Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues revisited: the meaning behind the music and the lyrics

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.

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  1. “The city fathers, they’re trying to endorse
    the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse.”

    This is a fascinating lyric that I mulled over for days before I figured it out. Here’s what the lyric means:

    Paul Revere was a hero of the American Revolution and one of America’s “founding fathers.” He is the quintessential symbol of American patriotism.

    Why would the city fathers (government leaders) be trying to endorse the reincarnation of his horse? Because they are trying to convince people that the thing they are endorsing is “patriotic.” After all, who could question the patriotism of Paul Revere? His reincarnation, then, would be beyond reproach too.

    So why Paul Revere’s horse rather than Revere himself? Dylan makes this lyrical choice to stress the implausibility of the claim, and to convince the listener that it’s absurd.

    That, I am convinced, is the meaning of the lyric. Now, what exactly they were trying to pass off as the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse, we are not told. But I think it is very clear that he is referring to the war in Vietnam. Our government tried to pass off that war as “the patriotic thing to do.”

    The beautiful thing though is that it’s not any one war specifically that Dylan targets with this lyric, but rather the BEHAVIOR of trying to pass of warmongering as “patriotic,” which out gov’t still does today.

  2. Why tells Bob how does it feel to have trouble with the tombstone blues? I think because he was walking down the line through the streets and came in the kitchen home alone and saw the historical reality of the collection of people who bring mortal fear in the human nature of the desolation row of mankind. So Bob remembers the city fathers believing in reincarnation of Paul’s horse, the ghost of Belle Star to Jezebel and Jack the Ripper in the Head of the Chamber of Commerce. The hysterical bride who’s just been made, doesn’t need that advice of the doctor or the medicine man. John the Baptist and the Commander-in-Chief Jesus Christ know the Apocalypse and the Sermon on the Mount when the sky is changing colours in the time of Armageddon. Do we remember the king of the Philistines, Gypsy Davey, Galileo, Big Brother Bill, Cecil B. DeMille, Ma Rainey, Beethoven and the National Bank??? Who’s your glory road map for your soul? Let us increase useful knowledge of the holy slow train comin’, and at the Abrabian crossing waits White Heap, the newspaperman and Inevitables made of Solid Rock.

  3. But you never may behold/
    Little John or Robin bold/
    Never one of all the clan/
    Thrumming on an empty can/
    Some old hunting ditty while/
    He doth hus green way begile/

    Honour to tight Little John/
    And the horse he rode upon/
    Honour to bold Robon Hood/
    Sleeping in the underwood/
    Honour to Maid Marian/
    And to all the Sherwood clan.
    (John Keats: Robin Hood)

  4. Reminds of Revere…a little light in the belfry.

    Dylan’s use of surrealistic imagery like a mobile mixed hung with ghosts, shades, and shadows of historical figures is more about the briefness of life than useless and pointless knowledge(which Dylan has found a good use and a point for):

    “Well Shakespeare, he’s in the alley/
    With his pointed shoes and his bells”
    (Dylan: Stuck Inside Mobile)

    “Einstein, dusguised as Robin Hood/
    ….Passed this way an hour ago with his friend a jealous monk/
    ….You would not think to look at him that he was famous long ago/
    For playing electric violin on Desolation Row”.
    (Dylan: Desolation Row)

    Like painter Dali, Dylan compresses Time in his symbolist lyrics to demonstrate how fugitive (Robin Hood)and relative (Albert Einstein) it is.

  5. Indeed the reference to useless knowledge has to be taken with a chunk of sea salt as large as an iceberg because Dylan fights with TS Eliot in the watch tower over the use of Greek mythology which he mixes with the legends of western outlaws:

    “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each/
    I do not think they will sing for me”(Prufrock)

    Apparently, no need to be tied to the mast as was

  6. Ulysses Dylan, the sexual seadog, cuts down the mast with a double entrendred saw:

    “Well, I sailed through the storm/
    Strapped to the mast/
    ….You could ride like Annie Oakley/
    And you could shoot like Belle Starr”
    (Seeing The Real You At Last)

  7. I never understood the song. I knew it was political and the”Commander in Chief” is appropriate today for Trump. Much of it is surreal, like a Dali painting. I agree, the education system is criticized, but we all have to move on in 2017 madness. Trumpty is worse than Nixon, much worse.

  8. My interpretation is that all these symbolic or mythological characters – in a sort of “triumph of death” painting like Bruegel’s – are busy in their useless fights, endeavours, debates, tricks and cheats, etc, while ordinary people are starving and nobody cares. Tombstones – if I remember well from my white goods days – were the old ‘american-style’ cookers. Mama is working but they are poor, daddy is looking for food in the street while in the kitchen the cooker is idle, has nothing to cook.
    Jack the Ripper is head of the chamber of commerce as merchants and traders ‘rip off’ ordinary people.
    The medicine man is Dylan’s usual caricature of doctors giving useless advice (like the shrunk in that world war song saying to Dylan that he had the same dream as he did, but he couldn’t see him around). Then he abuses his role and takes himself advantage of the bride.
    Not to mention the commander in chief….

