- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (1965) part I: Thin Air
- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues II: The Thoughts Of Mary Jane
By Jochen Markhorst
III Annie & Melinda
In the studio Dylan does, by his standards anyway, put on quite a struggle to capture the right atmosphere, the je ne sais quoi. It is a hardworking day, 2 August 1965, but a very productive one too; the final versions of “Ballad of A Thin Man”, “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Highway 61 Revisited” are recorded this day. But the lion’s share of the recording day goes to Tom Thumb. Not until the sixteenth take (!) do the musicians succeed in capturing that feeling of detachment and loneliness to Dylan’s satisfaction. Questionable, by the way: the first takes are slower, more tired and more lounge-like – which actually suits the detached narrator, who hazily wanders exotic places, disoriented and all.
Anyway, knowing that Dylan struggled so much, the paradoxical interpretation is tempting: the poet expresses here his exhausting toil with failing take after failing take in the studio. Negativity don’t pull you through, my fingers are all in a knot, I don’t have the strength to get up and take another shot, she takes your voice, you must pick up one or the other, though neither of them are to be what they claim – well, I’ll just go back into town, I think I’ve had enough. All of them frustrated sighs of a hard-working studio musician who, take after take, cannot find the right tone.
Tempting, and it would yield a fresh, Inception-like understanding of the song, attributing prophetic gifts to Dylan. But hardly serious, obviously. The lyrics, as we can hear on the twelve takes on The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 (2015), have been more or less fixed from the first recording; there are only minor textual differences between take 1 and the final take 16.
More striking lyrically, or at least leaving more lasting impressions than those intertwined fingers, are the ladies in the second and third verses. In these mercurial years, it is almost a stylistic feature of Dylan’s songs; somewhere in the song two ladies are introduced, whose characters are not or only sketchily explored. Miss Lonely and the Princess on the steeple, Belle Starr and Jezebel the nun, the graveyard woman and the soulful mama, the fifth daughter and the second mother, Ophelia and Cinderella… And on Blonde On Blonde this goes on for a while (Johanna and Louise, the Queen of Spades and the chambermaid, Mona and Ruthie, and so on).
In “Just Like A Tom Thumb’s Blues”, we are superficially introduced to one Saint Annie and one Melinda. Again, without much background. “Saint Annie” has – of course – a religious connotation, a connotation that is reinforced by the ambiguous “my fingers are all in a knot”, which might suggest praying. However, the suggestion is undermined by that banal “Annie”; a respectful, serious Christian would, of course, have called her Saint Anne. But then again – the appearance of Saint Anne, Mary’s mother and thus the grandmother of Jesus, pushes the song to unintended and undesirable extremes, to a protagonist in a crisis of faith, or something like that.
The faction of Dylanologists who delve into Dylan’s private life, in the apparent conviction that Dylan’s lyrics are laboriously encoded diary entries, also have to back out here. A first inclination to see, say, a Joan Baez in Saint Annie, is immediately dashed; the words simply offer too few handles, are too exotic and not at all coherent – even the most inventive codebreaker cannot find more than half a hint.
In these days, August ’65, Robert Shelton has a telephone interview with the poet for the New York Times. It is, of course, not very enlightening:
“If anyone has imagination, he’ll know what I’m doing. If they can’t understand my songs, they’re missing something. If they can’t understand pornographic ashtrays, green clocks, wet chairs, purple lamps, hostile statues, charcoal… then they’re missing something, too… It’s all music, no more, no less.”
And a little further on, the quotation that later, distorted, is usually placed in the context of John Wesley Harding (among others by Wikipedia): “What I write is much more concise now than before. It’s not deceiving.”
At second glance, Dylan’s “explanation” is less absurd than this accumulation of catachreses, of incompatible concepts such as pornographic + ashtray, would suggest. “I paint pictures,” the poet actually says here. Just as you don’t try to “understand”, say, a Cézanne or a Míro – the images do touch you, or don’t touch you, just like the way much of Dylan’s mercurial lyricism does; it evokes feelings, an atmosphere or a mood. And in the finale of Dylan’s excursion there is actually a deeper layer: “It’s all music, no more, no less.”
That, music and songs, indeed seem to be at least as influential sources as Kerouac. “Come Away Melinda” has been dancing in the back of Dylan’s mind since 1963, ever since Harry Belafonte recorded the song for Streets I Have Walked. And certainly since Dylan put Judy Collins’ third record, with the catchy title Judy Collins 3 (1963), on his turntable – that’s the record on which, apart from a very rootsy “Come Away Melinda”, Collins also sings the format for Dylan’s “Seven Curses”, the cruel “Anathea”;
Lazlo Feher stole a stallion, Stole him from the misty mountain And they chased him and they caught him, And in iron chains they bound him.
And especially the record with which the then still young, relatively unknown troubadour scores recognition; Collins records both his “Farewell” and his “Masters Of War” – it’s safe to say that Dylan has played Judy Collins #3 more than once and has therefore heard “Come Away Melinda” more than once.
Moreover, the hook “Melinda” had been in the musical part of Dylan’s brain since his teenage years, ever since the young Little Richard fan wore the single “Long Tall Sally” out. On the B-side thereof is another rock ‘n’ roll monument, “Slippin’ And Slidin'”:
Oh, Malinda She's a solid sender You know you better surrender Oh, Malinda She's a solid sender You know you better surrender Slippin' 'n' a-slidin' Peepin' 'n' a-hidin' Won't be your fool no more
… which in terms of harmony is a nicer source anyway; on side 1 of Highway 61 Revisited, the echoes of “Long Tall Sally” can be heard in “Tombstone Blues” – an echo of “Long Tall Sally’s ” B-side on side 2, would bestow upon us a poetic, subtle reverence indeed.
Coincidence, of course – but still a nice coincidence.
Through that same opened floodgate of Dylan’s stream of consciousness, “Annie” presumably floats to the surface. From the antique folk song “Willie Moore” then, from
Sweet Annie was loved both far and near, Had friends most all around; And in a little brook before the cottage door, The body of sweet Annie was found.
… the melodramatic story of Sweet Annie, who is forbidden by her parents to marry Willie and then throws herself into the water like an Ophelia. Dylan probably knows the song thanks to Joan Baez, who has the song on her repertoire these days, or else Doc Watson, but most of all: the song is featured on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology Of American Folk Music, the six-album compilation that Dylan plundered from front to back and top to bottom.
It’s all music, no more, no less.
To be continued. Next up: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part IV: Charlie Rich… he’s a good poet
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (German)
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville