The lyrics and the music: Tombstone Blues

The lyrics and the music.   A series looking at how Dylan’s music relates to his lyrics.  A list of the previous articles in this series is given at the foot of this article

By Tony Attwood

The musical opening of this song is nothing if not frantic.   If you’ve not played the track for a few years just listen one more time to the speed of that instrumental introduction.

It was often played more slowly on tour, but here everything is flying along at an amazing pace.   And so it is not surprising that Dylan hardly worries about a melody – it is in fact a recitation depicting an utterly frantic world, which is then emphasised by short guitar solo at the end of the chorus.  Everything goes round and round, and then off we go again.

When we do get around to focusing on the lyrics we can see the reason for this relentlessly frantic approach, for the world painted here is one of utter chaos and indeed meaninglessness.

If there is to be an explanation for all this it comes at the end of the last verse

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

And that really sums up the earlier verses – we know so much about the world, yet we are laying waste to it.  We know so much about each other, but much of the time we can’t make each other happy.   We know so much about poetry and literature but critics can’t actually agree about what is going on and why.   (Yet even here there is a suggestion from critics that the song is somehow about Tombstone Arizona, rather than being about, nothing, everything, the pace of life, the chaos of life…)

But the changes Bob made to the lyrics as the recordings progress (“John the blacksmith” for example, metamorphising into “John the Baptist”) shows just how little the actual words mean in comparison with the overall driving force of the music.

Certainly there is a total franticness to the opening from the guitars and percussion, and yet against this Dylan sings,

The sweet pretty things are in bed now, of courseThe city fathers, they are trying to endorseThe reincarnation of Paul Revere's horseBut the town has no need to be nervous

This music has nothing to do with the “sweet pretty things”, and having the city council or whoever they are, focussing on reincarnating an animal that was part of an event in the 18th century, is just bizarre.

And that is the point.   Everything is bizarre… but then how does one make music bizarre?  Certainly one could try cacophony, except that few of us would be willing to listen to it.  So Dylan goes the other way and restricts the song to just two chords, hardly any melody at all (it really is more declamation than singing particularly in the verses)

But interestingly this turns out to be the perfect solution.   The music is highly structured and with just two chords behind it, but it goes at a racing pace, Dylan declaims more than he sings, and there is a chorus that is performed four times but has no real relationship with anything else…

Mama’s in the factory
She ain't got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s looking for food
I am in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues

The lyrics through which we might find an explanation actually mean nothing.  It is the music that tells us what is going on.  Everything is frantic and rushing forward, where in the end the only relief that could be imagined is thinking about the peace, quiet and ultimate nothingness, beneath the tombstone.

It really is an exceptional combination of music and lyrics, and a perfect example of Bob’s automatic grasp of just what music is needed for the meanings hidden within the lyrics.

The songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…


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