Dignity (1989) part II: You can never play too much Bob Wills

Previously: Dignity Part 1: A bloody mess

by Jochen Markhorst

II          You can never play too much Bob Wills

“The list could be endless,” says Dylan, referring to the many archetypes appearing in “Dignity”. Thus, the songwriter implicitly reveals that he already had a “list-song” in mind at the time of conception, a song like “Political World”, “Forever Young”, “Everything Is Broken”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”… that list is endless too. Well, not endless, but he has written quite a few – depending on your definition, about fifteen to thirty.

Within that category, “Dignity” is really only comparable to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – a similar explosion of metaphors testifying to Dylan’s “pictorial way of thinking”, as the Nobel Prize Committee later will call it. The opening stanza is an excellent example thereof:

Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel
Thin man lookin’ at his last meal
Hollow man lookin’ in a cottonfield
For dignity

The colour of the lyrics is also comparable to Hard Rain: bleak. Where Hard Rain evokes apocalyptic visions, due also to Dylan’s own commentary on the song (declaring, falsely, to have written the song during the Cuban crisis and that the resulting mortal fear was the trigger), this first verse pushes the associations towards the Holocaust.

This is mainly due to the hollow man-vers line. Coincidence perhaps, but the image is practically identical to Primo Levi’s description of his fellow concentration camp residents. From the beginning of the most moving, and at the same time stylistically brilliant book about the Holocaust, from Ecce Homo (“If This Is A Man”, 1958):

“Imagine now a man who has been deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, of literally everything, in short, that he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, heedless of dignity and restraint, for he who loses everything can easily lose himself.”

A hollow man, heedless of dignity”…  It is conceivable that these crushing words of one of the greatest Jewish authors of the twentieth century resonate with Dylan.

In hindsight, then, the first line has the same sinister undertone as the stage direction from “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” (“Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife”) and the second line involuntarily evokes the misery of Levi’s starving fellow-victims in Auschwitz.

Technically, it is “just” a list-couplet like there are dozens of them, just a list of an eclectic range of men. Dylan himself undoubtedly rocked along with Sinatra’s “The Look Of Love” (not Dusty Springfield’s song with the same title, that of the James Bond film Casino Royale, 1967) on Softly, As I Leave You (1964);

I've seen the look of a jockey on a winner
I've seen the look of a fat man havin' dinner
I've seen the look of those spacemen up above
But the look that closes the book is the look of love

…and Dylan must also be familiar with Mother’s Finest’s world hit “Piece Of The Rock” from 1977,

A millionaire lookin' for another million dollars
A poor man lookin' for one
A chainstore owner lookin' for another store
A hungry man lookin' for a hamburger bone.

The walking music encyclopaedia Dylan could effortlessly name another twenty songs; as a template the form is not too original. But his execution thereof, the content, is. Usually a song poet uses the enumeration to express something like “inside we are the same” or “we all have our problems”. Judy Garland’s “You Can’t Have Everything” (Rich man, poor man, beggar or king, you just can’t have everything), “God’s Children” by The Kinks, Gershwin’s “Love Is Sweeping The Country”… there are dozens of songs with such a tinker tailor soldier listing that try to express that naïve household philosophy of basically-we-are-all-equal. But, despite its superficiality, it’s an irresistible, golden formula, and it inspires catchy variations -like Elvis’ “King Of The Whole Wide World” (1962);

A poor man wants to be a rich man
A rich man wants to be a king

 … which sixteen years later shall resound in Springsteen’s masterpiece “Badlands”:

Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
'Til he rules everything

Otherwise, as in Mother’s Finest’s song, the enumeration is used to express social injustice. As in the song that gets a name-check in Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” in 2020, in Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back To Tulsa” from 1941 (Poor man raise the cotton rich man makes the money). Originally Wills sings the rather racist darkie raise the cotton, white man gets the money, but successors like Merle Haggard prefer to change that particular line. In Theme Time Radio Hour episode 20, “Musical Maps”, broadcaster Dylan plays the original though, with that questionable text, but he doesn’t waste a single word on that darkie. Dylan does, however, quite explicitly profess his love for Bob Wills (“Here on Theme Time Radio Hour we believe you can never play too much Bob Wills”) and concludes the broadcast with a heartfelt incident regarding an injustice that has been done to his hero:

“In Gruene, Texas, there is an eight-foot statue for Bob Wills. On Saturday May 2, 2006, vandals knocked it over, and knocked its arm off. Local radio stations offered a reward for information leading to an arrest. I don’t know if anyone was arrested, but if you’re listening: stop vandalizing that statue. Bob Wills is a national treasure and must be respected.”

In itself, though, the antithesis in “Take Me Back To Tulsa” is classical, a contradiction like in “Fortunate Son”, like in the dozens of songs in which a rich man is set against a poor man, or a fat man against a thin man. In 2006 disk-jockey Dylan even devotes an entire broadcast to it (Theme Time Radio Hour episode 13, “Rich Man, Poor Man”).

