Ballad of a Thin Man: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Thin man ends the first side of Highway 61 LP, and when it was released in 1965 I really did wonder about it.   It certainly was a song of disdain – and that plodding descending bass is just so perfect for the contempt that is in the song, symbolising the disdain of the slow walk away.  But disdain of what?

While I should have been studying TS Eliot for my England A level I sat and puzzled and puzzled.

And I came up with some rather odd ideas of my own.

I thought, rather bizarrely I must admit, that maybe Dylan was a sci-fi fan for just before the album’s release, I’d read “The World that Jones Made” written by Philip K Dick nine years before Highway 61 was released.  I won’t bore you with all the details of that novel, for the meaning of the song doesn’t quite fit with the essence of the book, but it does have links to the song and I could imagine Dylan being interested – if sci-fi turned him on that is.  (I don’t think it does).

Dick, incidentally also wrote “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the year after the release of Highway 61, which is the novel behind Blade Runner, and many other significant works.  He was an influential in sci-fi as Dylan in contemporary music, and delved into imagery as spooky as Dylan’s.  Consider…

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone

That could be straight from Philip Dick.

But I had other thoughts.  I also pondered whether Mr Jones was your average middle class American, seemingly in control, running the company, keeping the family together, but with no idea of the revolution that is going on around him.  (That actually is the opposite of Jones in the novel, who ultimately very much knows exactly what is happening).  This was, after all, the mid-60s when there was a real feeling that the old political and social ways could be swept aside for ever, and I think many young people of the era had this feeling that those running the system (by which I mean government, the media, education and the like) were simply out of their depth.

I think we were calling it the counter-culture by then, and in England the counter culture most certainly portrayed the feeling that the largely state controlled media of the era was utterly out of touch with what we were thinking.  They also most certainly were not playing our music – at least until John Peel came along on the pirate station “Radio London”.  Indeed I do remember talking to John about this song as we were trying to get him established on the BBC at that time (something against which there was much resistance).  But I don’t recall John being a Dylan fan particularly so I am not sure we got very far.

Anyway, musically the song is interesting as one of the few songs by Dylan in a minor key, and with chords totally built around the harmonic minor – by which I mean there is no deviation into flattened 7ths or anything like that.

So from the start you walk into the room, and the bass is just descending under your feet, and everything has that sad bleak minor feel (“The World that Jones Made” is a dystopia novel, and fits this notion exactly, and certainly relates to the “who is that man?” line – so my early thoughts weren’t that whacky).

And I suppose it was that first line that gave me the feeling of Jones as Mr Middle Class, who has utterly lost touch with his children, to whom he has nothing to say when he gets home.  The more he tries to find out, the less any of it makes sense, the more freakish they appear.

But the alternative notion – the alternative to my thoughts of Philip Dick and Mr Middle Class who suddenly realises that the world has all changed while he wasn’t looking,  was that Dylan was writing about a real person.

Dylan was quoted in an August 1965 interview with Nora Ephron and Susan Edminston, as saying, “He’s a real person. You know him, but not by that name… I saw him come into the room one night and he looked like a camel. He proceeded to put his eyes in his pocket. I asked this guy who he was and he said, ‘That’s Mr. Jones.’ Then I asked this cat, ‘Doesn’t he do anything but put his eyes in his pocket?’ And he told me, ‘He puts his nose on the ground.’ It’s all there, it’s a true story.”

There is also a quote from March 1986, when Dylan said that he wrote Thin Man in response to everyone who kept asking him questions all the time.  “You just get tired of that every once in a while. You just don’t want to answer no more questions. I figure a person’s life speaks for itself, right? So, every once in a while you got to do this kind of thing, you got to put somebody in their place… So this is my response to something that happened over in England. I think it was about ’63, ’64. Anyway the song still holds up. Seems to be people around still like that. So I still sing it.”

That quote is particularly interesting in relation to the reviews I’ve just been doing concerning Self Portrait, as before I started this review I was trying to think how to review the two instrumentals from Self Portrait.  I think that quote gives me the answer – I’ll come back to them shortly.  I’ll come back to the England bit in a moment.

Getting back to Thin Man as one single person…  In 1975, Jeffrey Owen Jones, a film director, and lecturer at Rochester Institute of Technology (who died in 2014) was suggested as the person concerned.  In most versions of the story the person involved was said to be a “reporter” – and indeed Jones was working at Time magazine at the time of Thin Man’s conception.

