Bob Dylan Under The Big Top: The Clown Of Thorns

by Larry Fyffe

Clowns get away with criticizing the harmful  effects of accepted social norms by using exaggerated humour, i.e., Charlie Chaplin’s movie, ‘Modern Times.’

Bob Dylan is more serious in his condemnation of ‘society’s pliars’, but likewise offers little except a vicarious venting off of steam to his listeners: little is revealed concerning what to do about the existing problematic social, political, and economic conditions.

“They’re selling post cards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports
The beauty parlour is filled with sailors,
the circus is in town”
(Desolation Row)

The military with its special passports, dressed-up sailors, and public executions are just part of one big circus.

Dylan sees himself as being part, albeit woefully, of the circus parade.

“Ah, you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you”
(Like A Rolling Stone)

The songwriter pities the plight of both the poor poet, and the clown.

“Heard the song of the poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of the clown who died in the alley”
(Hard Rain)

But Dylan takes a rather Existentialist perspective of the situation. There’s really no running away from this circus, and so best to escape by finding what
comfort it has to offer.

“Now when all clowns that you have commissioned
Have died in battle or in vain
And you’re sick of all this repetition
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane”

(Queen Jane Approximately)

Come see the ‘song and dance’ man.

One can’t be too careful these days:
a feeling of resignation might overtake you.

“And if you feel vague traces of skipping
reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing”
(Mr. Tambourine Man)

Perhaps religion is a way out, but no, to Dylan, it’s organisational structure is but a dark shadow of that same circus.

“Fifteen jugglers
Fifteen jugglers
Five believers
Five believers
All dressed like men
Tell your mama not to worry
They’re just my friends”
(Obviously Five Believers)

The Discussion Group

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The Chronology Files

These files put Dylan’s work in the order written.  You can link to the files here


  1. I agree that…
    Dylan “offers little except a vicarious venting off of steam to his listeners: little is revealed concerning what to do about the existing problematic social, political, and economic conditions”
    …and that’s the biggest problem with Dylan’s art for me. His ranting and raving is often just like that. It doesn’t say anything but I don’t trust mankind and God ain’t gonna help you anyway. Trump will help you out, conservatism will help you out… it doesn’t offer solutions, nor insight, not even a reason to find solace in whatever.
    This is one reason for the problems I have with unrestricted adulation with the poetry and message of Dylan… a lot of the adulation for Dylan often unrelated to the merits of his words – it is as if the fans are promoting Bob Dylan himself as the source of the meaning in his work, I agree with Greil Marcus this is promoting pure solipsism. (‘Speaker to Speaker’ in Artforum, April 1986 – In ‘Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus – writings 1968-2010’).

  2. A point well made….but Dylan says very little with such flair….his undeniable widespread appeal stems from, not himself per se, but from the catharsis his music and creative lyrics provides his listeners, I would argue.

  3. …….putting into words….beautiful words……what people are thinking and feeling……isn’t that “Dylan”? Why does he need to solve your problems? His art is his expression in words and music. Art is NOT answers, it’s emotions. Should there be a song about how to rid the world…a step by step guide….of crooked businessmen, politicians, or people acting in the name of religion? Or a song explaining how to feed the poor, free the imprisoned or save lost souls? Come on! You are trying too hard to be critical. It’s how people react to the spotlight pointed at these problems. Live Aid, Farm Aid, Amnesty International and way too many more to mention on how people respond to the “question.”

  4. I love your replay. Just saw him in concert tonight. He just makes me laugh and feel such joy. Like he knows ppl take him too seriously like they take all celebrity too seriously but he’s using the chance to make amazing and skilled music. His band can’t be beat. It’s just “well schooled and it’s skilled” to quote the man himself. And the message is usually emotional or a lesson on the history of American music not anything political …

  5. How does it feel, how does it feel
    To be without a home
    Like a complete unknown
    Like a rolling Stone
    (Bob Dylan: Like A Rolling Stone)

    Akin to:

    He was never meant to win
    He’s a rolling stone
    And it’s bred in the bone
    He’s a man who won’t fit in
    (Robert Service: The Men Who Don’t Fit In)

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