Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (1965) part 4

by Jochen Markhorst


VII        I knew Thomas Jefferson

Well, I rapped upon a house with the U.S. flag upon display
I said, "Could you help me out? I got some friends down the way"
The man says, "Get out of here, I'll tear you limb from limb"
I said, "You know, they refused Jesus, too", he said, "You're not Him"
"Get out of here before I break your bones, I ain't your pop"
I decided to have him arrested and I went looking for a cop

A regrettable development on the political scene in the 21st century is the steady decline of self-mockery. Incomprehensible, really – the twentieth century has taught us that self-mockery is a powerful weapon for winning voters and disarming opponents – but it is how it is. Biden, Putin, Merkel, Xi and in extremis Trump… they all may have qualities, but self-mockery is not one of them. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan mastered the art at expert level. For example, by making a point of his advanced age himself: “Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.” As he does in the debate with Walter Mondale, also in 1984, defusing any potential age-related attack by Mondale (who was then 56) with a witty, simple reversal: “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

After his presidency, when he has nothing more to win, he continues to use the weapon. At the Republican Convention in 1992, as the Republicans prepare for the upcoming Bush-Clinton battle, the Clinton campaign team gives him a chance to vary his Thomas Jefferson joke: “This fellow they’ve nominated claims he’s the new Thomas Jefferson. Well, let me tell you something. I knew Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of mine. And governor, you’re no Thomas Jefferson.”

It’s a layered upgrade of the Jefferson joke with an extra dollop of self-mockery. Reagan parodies the famous uppercut from Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen to Republican vice-presidential candidate Senator Dan Quayle in their 1988 debate:

Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. [shouts and applause] What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the—
Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. [shouts and applause]
Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator—and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

Actually, it is a cheap shot by Bentsen. He knows very well, of course, that Quayle is not comparing his personality or his presidential qualities with Kennedy, but merely the quantity of his years of service. But Bentsen does not let the opportunity pass by. You’re no Jack Kennedy is, after all, a straw man argument that cannot be countered without getting yourself into deeper trouble. The same frustrating dead end in which our poor protagonist finds himself once he has made the Jesus comparison. Of course, he does not say at all that he is Jesus, but only tries to get the occupant of the house with the U.S. flag upon display to show some mercy. And is promptly hit with the irrefutable You’re not Him. On a text-external level, the argument is still spicy; after all, Judaism rejects Jesus as a failed Jewish messiah claimant and a false prophet – that the Jewish Dylan now invokes they refused Jesus, too, has a – probably unintended – ironic inversion value.

Analysts and Dylanologists do not elaborate on this. However, the U.S. flag is a thing that does catch on with most Dylanologists. With Prof. Louis A. Renza, as usual, most eloquent and most far-fetched: “To salvage whatever he can of his belief in an American Dream, he appeals to American cultural tradition.” Heylin sees in this verse something like Dylan “demolishing Puritans in a single vignette” and Andrew Gamble concludes, “America is a weird place in which hypocrisy and self-serving behaviour abound” (in The Political Art of Bob Dylan, 2004).

It is a general tenor, though. Every commentator recognises that the song is funny and farcical, but then spends words and creativity arguing that Dylan is “painting a portrait of America” (Wilentz), or qualifies the song as “his spoof on the founding of America” (Sounes). Shelton also places the label “free-floating satire” and John Hughes takes the crown: “Anxious confusion results in surreal narratives that bring together disillusion and exhilaration.”

A lot of “America”, in short, among the analysts. But it seems a bit sought after. If we were to judge this stanza alone or the song at all on its satirical qualities, it would be rather disappointing. Sure, there is plenty of humour, exaggeration and irony, but to say that it is used to expose wrongdoing, or vices, or stupidity… no, that is reading perhaps a bit too eagerly, a bit too much in it. An eagerness that has more to do with Dylan’s image, anyway, than with the actual lyrics including the supposed subtext – sort of like how “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is stubbornly qualified as a “protest song”, while that song doesn’t actually protest against anything.

In fact this verse is, like the entire song, way too light-hearted, carefree, witty to be burdened with something as humorless as cultural criticism or social protest, or to be labelled as something as heavy as satire. The unusual “rapped upon a house” in the opening line is a funny, anachronistic hallmark of what the rapper avant-la-lettre Dylan is doing in this song: what you hear is not a test, I’m rapping to the beat – rhyming semi-improvised anecdote upon anecdote, loosely captured in a very non-committal framework (arriving on a boat, leaving on a boat). Which is also evident from the less successful rhymes, such as in this stanza. The blunt, dismissive landlord threatens and jeers in rough and rowdy ways (I’ll tear you limb from limb, I’ll break your bones), but closes with the dull, rather empty “I ain’t your pop”.

No big deal. Rapper Dylan wants to keep the dryly comic punchline I decided to have him arrested and I went looking for a cop and easily settles for a weaker subclause to work towards it. And right he is.

Taj Mahal & The Phantom Blues Band – Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream:

To be continued. Next up: Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream part 5: Almost like a Buster Keaton or something


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


One comment

  1. Claiming that burlesque (whether classified as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ ; ‘light’ or ‘heavy’; ‘low’ or high”, etc) doesn’t contain messages rankable as social or cultural protest is dubious, indeed!

    Worst of all – Not satirical – honestly !?!

    Such claims be the hallmark of the ‘unsound’ “Sound School of Dylanology.”

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