But this event had nothing to do with England, but rather New England, and the Newport Folk Festival, which would make the date recalled by Dylan fit.   In this version, Dylan and Jones talked before Dylan went on stage with his electric set, which caused dismay to some folk purists at the festival.

Jones’ claim to be “the” Jones of the Ballad was suggested in Rolling Stone, in which interview he wrote, “I was thrilled — in the tainted way I suppose a felon is thrilled to see his name in the newspaper.   I was awed too that Dylan had so accurately read my mind. I resented the caricature but had to admit that there was something happening there at Newport in the summer of 1965, and I didn’t know what it was.”

According to a local Rhode Island paper Jones then moved on to work in Uruguay and Spain as a film director, before returning to the US, becoming a lecturer in film, while working on educational films for CBS.

But less we get too carried away by such a revelation, in 1990 Dylan said, “There were a lot of Mister Joneses at that time,” and so everyone has been free to have his or her interpretation.

But of all of these, the journalist interpretation, especially in relation to the journalist who kicks the man when he’s down by writing about his misery and refusing to let him crawl away and redeem himself, seems to fit best.  Just listen again to the opening with that thought in mind…

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home

But still I come back, crazy though it sounds, to “The World that Jones Made” because that is a story set in a world in which every idea is possible and accepted.  The only rule is that you are not allowed to preach your ideas to someone else.  Try verse 2 in that regard.

You raise up your head
And you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says
“It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?”
And somebody else says, “Where what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God
Am I here all alone?”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Of course after this Dylan goes into the freak show people who were referenced so often in the songs of this era, from the geek in the third verse to the lumberjacks in the “middle 8” which in this song does work as a perfect relief from the slow plodding of the descending bass of the verses.  But if you really know Philip Dick the writer, you will also know that this is exactly his world.  Strange isn’t it, if Dylan never read that novel.

But the point is that these verses still work perfectly as the thought of the journalist trying to interpret this crazy world for a publisher who is still stuck in the 1950s.  And they work as an interpretation of Philip Dick’s writing.  And they work as a denunciation of the old culture, out of touch with the new.

It all works – that is what makes the song so powerful, and the music with those minor chords and plodding bass all fit as well.  Just as does the organ and piano together (a rarely used combination before this time).

The key point that pulls all these different theories together is that until the mid-60s culture was very much controlled – suddenly here the kids were breaking free and doing their own thing.  (In a certain way Dylan came back to this in Early Roman Kings – culture as a powerful force in its own right).

The journalist is watching the show and trying to interpret it for an audience as bemused as he is….

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone

As we move to the middle 8 the notion seems solidified with the talk of “contacts” and the use of imagination as a way of interpretation – keeping the old world going by giving to charity.

But still the journalist theme continues, with

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known

But there is also a homosexual or bi-sexual interpretation.  I am not sure it works for all of the song but it certainly works with the sword swallower verse.

Maybe that is the point – it is all about confusion and even the confusion gets confusing.

Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word “NOW”
And you say, “For what reason?”
And he says, “How?”
And you say, “What does this mean?”
And he screams back, “You’re a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home”

In the end we are left with those recurrent lines…

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5 Responses to Ballad of a Thin Man: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Chris Green says:

    Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones who became increasingly paranoid with his increasing intake of substances was worries that the song might be about him.

  2. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)

  3. mel kinder says:

    I was teaching History and current events in high school in 1965, and throughly into Dylan. My seniors were given a weekly subscription to ‘Time Magazine”. Dylan had been in the UK and one of the tabloid scandals of the time was Princess Margaret’s marriage to Anthony Armstrong Jones. He fits the profile as his past and subsequent life would bare out. I am not wedded to this interpretation. But my over reaching obsession with all things Dylan and the great music of that time and also its politics and history have forced me to pay attention to those times!

    Oh! Bye the Way1
    In the Fall of 1965, President Johnson altered the Draft status of all our young men. President Johnson told all draft eligible men that they could no longer avoid being drafted by being married. This policy would begin the “following” Saturday. Many of my students streamed to Las Vegas and Arizona to get married and avoid the draft and
    fight the growing Vietnam War. (A couple of years ago, I read that Dylan quietly went upstate and got married on that weekend. (Cassis Clay (Muhammad Ali) had been given a 4Y deferment bases on low test scores. His deferment was gone.

  4. Sabino says:

    I always wanted one of those England A Levels!

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