How much of the 60s are implanted into Bob Dylan’s lyrics in the song ‘Tombstone Blues’ and how are they a good example for understanding the his feel towards that time.
A b s t r a c t
Among the numerous towering artistic fingerprints the generation of the sixties left on this earth for future generations to admire, the iconic Bob Dylan proved his worth with inspirational songs that forever marked those who listened. He had a way with both communicating an idea without being too literal as well as a way of using symbolisms to convey ideas that would speak for themselves to an audience hungering for protests. In this essay, I shall explore how in his song “Tombstone Blues”, Dylan’s lyrics do a master job at capturing the sixties aura and feel. Having a possibility of numerous interpretations and meanings, I shall decipher according to my own personal interpretation the deeper meaning behind the colorful parade of mythological and historical characters in odd and surreal situations that serve as a trippy journey into the mind of Bob Dylan and his view of the counterculture society in which he was living, contrasting with the historical events that shaped the decade and forever changed the United States of America. I shall answer the statement:
“How much of the 60s are implanted into Bob Dylan’s lyrics in the song ‘Tombstone Blues’ and how are they a good example for understanding his feel towards that time?”
While with a personal view, with the assistance of the documentary “Bob Dylan – No Direction Home”, the books “Dylan: Visions, Portraits and Back Pages” and “The Groovy Side of the Sixties” and the educational webpage “The Sixties: The Years That Shaped a Generation”, and other secondary sources.
I n t r o d u c t i o n
“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”
The sixties were a decade of revolution. The society of that time, particularly the youth, was rebelling against the past traditionalist morals that limited their freedom. There was a clash of ideals and public demands, an unjustified war was being forced on the people, and so on. The once fragile utopian society of the fifties was falling apart and giving way to more modern times, for better or for worse “These were traumatic times to live through.” (Suze Rotolo). People felt that way towards the authority’s violent response to the various movements that were happening.
Numerous artists implanted the turbulent aura of the decade into their songs, some known as protestant for sarcastic and aggressive lyrics that spoke for a cause. Some managed better than others. Very famously, Bob Dylan wrote his own share of subtly written protestant songs, though he claimed that “To be on the side of people who are struggling for something doesn’t mean you are being political”, in other words, he was just writing about what was happening around him and his feel towards it.
Following the footsteps of other folk singers, Dylan proved his worth as an impact on the minds and souls of people with songs like The Times They Are A-Changing,, and Blowin’ in the Wind, among other. Just like the Beatles captured a nation’s heart challenging the culture, Bob Dylan captured a nation’s head by reconstructing a form of expression. “In taking all of the elements I’ve ever known, to make wide sweeping statements which conveyed a feeling that was in general essence a spirit of the times.” (Bob Dylan)
In his album Highway 61 Revisited Dylan creates songs of a kind, both lyrically and musically, fitting neither into the category of folk or rock-’n-roll. It features the song Tombstone Blues, which embodies the surrealism of the sixties and Dylan’s portrayal of society, “if Salvador Dali or Luis Bunuel had picked up a Fender Strat to head a blues band, they might have come up with something like “Tombstone Blues.” But to what end? There are hundreds of interpretations that derive from each and every one of Dylan’s songs, and he has always been mysterious about their actual meaning, never giving straight answers and leaving the audience to interpret it’s true meaning. Dylan has even admitted that at times he doesn’t really know what he’s writing about!
In this essay I shall prove that the song in itself, though it may not have had the purpose to communicate a specific idea, is made in a way that embodies his personal feel and thought in those times. I shall answer:
“How much of the 60s are implanted into Bob Dylan’s lyrics in the song ‘Tombstone Blues’ and how are they a good example for understanding his feel towards that time”,
supporting my argument with one of the many interpretations of his song, using those verses I deem important for my argument.
“The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse”
or an interpretation of the characters presented in the song
Listening to the song Tombstone Blue at first sounds like a mess of both lyrics and music, with an up-tempo chugging beat that gives the feel of going too fast and lyrics that literally don’t make sense. First of all, you have a grand collection of characters (similar to those paraded in Desolation Row, from the same album) that are clearly not there as a random selection, “based on myth and the Bible […] and all kinds of things that which are nothing but mystery […] it’s all something that nobody can really touch.” (Dylan) they indubitably have either a historical or mythological reference that play key roles in the development of the song. As should be noted, these characters do not interact with one another on a grand scale. They interact in pairs and in only one or two verses per pairing. They are presented to us as a series of surreal portraits to be deciphered.
The first character is Paul Revere, or rather his horse. The United States of America began their independence in the Battle of Lexington assisted by Paul Revere acting as messenger, among other patriots, (although Paul Revere the most culturally remembered considered a patriotic symbol); being Paul Revere the rider, the horse was the means of transportation. With this we can conclude that the horse can have two interpretations: the first is a traditional figure, being both and old character and the ancient manner for reaching an end; the second being an enterprise for change, the horse having been the measure with which Paul Revere helped initiate the Revolution.
“The city fathers they’re trying to endorse,
the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s Horse;
But the town has no need to be nervous.”