  9. You didn’t get the song at all. The song is an allegory to the Vietnam War. The title refers to how people are getting the blues, because so many people are dying, hence, the tombstone blues. The first line about “the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse” is talking about how the government is trying to invigorate the people to feel pride and nationalism about this war, but they are failing. “Jack the Ripper who sits at the head of the chamber of commerce” represents how the people leading government are corrupt murderers. The verse about John the Baptist and the Commander in Chief is mocking the foolish and incompetent nature of Lyndon B. Johnson regarding the war, Johnson of course being represented by the Commander in Chief. “The Sun’s not yellow; it’s chicken” is just making fun of how Johnson was a poor speaker, and “dropping a barbell” and the other lines mock his public appearance. The next verse talks about the Philistines going out into the jungle to fight a meaningless war, which of course, is an allegory to Vietnam. The verse after that talks about Gypsy Davy blowtorching their camps, just as many camps were blowtorched in Vietnam. Bob makes many allusions, comparing the nation’s leaders to Deliah and the Philistines and certain murderers, etc. the last verse about “your useless and pointless knowledge” is Bob’s way of trying to say that he is trying to convince these politicians that the war is pointless and meaningless, comparing it to failures of other governments and individuals in the past, but ultimately, it is impossible for him to sway them. The song ends on that note, kind of an abrupt ending. Sorry to sound harsh, but you did a poor review of this song, because you made it seem like it was just gibberish, but it is actually really meaningful and you were ignorant toward the fact that it was written about Vietnam, which is what the song is all about.

  10. Luke, all you say is possible, but there is no proof or evidence that it was written about Vietnam. Just saying “which is what the song is all about” doesn’t make it so.

  11. The Vietnam War is what connects it all together. Sure, he never directly said that that is what he wrote it about, but that is the only interpretation that actually makes sense to be honest. There is plenty of evidence that it is about Vietnam, all in the song itself. I just thought this interpretation was worthy of note, so I brought it up on this page, since it is the common interpretation of this song.

  12. It’s a song with no meaning like so many of Dylan songs which is what makes it so much fun ! Trying to ” attach a meaning ” to THESE lyrics amounts to trying to sandpaper a Lions ass .

  13. Dylan here is like a tommy gun, relentlessly spewing out fantastic beings :Bam Bam Bam!!

  14. Mama’s in the pantry, preparing to eat
    Sister’s in the kitchen, a-fixing for the feast
    Pappa’s in the cellar, a-mixing up the hops
    Brother’s at the window, a-watching for the cops
    (Chris Bouchillon: Talking Blues)

  15. Baby’s in the cradle
    Brother’s gone to town
    Sister’s in the parlour
    Trying on a gown
    Mama’s in the kitchen
    Messing all around
    Papa’s on the housetop
    Won’t come down
    (LeRoy Carr: Papa’s On The Housetop ~ (Carr/Blackell)

  16. The album “Highway 61 Revisited” is at the peak of Dylan’s scathing assault on the “Zeitgeist” of contemporary American life. Where “It’s all Right Ma” and other songs on the great “Bringing it All Back Home” (such an apt title), had extended his range vastly beyond the topicality of his earlier “folk period” work into a full blown critique of fury at the landscape that would start to move into mourning on Desolation Row that was extended in “Blonde on Blonde”, here the fury has become totally surrealistic.

    The songs must not only be listened to lyrically but *felt* to grasp their meaning for words and music form a gestalt. If Dylan said (and he did often) ““I’ve stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung. 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.”, he is lying. He hated to be pinned down but his work clearly was about “something” and his aim in that something he was gunning for was quite large. Like Ahab pursuing the whale, Dylan sinks harpoon after harpoon into America’s hide, for those that get what he is after.

    “Tombstone Blues” has to be taken in this context. The rage is white hot, hotter than the title song, which itself blazes. It’s like trying to ride a comet. Everything in life is inverted, nothing makes sense, bur in that senselessness is coherence. Jezebel was a harlot, now a nun, knitting is a calming activity, here it is violent. And yes, Jack the Ripper, one of the most notorious serial killers of all time sits at the head of political influence. (noted by many here)

    I think people here, especially Luke S are right in that the Vietnam War informs and influences the song tremendously and there seem to be specific allusions to it. But I think it is not limited just to that for that would make the song a little too didactic. Dylan uses it as a fulcrum to attack a culture of death. In this way it is like the title song, except more savage in its imagery, if that is even possible. Freud discovered that a dream symbol could contain two or more meanings and here there are examples of that. Although the verse “John the Baptist after torturing a thief probably has allusions to Johnson and the American Presidency (Commander in Chief) there are allusions here also to savaging what America ostensibly holds most sacred, as he did in the first verse of the title song. John the Baptist is a Biblical figure and Jesus died between two thieves. So where does the President end and Jesus begin?. All that might be considered sacred has been utterly destroyed in violence. And if it were only about Vietnam, the verses about the “hysterical bride”, the doctor and the Medicine Man which seem to attack puritanical views would seem out of place.(Extension of “Old lady judges watch people in pairs, Limited in sex, they dare, To push fake morals, insult and stare While money doesn’t talk, it swears, Obscenity, who really cares
    Propaganda, all is phony”.)

    The last verse is quite plain and direct and quite consistent with not only Dylan’s other material of the time but his interviews with the press, especially the famous Time magazine sequence from Don’t Look Back. For years Dylan has gone after the Tower of Babel, the monument of American civilization and the “Darkness at the break of noon” (Jesus died then according to scripture (“Mat 27:45 Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land.”). He is exasperated with those who can’t get it , who try to prevent people from going to “Desolation Row” where one sees the truth, and has tried to liberate them from their “useless and pointless knowledge.” He has done his best. He has given all he has .”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”.

    There is truth in that (I believe) Dylan did not write most of this material from the conscious mind. On that sense they might mean “nothing” It flooded through him from a higher source. But to insist they mean “nothing” in a real sense is disingenuous. As in dreams, the “manifest content” , (surface images) seem incoherent. but the “latent content” (underlying meaning) is crystal clear. Dylan deeply knew what he was writing about. He just did not want to spell it out for every one like a school lesson. What would then be the point of the art?

    The writer of the article is really rather clueless. Perhaps that’s because he is British.

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