By Tony Attwood
Just how surreal do you want to be? Just how far can the three major chords that make up the blues be taken? Consider just one line: “The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse”.
Paul Cable, who wrote the books on Dylan’s unreleased recordings called the lyrics of the song “a typical melee of totally unrelated weirdo characters,” and that seems to be fair enough.
And as Dylan himself said in 1966, “I’ve stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sun. My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing, The newer ones are about the same nothing – only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called Nowhere.”
Here’s the extraordinary acoustic version with a different melody. If you don’t know it, do prepare to be surprised.
Which seems to put us pretty much in our place. And we may note, Bob liked it, playing it 169 in concert in the 41 years after its birth.
So what does analyzing the text give us? Well, some would argue an insight into Bob’s brain, because these words don’t come out of nowhere, they are at the very least important in his subconscious, unless he really was opening an encyclopedia of American history at random and writing the title of the first entry he found on each page he stumbled upon.
It has been done.
In case you don’t know (and I suspect a UK reader is less likely to know than an American reader) Paul Revere was an American hero of the American War of Independence made famous for his ride to alert the American forces of the arrival of the British forces. Longfellow wrote the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” and for a reason that I can’t fathom why the question “What was the name of Paul Revere’s horse?” keeps cropping up on web sites and American quizzes.
Here’s an early electric performance
It is an odd question since no one knows – he borrowed the horse for the ride. But then I’m British so maybe I don’t quite get some deeper meaning in the reference.
Anyway, it is a romantic story and the poem is one that is popular with children (or at least was so at one time). And Dylan captures this flavour with the rollicking bouncing nature of the accompaniment, and the opening lines…
The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous
And why has the town no need to be nervous? Because the warning of the British advance has come through? Or because the horse can’t be reincarnated? Who knows.
And an “unplugged” version, which of course isn’t.
The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun she violently knits
Belle Starr was an outlaw with a very eccentric life style, if I may put it like that. Jezebel was the wife of Ahab, king of north Israel and the name “Jezebel” still retains a certain meaning.
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
At the head of the chamber of commerce
But even if we have kept track of the allusions thus far, by the end of the first verse we are ready to give up on any sort of relationship with reality.
Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for the fuse
I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues
It is a song of words upon words, delivered to a beat, with references to a mixed up past. There’s humour, but only just, for it is only one step aside from craziness. It is surreal, there are no connections, just an occasional play on words; a set of games. It is profound, it is meaningless. It is saucy, it is history thrown up in the air to see what sort of order it comes down in. It is… well, mixed up.
The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming she moans, “I’ve just been made”
Then sends out for the doctor who pulls down the shade
Says, “My advice is do not let the boys in”
Who are these people? Occasionally we know. But sometimes even the explanations are obscure. The official Dylan site gives us for the next line:
Well, John the Blacksmith after torturing a thief
While elsewhere we have
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?”
It goes on and on, and all the time there is this lively rock blues that just is a rock blues.
We hope as we hear the song that maybe there will be some sense in the end…
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
So maybe that’s it. Useless and pointless knowledge. All the things that the kids have to learn at school about Galileo, about Paul Revere’s horse, about folk heroes… Is it really a critique upon the American education system.
Certainly the name Tombstone Blues is evocative of the very nature of blues itself – it is a name that feels that it should be attached to some 1930s blues song. If it is, it is not one that I know.
I’d go for “useless and pointless knowledge” being the key to the whole thing. Why do we learn all this stuff? You have to answer for yourself. I found learning about Galileo and his treatment by the Catholic church very interesting. But each to his own I guess.
You might also enjoy
- Northern claim: Dylan with an idea and we’re left with a struggle.
- Bob Dylan and John Keats
- Jezebel the nun: Bob Dylan’s history as a recurring cycle
- La Mancha is Blowing in the Wind: Bob Dylan and Don Quixote
- Bob Dylan: Which side are you on?
- Is Bob Dylan funny?
What else is on the site?
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