helpful to try to make too much out of all these references and allusions.   They are interesting in an academic way, but Dylan never seems to use them specifically – rather they are just passing references and starting points.

This is a song of despair, a song in which the blues musical form is extended further than could have been imagined thirty years earlier, and in which the references are themselves extended in their meaning.  Trying to close down the references to mean anything in particular doesn’t work.  The key is in the music, and the original meaning of the blues.

I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough

or as Robert Johnson put it

I got to keep movin', I've got to keep movin'
Blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail
blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail
And the day keeps on worrin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail..

Full index of songs




  1. Again I cannot agree with Attwood’s assessment of
    Dylan’s tune Desolation Row as being about total despair. In Tom Thumb’s Blues, he references again Arthur Rimbaud:’My only pair of trousers had a big hole / Tom Thumb in a daze, I sowed rhymes/As I went along'(My Bohemian life).

    The allusions do matter: without experiencing life’s dark side, an artist’s visions are going to be overly idealistic, unreal. Without escaping to Desolation Row, what is dark and what is light cannot be put in proper perspective.

    Mr. Attwood, your knowledge music appears to be
    clouding your perception of the importance Dylan gives to his lyrics: there are some among us who think words are but a joke, just filler.

  2. Mr. Attwood, nothwithstanding there isn’t any, Bob Dylan did not win the Nobel Prize in Music, he got it in Literature….of course, the music is essential too. Without it, bringing literature, Dylan’s sampling thereof, to a large audience would not have happened.

  3. In Poe’s ‘Murders In The Rue Morgue’, the killer is a vicious

  4. Here is a description of what the song is about:

    First, Tom Thumb was a folk tale character who was so small he used to get eaten by all kinds of things, birds, pigs, fish, people, and he would get shat out and it would happen again. So the title is referring to a person who has it rough, to say the least and is struggling in life. The song all happens in the context of a story taking place in Mexico, but that doesn’t really mean much to the deeper part…

    First verse: The person is lost in the rain, (confusion, unclarity, suffering) at Eastertime, (time of death and resurrection, but more meeting death here, mortality of body and ego that life presents to us all), their gravity (depth) and negativity (their ability to say ‘screw it”) are not working, and they are on Rue Morgue Avenue, again meeting mortality, and how to deal with that………cuz if you fake it (put on airs,)the “hungry women” (conditioning factors in life, later referred to as authorities) will make a mess out of you.

    The next 3 verses are about those conditioning factors in life (hungry women), the escapes from the fact of “Rue Morgue Avenue” that take us away from meeting death, and make a mess out of us… The first two verses actually use women as metaphors of the conditioning authorities: first up is Saint Annie (religion) fingers are in a knot (praying). it has him paralyzed and the doctor (specialists, professionals) can’t help either.

    Next, Sweet Melinda, (representing sex and or romance) the goddess of gloom who will end up leaving you and then leaving you howling at the moon.

    Next conditioning factor -and here he abandons the metaphor of the hungry women -(but again, he refers to all of these conditioning factors later as ‘authorities’) is fortune and fame…..which don’t provide what we hope that they will, and then the police can’t help either…

    So the fifth verse talks about all these ‘authorites’ that he just mentioned – religion, sex/romance, specialists, fortune, fame – how they brag about getting our awareness/intelligence (“the sergeant at arms”) into be non-existent (“leaving his post”)…and then they crush the innoncence (represented by the name “Angel”) of the young ones, (“who just arrived from the coast”) who started out so fresh but got consumed by these conditioning factors (“looked so fine at first but left looking just like a ghost”)

    And the last verse after the harmonica solo is about giving up…started out on burgundy… nobody else was doing the work so they couldn’t help him when “the game got rough” and no one there to bluff cuz they are all bluffing too……so he is quitting…giving up…he’s had enough.

  5. Hey, Tony! I haven’t connected with you for a while. I finally discovered the connection between Tom Thumb and ‘Burgundy’ ( Francois Villon). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the’20’s musical, “The Vagabond King” which was VERY popular in the Forties and Fifties. It was a mythical life of Villon who became King for a day as he drove the villain, the Duke of Burgandy from the streets of Paris.
    I knew this connection the first time I heard this song. But, I couldn’t prove it until I found Two Things. First, Google Villon and Tom Thumb! They appear on the same page on the notes to Villon’s English translation published around 1898. Second, Dylans refers to reading this book around 62-63, in an interview in the LA Times in 2008 (GREAT interview) Now, I have stated in the past that this song occurs during Easter! So the references to Christ are many (St Anne(the Virgin Mary’s mother) The Sargent-at-arms leaving his post ), the Ghost, “housing project Hill . (This still is a work-in-progress, but I’m getting close

  6. D. mentions Easter on this song but QJA sounds like Easter./ song seems to me about a lark–going to mexico for casual sex and probably drugs–that backfires into a bummer, hence the line about ‘goin’ back to NYC”. “the harder stuff” cld be tequila or perhaps heroin. “Tom Thumb” somewhat resembles “Memphis Blues” in its colorful images, but its meaning is much more literal/ concrete. D. wanted to geat away from it all but there is no getting away from it all. W/ all due respect, digging into the song’s images deflects from its sense. The empty partying fails, leading to D.’s reflections on political corruption, feminine wiles, self-hatred, etc.

  7. Seems pretty obvious that Keith Reid’s brilliant lyric for Whiter Shade of Pale was inspired by Tom Thumb in particular (or is this common knowledge I am unaware of?).

    In particular:

    they blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms
    Into leaving his post
    And picking up Angel who
    Just arrived here from the coast
    Who looked so fine at first
    But left looking just like a ghost

    And so it was that later
    As the miller told his tale
    That her face, at first just ghostly
    Turned a whiter shade of pale
    She said, ‘There is no reason’
    And the truth is plain to see
    But I wandered through my playing cards
    And would not let her be
    One of sixteen vestal virgins
    Who were leaving for the coast
    And although my eyes were open
    They might have just as well’ve been closed

  8. You guys are all overthinking Dylan. This song is about losing your virginity to a whore on spring break. It’s classic Dylan style to show that someone or some group that society see as unacceptable often has qualities that are morally superior to those who judge them.
    Sweet Melinda (the prostitute) is elevated to a “goddess”. This theme is also the reason why the song is written in the 1st person and the reason that there is one reference after another of some authority figure or institution who displays some moral flaw such as the authorities boasting about blackmailing the sergeant at arms. This implies that all authority figure are corrupt because the sergeant of arms is supposed to keep order in a legislative body. The drunken, whore mongering, drug user is actually their moral superior because he can see their corruption. This theme of moral superiority over people in power is Dylan’s real message.
    In other songs this theme is also displayed. An example is Maggie’s farm where Maggie’s father is an absolute tyrant. In All Along the Watchtower Dylan elevates a joker and a thief to Princes. In contrast business men who, “drink my wine” and plowmen who, “dig my earth” do not know what “any of it is worth”. But the joker says to the thief do not, “talk falsely now”.
    Classic Dylan protest against authorities. Good night. “The hour’s getting late. “

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *