By Tony Attwood
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is a strophic classic blues which takes the 12 bar structure and stretches to the limit by using an inventive melodic line.
What Dylan here is gives a nightmare story incorporating other nightmares through quick references. This, Dylan is saying, is the nightmare of the real meaning of the blues, taken on 30 years from the days of Robert Johnson. This is “Rats in the Kitchen” for the 1960s hippy.
The form is so stretched that it takes us a second or two to realise it. We know it is strophic (verse verse verse… continuing for as long as you want), and that adds to the pain. A chorus would simply reduce the pain level by increasing the familiarity. A middle 8 (to give us the standard tertiary form of A A B A) would scream “popular song” and Dylan doesn’t want either of these – he wants pain, pain, pain. This is why one verse piles in straight after the one before. The pain never stops.
The pain reaches its ultimate perhaps on the No Direction Home version. To hear it from the opposite perspective listen to Brian Ferry on Dylanesque. The words lose their meaning, the world describes becomes a comedy circus, not a reality.
So what we have is a total song of despair, interestingly placed ahead of the ultimate song of despair – Desolation Row. Each of these songs ends with no end to the situation. OK, Dylan can return to New York to escape, but the pain still lingers. In Desolation Row, there is not even that escape, because the doorknob has broken, and instead of running away all he can say is “Don’t send me no more letters no, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.”
In other words in Desolation Row, you have to go back to Dylan which is why it is the last track on Highway 61 Revisited. In Tom Thumb, Dylan can escape and get back to New York. In Desolation Row, even the blues highway (Highway 61) is no escape. In Tom Thumb the Blues Highway shows us everything, but then is there metaphorically to allow us to get out again.
Within “Just like Tom Thumb Blues”, Dylan is in Juarez – which could be one of many places. It has Saint Annie, who could be any one of many people. Mostly Juarez is interpreted as the city on the Rio Grande just south of El Paso in Texas. El Paso and Ciudad Juárez is together a significant conurbation with a population of 2.1 million.
In a sense, the song is an attack on the Mexican border town – and indeed on Mexico – compared with the fun and games of Highway 61 itself, and by implication the recognised life within the Mississippi Delta. Mississippi ok, Mexico border town, too far gone, seems to be the message. The notion that the album’s title song, and Tom Thumb are in any way connected through similarity seems to me utterly erroneous. They are either contrasts, or (you could argue) that Highway 61 is simply the setting out of the blues as a structure. Just as a road “says” here you are, follow this road or not, the choice is yours, Tom Thumb says, “this is the hell you get to if you travel south to the border and go over it”.
And then there are the cross references which are everywhere, including
Don’t put on any airs
When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue
Just to clarify that one, this is not just a passing reference to a short story that Dylan knows. Because “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is so much more than a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Published in 1841 is was the first ever (yes, really, the first) detective story. From this story all detective fiction, and all the exceptional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Poirot and the notion of the detective’s less insightful assistant.
The sanitisation of Holmes through television and film versions has removed much of the horror that Holmes dealt with, but Dylan spares us nothing.
But beyond that, with all the other references that people have seen, I’m not too sure. Rue Morgue Avenue is of course not the name of the original story – there is no “Avenue”, but an avenue of trees represents something pleasant – and there is nothing pleasant here, for it is a town of failure and despair.
There is the suggestion that the title of the song relates to a line in My Bohemian Life (Fantasy) by Arthur Rimbaud.
In the original French “Fantasy” is actually “Fantaisie,” which really isn’t the same thing at all. The character goes off for a wander into a strange world where the poet imagines “Tom Thumb” making rhymes.
I went off, my fists in my torn pockets;
My coat too was becoming ideal;
I walked under the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;
Oh! Oh! What brilliant loves I dreamed of!
My only pair of trousers had a big hole.
Tom Thumb in a daze, I sowed rhymes
As I went along. My inn was at the Big Dipper.
—My stars in the sky made a soft rustling sound.
It is not really the same stuff as Dylan’s song. Dylan is in a Poe like world
I cannot move
My fingers are all in a knot
I don’t have the strength
To get up and take another shot
And my best friend, my doctor
Won’t even say what it is I’ve got
As for “Up on Housing Project Hill” we are with Jack Kerouac, although not his most famous “On the Road” which would fit the overall notion of Highway 61, but is taken from Desolation Angels which itself relates to working on the fire watch on Desolation Peak in Washington state. But the book is about a move away from Buddhism, which doesn’t really fit with Dylan’s work. But it does fit with the next track: Desolation Row.
My conclusion, for what it is worth, is that it is not really helpful to try to make too much out of all these references and allusions. They are interesting in an academic way, but Dylan never seems to use them specifically – rather they are just passing references and starting points.
This is a song of despair, a song in which the blues musical form is extended further than could have been imagined thirty years earlier, and in which the references are themselves extended in their meaning. Trying to close down the references to mean anything in particular doesn’t work. The key is in the music, and the original meaning of the blues.
I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough
or as Robert Johnson put it
I got to keep movin', I've got to keep movin' Blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail And the day keeps on worrin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail..