Poor Boy Blues: the meaning and its place in Dylan’s writing history

By Tony Attwood

If you have been reading through the reviews on this site, rather than dipping to read up on the songs you are thinking about (which is of course fair enough – every reader is very welcome) you’ll know that I rate “Ballad for a Friend” as one of the all time overwhelmingly great songs that Dylan has written.  The first absolute masterpiece.

As such this song totally swamps the song that emerged just about the same time: Poor Boy Blues.  Swamps it so much that I completely forgot to do a review of “Poor Boy Blues,” while raving over “Ballad”!

And although the songs seem to have been written within a week or so of each other, they are utterly different.  For whereas “Ballad for a Friend” tells us a story, “Poor Boy” simply sets the scene.

Thus in “Poor Boy”, nothing happens – it is instead a broad brush painting of the situation portrayed in the blues, a situation concerning a good boy and the railroad.  A run through all the standard blues scenarios and scenery one after the other; a set of lines that simply tell of the blues as the blues, with all the standard images that the blues carry; images of moving on and utter, total restlessness.

As such, for all that “Ballad” is a perfectly constructed complete piece, what we have here is just a set of standard images that go nowhere, and as an experiment, for me it doesn’t work.  It is a sketch in a notebook, not a song intended to be listened to and appreciated.  And maybe that’s another reason why I forgot it before.

From the very first verse we know the world has gone wrong

Mm, tell mama
Where’d ya sleep last night?
Cain’t ya hear me cryin’?
Hm, hm, hm

And the problems won’t go away

Hey, tell me baby
What’s the matter here?
Cain’t ya hear me cryin’?
Hm, hm, hm

What would rescue the song at this point however would be a sudden and unexpected move of the music to another pair of chords, maybe a fourth higher, to give us some contrast.  Yes, that might destroy the whole idea of the blues and the world going wrong, wrong and wrong again, but it sure would make the song much more listenable and I would suggest much more interesting.

As it is the song is hard going and I can’t imagine too many people will have played this song more than once or twice, unless they are in the habit of listening to the whole Bootleg 9 album all the way through.

And so we get the idea at the start, and the song plays the idea through, continuing to give us every option that the blues has to offer in the remaining verses

Hey, stop you ol’ train
Let a poor boy ride

Hey, Mister Bartender
I swear I’m not too young

Blow your whistle, policeman
My poor feet are trained to run

Long-distance operator
I hear this phone call is on the house

Ashes and diamonds
The diff’rence I cain’t see

Mister Judge and Jury
Cain’t you see the shape I’m in?

Mississippi River
You a-runnin’ too fast for me

Yes it could have worked, and indeed that is my point here, because it very much did work in Ballad for a Friend.  It was just that at this stage Dylan could indeed write a masterpiece, but as yet he could not write one masterpiece after another.

But the time when he could was really not that far away.

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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4 Responses to Poor Boy Blues: the meaning and its place in Dylan’s writing history

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    ‘Ashes and diamonds the difference I caint see’ is a typically double-edged Dylan line…the iron ore Taconite pellets mined in his small Minnesota home town, he refers to in ‘Hard Rain’:

    ‘Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters’

    As a side note: The ‘Edmund Fitzgerald’ was loaded with the stuff.

  2. Rob Geurtsen says:

    To me, the chronology of composing songs/lyrics is one of the greatest achievements of your exploration of Dylan’s work. Even though I do not very often find a trail of verifiable arguments and source on which you base your chronology, I find myself accepting your result and not only take them for granted but as truth as well.
    However if Poor Boy Blues is what it is, written a few hours after, ‘Ballad for a Friend’ wouldn’t you wanna/need/ought to change http://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/3500 ?

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    Rob – where’s it say Poor Boy was written after?

    Not that it helps at all in so far as when written, on the Leeds Demo vinyl bootleg(1974) you first hear ‘Ballad For A Friend’ sung under track #1 with the title ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’, then finished on a track titled ‘Ballad For A Friend’ with ‘Poor Boy Blues’ in between.

    The ‘Ballad’ is a reworking of a traditional song.

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