Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again: Dylan visits WC Handy

by Tony Attwood

There are two ways to interpret a song like this: by trying to find a meaning in the words, or by trying to link the title to something that may be significant about.

Our normal third route (considering the music) is poorly served on this song.  The chord sequence is not one that Dylan uses elsewhere, but is not that interesting in itself.  Only the descending bass of the title line suggests we might be taken back elsewhere, for it is the same bass and same chord sequence as you find with the words, “Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know”.

Sooner or Later is one of Dylan’s songs of disdain, as we note elsewhere, and it is on the same album – which lead to the view that maybe Dylan just liked that sequence at that time, for this hardly seems to be a song of disdain.

So, if we are ever going to make any sense of Stuck inside of Mobile With the Memphis blues again, we are still with our two alternatives: an abstract landscape which like a Jackson Pollock paining can be interesting or marvelled at, but does not tell us a meaning, or there is some connection with Mobile and The Memphis Blues.

The latter is easy, for The Memphis Blues is a song by W C Handy, often thought of as the father of contemporary blues – the man who took the blues and brought it to a much wider audience.  His importance and significance in the world of blues music cannot be over-estimated, for he is fundamental.  And indeed Dylan most certainly knew all the music of such an iconic figure in the history of the blues.

The song was published by Handy in September, 1912 and has been recorded by many artists over the years and as you may expect, Handy wrote the Memphis Blues when he lived in Memphis.   If you don’t know that song, you will find it on “Tribute to WC Handy” (various artists) and many other albums.   The fact that it is the second track after Handy’s masterpiece St Louis Blues, one of the most famous songs of all time, shows how highly it is regarded in musical circles.

Of course life would now be easy if there were to be a connection between Handy and Mobile, which is a town in Alabama.  And yes indeed, there is one: the annual WC Handy Festival is held in Alabama, which at least gives us a connection, although not an explanation.

So that’s it – although there is one footnote.  The trombone slide part that is integral to the opening of Memphis Blues, is very similar indeed to the trombone in Rainy Day Women, which opens the Blonde album.  Which maybe tells us something else.

But to the words.  John Lennon made fun of them, suggesting they were nothing of significance or importance.

Oh, the ragman draws circles
Up and down the block
I’d ask him what the matter was
But I know that he don’t talk
And the ladies treat me kindly
And furnish me with tape
But deep inside my heart
I know I can’t escape

Compare that with…

Folks I’ve just been down, down to Memphis town,
That’s where the people smile, smile on you all the while.
Hospitality, they were good to me.
I couldn’t spend a dime, and had the grandest time.

Or Handy…

I went out a dancing with a Tennessee dear,
They had a fellow there named Handy with a band you should hear
And while the folks gently swayed, all the band folks played real harmony.
I never will forget the tune that Handy called the Memphis Blues.
Oh yes, them Blues.

And Dylan

Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well
And I would send a message
To find out if she’s talked
But the post office has been stolen
And the mailbox is locked

And Handy again

They’ve got a fiddler there that always slickens his hair
And folks he sure do pull some bow.
And when the big bassoon seconds to the trombones croon.
It moans just like a sinner on Revival Day, on Revival Day.

Oh that melody sure appealed to me.
Just like a mountain stream rippling on it seemed.
Then it slowly died, with a gentle sigh
Soft as the breeze that whines high in the summer pines.

Hear me people, hear me people, hear I pray,
I’m going to take a million lesson’s ’til I learn how to play
Because I seem to hear it yet, simply can’t forget
That blue refrain.


Yes we can make our meanings here, just like you can see patterns in abstract art, but I suspect it is a false trail.   WC Handy died in 1958, so he’s not even the grandpa who died and was buried in Dylan’s song.

Maybe the connections with Handy are not right – maybe they were at the back of Dylan’s mind, and he didn’t even realise.   Who knows?   But it is the best I can do.

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The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.



