Quinn the Eskimo: Bob Dylan having a laugh and 3 reinterpretations taking us elsewhere

By Tony Attwood

By no means Bob Dylan’s only nursery rhyme, but probably the only one to get to number one in the charts when re-recorded.  And it has been recorded a number of times since in rather surprising ways.  I’ll try and give a few examples on the videos here.

Nursery rhymes (and it was Bob who called it a nursery rhyme remember) can be about everything and nothing, they have no need to make sense.  They can just be.  This song just is, because it is.

And I’ve come back to this particularly because there are a couple of versions you might not know.  There’s a Dylan live version, and this version by Manfred Mann – not the single that was so popular (in England at least) but a six minute album version that is not nearly so well known.

But across the years I have kept coming back to the notion that this song does mean something, because it has a repeating line

When Quinn the Eskimo gets here

But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Ev’rybody’s gonna jump for joy

But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
All the pigeons gonna run to him

But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Ev’rybody’s gonna wanna doze

You don’t have to take it seriously of course, but if you want to it might depict the move from the excitement of the new messenger with his new approach, to the fact that then everyone follows because people just follow through to the fact that really the excitement was only about the new message because it was new, not because the message was important.

The version on the Essential Bob Dylan, which I guess is the one most of us have (even if we have a few others) is very much a rough and ready knock about.  It is (to me if no one else) highly amusing to hear that lugubrious style which constantly sounds as if the guys are dragging the song back.  It just demands to be sung and played faster, and yet they hold onto that slow plod plod plod beat.

This is a standard three chord song – any musician worth the name could instantly play it on his instrument.  You can just hear the chord changes as they bump along.  No suprises there.

Why did they record it? For a laugh?  Because nothing else was going?  Because the record company guys said, “Just record everything Bob.”  Who knows.

From the start we think we are with Noah, the end of the world, the great disaster… until they are all rescued not by the Almighty but by the Eskimo.  Incidentally there’s a lovely occasional piano part – the pianist sounds like the one guy who is having fun.

Ev’rybody’s building the big ships and the boats
Some are building monuments
Others are jotting down notes
Ev’rybody’s in despair
Ev’ry girl and boy

Why has the song reached such fame and had such success?  Probably because it is so silly, and because of (at least in Dylan’s version) or despite the slowness, by the second verse it is so extraordinarily odd.

A cat’s meow and a cow’s moo, I can recite ’em all
Just tell me where it hurts yuh, honey
And I’ll tell you who to call

Dylan is, to my mind, having a laugh at his own expense.  Just listen to the way he uses his voice on the “everybody jump for joy” line.  It is just about the least joyful delivery he has ever given us.

Nobody can get any sleep
There’s someone on ev’ryone’s toes
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Ev’rybody’s gonna wanna doze

So who is Quinn?  Who knows?  Who cares?  No, this is a bunch of guys mucking about in the studio.  Just listen to that final held note at the end of Dylan’s version – it is a complete lark at the expense of a million pretentious pop songs trying to be infinitely more than they are.

This is fun, (just listen to the recording above – it just is fun) because it is sung too slowly, because it mucks around, because it uses nonsense lines and yet has a pretentious ending, because it is Bob Dylan.  It is as if he is saying, “OK guys you are going to analyse my songs, now I am going to make you look so stupid.”

And basically he does.  And he succeeded because despite everything it is still a bloody good song.  Only Dylan could have done that.  No one else.

What else is on the site?

Untold Dylan contains a review of every Dylan musical composition of which we can find a copy (around 500) and over 300 other articles on Dylan, his work and the impact of his work.

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The alphabetical index to the 552 song reviews can be found here.  If you know of anything we have missed please do write in.  The index of the songs in chronological order can be found here.

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

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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13 Responses to Quinn the Eskimo: Bob Dylan having a laugh and 3 reinterpretations taking us elsewhere

  1. Yeah Right says:

    d00d, you totally danced around and missed the fact that the tune is about tripping on LSD; you “student of Dylan supposed analyst know-it-alls” kill me…

  2. Rob says:

    One of my Philosophy professors (Mr. Meyer) told me his dissertation was on how the song “Quinn (the Eskimo)” is like a description of the arrival of God, who is indescribable, so what you get is information about what’s happening, what’s going to happen, how people and animals are going to re-act to God’s arrival.

  3. Steve son says:

    Dylan does not write nonsense songs.anthony quinn in the movie about Eskimos is a mr. Natural without hang ups.the song is about leaving drugs and achieving higher states of consciousness thru natural techniques, come on without come on within.jumpin cubes,LSD making haste,speed just ain’t my cup of meat,the references are symbols of progressing beyond drugs to other self techniques of getting high.of course the song is a spoof about current cultural events cause I don’t think bob ever gave on enlightenment thru chemicals.

  4. CAB says:

    Quinn was a friend of mine and way back when, a student at Princeton. He was also from a well-to-do family. Dylan was playing coffee-shops in the Village (maybe pre-Dylan name use?) and basically musicians got play if people came in and spent money. The musician got tips if they were lucky. Dylan’s fans didn’t have much dough, but Quinn did. He would buy rounds for the house so Dylan could continue to play.
    The song is a simple bar song, very Irish in style. Quinn, who was half Eskimo and half Jewish, keep the coffeehouse full and well juiced. “So, when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody’s going to jump for joy.”
    The pigeons is a reference to the street people who would gather just because someone was buying. It’s not mystical-sorry. It’s the slow side of, ‘everybody must get stoned.’

  5. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/508/Quinn-the-Eskimo-(The-Mighty-Quinn) (Additional Information)

  6. Isambard Kinkdom Brunhilde says:

    I love it when self-styled commenters decry simple stuff and lay on their own convoluted mysteries upon it.
    I imagine Bob Dylan and John Lennon used to think that too.

    Quinn the Eskimo was actually an Eskimo who went by the name of Quinn.

    I liked what you wroted.

  7. Babette says:

    Animal Farm:
    Anthony Quinn was a Mexican-born American actor. He came from the south. This Quinn the Eskimo comes from the north, where the eskimos lives.
    Might it be Bob Dylan himself?
    I think so.

    What happens to some women, when a famous actor or popsinger visits the town.
    The women turns into animals: cats, cows, pigeons.
    What is characteristic for those animals:
    They live on a lower stage of evolution.
    The females want to mate with the strongest male.
    I almost said: Very human
    “But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
    Ev’rybody’s gonna wanna doze
    Come all without, come all within
    You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn”

    I think it is a song about groupies.
    And now talking about the meat market, he tells:
    “It ain’t my cup of meat”

    Very very funny and expressed with elegance.

  8. Ron Toth says:

    I swear,I am in reality this man

  9. Ron Toth says:

    Marijuana is the forbidden fruit

  10. Larry Fyffe says:

    The reference is to the movie in which Anthony Quinn plays ‘Inuk’ , an ‘Eskimo’ hunter.

  11. Larry Fyffe says:

    In the movie, shot in the Canadian north, a Japanese actress by the name of Yoko plays Quinn’s wife, but it’s not Lennon’s, O no!

  12. Mr Richard Keys says:

    There is a book of short stories by Agatha Christie, entitled, “The Mysterious Mr. Quin.” On the back of my copy is written, “He comes from nowhere – and disappears when his job is done. …… In twelve puzzling cases of murder, scandal and suicide Mr Satterthwaite uncovers the truth and brings justice to the falsely accused – with the help of Mr Quin…” I always thought it likely that Dylan had read that book.

  13. I’ve always understood that Dylan wrote this after watching the film ‘The Savage Innocents’, a film featuring actor Anthony Quinn as an inuit leader

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