Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues VII: A style based on ignorance

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues 

By Jochen Markhorst

VII        A style based on ignorance

Little Tommy Thumb,
⁠With his little pipe and drum,
Is come to give you a dance;
⁠And Lovechild so taper
⁠Will shew you a caper,
Dunoyer brought from France.
⁠She is pleas'd that you look
⁠Into her little book,
And like her songs so well,
⁠That her figures you know
⁠Before that you can go,
And sing them before you can spell.

From the original of “Tommy Thumb’s Song Book for all little Masters and Misses; to be sung to them by their Nurses ’till they can sing themselves.” By Nurse Lovechild. To which is added, a Letter from a Lady on Nursing from 1744 unfortunately no copies have survived, but a reprint from 1788 is most probably identical to that original. From the sequel, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book Voll. II (also from 1744), at least one original copy has always existed, since long safely in the British Library, and in 2001 a second copy was found.

Both song books contain the kind of songs Dylan has a soft spot for, the songs he refers to in the interview with Ephron and Edmiston in the summer of ’65, three weeks after recording “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”:

BD: It’s weird, man, full of legend, myth, bible and ghosts. I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head, anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs. They were out of sight.
E/E: Like what songs?
BD: Little Brown Dog, “I bought a little brown dog, its face is all gray. Now I’m going to Turkey flying on my bottle.”

Dylan improvises on “Little Brown Dog”, which he will record in 1970 as “Tattle O’Day” (but which will not be released until 2013, on The Bootleg Series: Another Self Portrait). A year before that, he has already written “Who Killed Davey Moore?” on the format of Tommy Thumb’s “Who Killed Cock Robin?”, more exuberantly he will demonstrate his love in 1990, when he makes a record filled with nursery rhymes (under the red sky), and in between he lives out that side of his creativity on far out songs like “Quinn The Eskimo” and “Three Angels”.

It all makes it a little more likely that the title choice for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is a tip of the hat to that antique nursery rhyme collection. And not, as many commentators like to point out, to Rimbaud – who indeed does mention Tom Thumb, once, in the English translation of “Ma Bohème” (“Stargazing Tom Thumb, I sowed rhymes along my way”, the translation of Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course des rimes).

Little Tommy Thumb,
⁠With his little pipe and drum,
Is come to give you a dance

The basis is bare and simple. Three chords, a common blues scheme, six verses, no chorus. But the packaging is all the more beautiful. One of the most important pillars of the mercury sound is the find to use two pianos, a honky-tonk and an electric Hohner pianet. This was quite unusual in the pop music of the sixties and came about more or less by accident. After all, Al Kooper had sneaked into the “Like A Rolling Stone” session hoping to play guitar at a Dylan session. He is already in the studio, waiting for Dylan, when a guy unknown to him arrives with a guitar case:

“The guy just shuffled over into the corner, wiped it off with a rag, plugged in, and commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I’d ever heard. And he was just warming up!”

(Al Kooper, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards, 1998)

Kooper is intimidated, backs down, a bit embarrassed, and docilely takes his place on the other side of the window again, in the control room. And limits himself to what producer Tom Wilson has given him permission to do: watch a Dylan session. But the band struggles with “Like A Rolling Stone” and when organist Paul Griffin moves to the piano, Kooper sees an opportunity, slips in, and clandestinely plays an uncertain organ part on the next take.

“If you listen to it today, you can hear how I waited until the chord was played by the rest of the band, before committing myself to play in the verses. I’m always an eighth note behind everyone else, making sure of the chord before touching the keys.”

Wilson is not too impressed, but Dylan is immediately touched. “Turn the organ up,” he says, while listening back to the take. Kooper is on cloud nine, he’s in and he’s also a bit confused. Producer Tom Wilson, of course, has a point when he objects: “That cat’s not an organ player.” Dylan couldn’t care less. Kooper spends the rest of the day, and is eventually on the final version too, playing the organ. Afterwards Dylan asks for his phone number. “Which was like Claudia Schiffer asking for the key to your hotel room.”

Dylan remembers Kooper’s added value to the mercury sound and indeed uses the phone number – and so guitarist Kooper suddenly becomes a keyboardist and six weeks later, 2 August 1965, he is in the studio again for the rest of Highway 61 Revisited. Mike Bloomfield is also back, as is Paul Griffin (“probably the best damned studio keyboard player in all of New York City and certainly the funkiest”). Kooper switches between organ and electric piano today – on Tom Thumb he plays that Hohner pianet. The strolling rhythm section, Griffin’s tinkling piano and Bloomfield’s languid guitar do build the melodic, unworldly backdrop for the kaleidoscopic lyrics, but the spaced-out, detached quality is mainly down to Kooper, who indeed plays just behind the beat here too, deploying his aural tapestry between the one and the two.

In his autobiography, Kooper recounts his newly acquired status as a keyboardist with infectious self-mockery;

“For kicks, I’d go out and buy all the records that aped the Dylan sound. I’d take them over to Dylan’s house, and we’d play them and laugh. The imitation Kooper organ was one of the stellar attractions. I had a “style” based on ignorance. And then to hear these great musicians imitating my inexperience!”

… but he underestimates, or downplays out of modesty, the irresistibility of the rough and rowdy, the tension that the Japanese call wabi-sabi (侘 寂), the beauty that is found in inadequacy, in transience and in authenticity – in perfect imperfection.

Nurse Lovechild is pleas'd that you look
⁠Into her little book,
And like her songs so well,
⁠That her figures you know
⁠Before that you can go,
And sing them before you can spell.

To be continued. Next up: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues part VIII, the finale: The covers

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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