The choice of cottonfield, however, suggests that Dylan is indeed singing that Bob Wills song in the back of his mind. But his implementation is idiosyncratic.

All other songs use these archetypes to illustrate either essential equality or a crying injustice. Dylan’s find frees “Dignity”’s opening stanza from such one-dimensionality. First off, the choice of words puts the listener on the wrong track. Only after the third line, after hollow man, we hear how “looking” is used as a transitive verb. The men do not look in a blade, at a last meal and in a cotton field respectively, but look for, for “dignity”, apparently.

These last two words, for dignity, is a brilliant, confusing find that torpedoes the listener’s expectations and tilts the previous lines. Predictable would be a traditional contrast; the fat man is an exploiting bad guy, the thin man an exploited poor soul, and then, after that hollow man in the cotton field, we would expect a solid man on the veranda, something in that vein.

But no; it is only then we understand that the list of archetypes is not a list of men set against each other, but rather a list connecting them – they all are searching for dignity.

The ambiguity of Dylan’s directing instructions provides the magical, poetic brilliance of this quatrain. The fat man may be sitting at a dining table, staring, like Rosemary did back in the days, at his reflection in the blade of his knife. Or, like Rosemary back in the days, about to commit murder. Or he is the victim and an aggressor holds the knife in front of the fat man’s face… possible too. But it is more appropriate, of course, to appreciate the parable-like quality of this verse fragment, and of the whole text at all; it does not say what it says. A “blade of steel” then depicts something transient, like “weaponry”, and the fat man is the archetypal master of war, a Goering type, a warlord or arms dealer who earns his living from war – and now seems to be at a moral crossroads: “What the hell am I doing?”, something like that.

Just like the thin man’s last meal opens several doors; in extremis literally his last meal, a last meal on Death Row, or he stares hungrily at fat man’s last meal, or – the most obvious, but therefore not necessarily the best interpretation – he looks at the remains of his own, most recent meal. But on a transcendental level, the thin man represents the fat man’s antithesis, meaning the one standing on the other end of that weaponry. And the hollow man then is the real victim of both, the concentration camp prisoner, the slave, the man reduced to suffering and needs, heedless of dignity and restraint, as Levi says.

The insight that he can turn the opening into such a compact triplet only gradually subsides, as the alternative versions on The Bootleg Series 8 – Tell Tale Signs (2008) reveal. An overarching Holocaust narrative can still be distilled from the first version, the naked piano version (“fat man lookin’ in the shining steel”), but has evaporated from the brilliant second version:

Fat man lookin' at a ferris wheel
Yellow man lookin' at his last meal
Hollow man lookin' in a cottonfield
For dignity

The versions on the illegal bootlegs open with the final, official lyrics, just like the MTV Unplugged recording – apparently the poet lacks the aggressive charge of steel with ferris wheel, and does, on second thought, need the antithesis fat man – thin man (and probably is not too happy with the ugly, unintentional inner rhyme yellow – hollow).

He is right. And the great artists of Solas are wrong; for unknown reasons they skip precisely this verse, in their wonderful cover on The Edge Of Silence (2002). The definitive twenty-three words of the opening quatrain form a perfect, closed in itself tableau of a condition humaine.


To be continued. Next up: Dignity part III

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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  1. Levi sees the Nazi attempt to get rid of the Jewish race as a unique event in human history rather than the recurrent struggle between archetypes of good and evil.

    Nietzsche’s view in ”Ecco Homo: Why I Am A Destiny” is recurrent in character in that Frederick says it’s time to rebalance the dogma of Christianity that empathizes an ideal world beyond reality – a world in which one waits for happiness after death – with an outlook that focuses on living in the reality of the present with a Dionysion joy for life .

    That is, akin to the view expessed by poet William Blake, it’s time to rebalance the concept of the spiritual soul with the urges of the body rather than physical body being over-ridden by an idealized Apollian soul.

    It is a great irony that the Nazis corrupt Nietzsche’s writing into a creed for the need of a master race – a corruption which of course Christian officialdom seize upon to get back at him.

    Where Dylan himself, from a Jewish background, stands, rather than the positions seemingly taken by personas in his song lyrics, is not the easy to discern.

  2. A comparison of the industrialized and militarized United State to a modern biblical Babylon is often found in Dylan’s songs, and in Ginsberg’s poetry, with the dire warning that it’s a dystopia that contains the seeds of a possible future fascist state – if not the outright horrors of Nazi Germany from the recent past.

  3. Are you suggesting that it was Rosemary who stabbed Big Jim? She may have emptied his gun, but Lily might have done the stabbing … perhaps Jack did it??
    And Watson …, Dylan’s pen appears to be suspiciously sharp!

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