  1. As I mentioned in my comment about All Along the Watchtower, the railway seems to be a symbol of capitalist exploitation. The same complaint is echoed here– the railroad men drink his blood like wine– they exploit his art to make money. And, of course, this complaint is yet again repeated with the album title “Blood on the Tracks”– Possible multi-layered pun: the “tracks”” on the album contain his blood/poetry/art… he feels like he’s been run over by a train because the railway men (entertainment industry) have used his blood/art/poetry to expand their empires/lay down tracks into new territory/make profit by turning his art into an industry.

  2. Ad hoc comment on “he just smoke my eyelids and punched my cigarette”. When Blonde on Blonde came out, us Boomers saw drugs everywhere. At the time a “lid” was a measure of pot. One lid = one ounce. In everyday reality you give someone a black eye by punching them, and you smoke a cigarette, but this line does the obverse. Assuming this IS a drug reference, the apparent “barefoot boy with shoes on”-type conundrum makes sense: Of course, you’d smoke a lid! And if you were a real pothead, you’d have contempt for tobacco (punch cigarettes). But then, like I said, it was a time when we saw drugs everywhere. Hell– we even thought Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was about LSD. Of course, we now know it was about drawing by Julian. (wink, wink)

  3. abstractionism . This sums up Dylan pretty much. abstractionism sold as genius to the those that drink the coolade.

  4. If you’re going to pontificate on/against the artist, at least spell Kool-Aid correctly. To your point, if the listener interprets the words to something meaningful…isn’t that the intent? At the very least, people continue to talk about what they think his songs are about.

  5. To me the song is about being trapped in a place that is wrong for you, unable to find away out. “To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.”

  6. One was Texas Medicine, the other was railroad gin…….a choice between two bad things, like Pence and Trump

  7. Dylan’s spin on a WC Handy title just makes for a cool sounding title and has little to do with handy’s music, i think./ ‘furnished me w/ tape/”? What I hear is “finished me with tea” (pot). couplet probably refers to “Ruthie’s honky tonk lagoon” in later verse. a few lyrics are linear and pointed, i.e,. “yr debutante knows what you need/ but I know what you want”, but mostly the ditty is about the absurdity of life. as such, it falls into the lighthearted nihilism of Dadaism rather than its successor surrealism which sought an alternative poetic view of modern life, a kind of coping mechanism. the song’s endless slew of images and dreamlike jocoseness suggest an upbeat acid trip. in this it resembles Sad eyed Lady but that trip is about an idealized lover whereas “Memphis” isn’t about anything real. well, to conclude my peanut gallery thesis: a critic once said the aim of all D.’s weirder songs was “to free the listener from meaning.” but s/he was thinking of this audacious number specifically.i was never the same after i heard it. arrangement/ sounds were almost too pretty for the flippy words.

  8. And here I sit so patiently
    Waiting to find out what price
    You have to pay to get of
    Going through all these things twice

    My interpretation of the final verse, which will never change even if Dylan rings me up and tells me differently:

    I’m just patiently waiting for death, which is my only way out of here, and which is the price I have to pay for not having to go through all this life absurdity again.

  9. My thought (many stated previous) the jest of it all starts with the composition date. Dylan did a bit of R ‘n R, pop in addition to the NYC coffeehouse Folk stuff leading into ’65 and the inclusion of electric rock, pop, country-rock. Point is, find me a person that that honestly thinks Dylan a great blues man.

    Few ‘n far between. I believe and there are somethings written indicating around the ’65-’67 era, Dylan thought ‘Blues Resurrection Bands’ were not true to the heritage, simple. Think Animals, Stones and many lesser bands output, say late fifties to early sixties; example: Mick Jagger et. al. doing ‘Red Rooster’ – a recording even Brian Jones work could not make listenable.

    I agree with Atwood & others, but this kid thinks Dylan was sick of bands of the era masquerading as blues men. (likely he did not include John/ Bluesbreakers) Simple, I’m Ol’ Bob had other thought but, the basic idea seems I hate this crap, Hardy started it all in Memphis Ang I can’t take it anymore.

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