And considering the participation of the city fathers, being the eldest inhabitants of a city, it is safe to assume that Paul Revere’s Horse is a symbol for traditionalism. How that fits into Dylan’s view of the sixties are as follows: as I mentioned before, the sixties were a decade of change brought on mostly by the younger generation (the protestants and activists), in contrast to the older generations belonging to the forties and fifties (city fathers, politicians and other authority figures) which sought a more conservative future through controversial methods: “The FBI [used] tactics and methods like surveillance, recordings, anonymous letters, outright blackmail and IRS investigations-anything to discredit activist leaders and create organizational divisions.” (”The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s Horse”) their public objective presented as “it’s right to protect the nation”; (“But the town has no need to be nervous”.)
Next, we are presented with three characters: Belle Starr, Jezebel and Jack the Ripper, who interact with each other:
“The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun, she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
At the head of the chamber of commerce”
While Paul Revere was an American patriot, these characters are infamous criminals and murderers. Belle Starr, born Maybelle Shirley Reed, was a notorious American outlaw commonly known as “Outlaw Queen” for her success in accomplishing illegal enterprises. Jezebel, a character in the Bible, daughter of Ethboal, is considered an “evil woman” for promoting an “evil” religion, but more culturally referred to as a synonym for sexual promiscuity. Jack the Ripper, the most famous of the three, was notorious murderer in England during the late half of the nineteenth century. In the verse, we have Belle Starr as inheriting her wits (her smarts) to Jezebel, being ironically portrayed as a nun, who in turn is constructing a disguise for Jack the Ripper who has secured his place as head of the Chamber of Commerce. Jezebel can be easily associated to the sexual revolution, due to the fact that being Jezebel a symbol of sexual promiscuity, her disguise as a nun can be associated with the fifties idea of a sexually preservative woman. Being the Chamber of Commerce a business network, both of power and influence, here we have a murderer standing in the place of men with power. Having Jack the Ripper chosen victims of the lower class (prostitutes and working class women) we can easily interpret his place in the Chamber of Commerce as an evident protest to how the growing economy was being controlled by the socially labeled ‘coldhearted’ men that allowed the lower classes to wallow in poverty, as addressed later on (1967-68) by Martin Luther King in his Poor People’s Campaign. And the last of the trio is Belle Star, her ghost. Considered “the female Jesse James”, for being the brains behind the illegal operations (and often escaping charges), can be both a symbol for either illegal but well planned actions, or the mixture of female sexuality with violence. And considering the growing fascination of the American masses towards the later, as can be clearly observed in the cinema of that time (Spaghetti Westerns, Clint Eastwood forever the icon; Spies, with the birth of the James Bond franchise) Starr can be associated as the later symbol. Now, all three of the characters are participating in this verse, more specifically, the two women are helping Jack the Ripper, the conclusion being that Dylan saw that both sex and violence was growing to be a new form of both selling and buying.
Verse five / six:
The next recognizable character is presented in the fifth verse is John the Baptist, who interacts with a “Commander in Chief”. While John the Baptist is known for being a major religion figure as a prophet who foretold the arrival of the messiah (Jesus Christ) and a divine apocalypse that would restore occupied Israel; the Commander in Chief’s specific identity is left for us to guess at, the most probable being that of the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. Why the use of John the Baptist? Having been a prophet and the foreteller of the messiah’s arrival, he is a symbol of the American soldier acting as precursor for a “greater good”: preventing a communist takeover of South Vietnam. These verses are Dylan’s protest against the Vietnam War, as John the Baptist is “torturing a thief”, but later asks the Commander in Chief “Is there a hole for me to get sick in?” a comment suggesting disapproval and reluctance towards his actions, but an obligation nonetheless, a feel shared by those 1.4 million who were drafted to the Vietnam War. In the next verse, the Commander in Chief answers to John, saying: “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”. Which can be easily translated as a threat of punishment to anyone opposing the war, the same applied at the masses of anti-war protesters.
“And dropping a barbell he points to the sky,
Saying, ‘The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken’“‘
The barbell is a symbol of power, the brute power used against the protesting masses. The last line, Dylan’s most famous in this song, has been the most complicate, as it’s meaning varies, the one to which I lean in this essay being that the Commander in Chief merely accuses a greater authority (the sun) of being a coward in his presence as a way of exhibiting his supposed power (along with dropping the barbell), but the remark makes no sense at all, an unnecessary attempt at the impossible, and he is attributed with stupidity.
The next character in the seventh verse, yet another biblical one, King of the Philistines, known as Samson, a herculean figure that freed the Israelites from the Philistines. In this verse, Samson is tasked with:
“Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves,
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves,
Then sends them out to the jungle”
Interpreted as the duty of burying the veterans and replacing them. Another known fact about Samson is he killed the philistines with jawbone of a donkey, therefore the jawbone in is symbolic for weaponry used in the war; and in the most ironic of senses, a symbol of the supposed honor awarded to a fallen soldier through components such as draping the coffin with the flag of the United States. After “honoring” the fallen, Samson proceeds to jail the pied pipers. In the fairytale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the pied piper lured many children to follow him with his magic pipe, therefore his presence in the song is symbol of a leader of the young and revolt: “The government responded with tactics aimed at isolating, controlling, and neutralizing the leaders of rebellion.”, as in the song Samson imprisons the pied pipers. He also fattens the slaves, that is, he prepared other draftees to “send[s] them out to the jungle”, namely the Vietnam.
The next verse includes only one slightly recognizable character (thanks to Woody Gurthie’s song): Gypsy Davey, commonly known as the Gypsy Laddie, a Scottish traditional folk ballad that tells the tale of a gypsy who charms a married woman to run away with him. In the verse “[…] with a blowtorch he burns out their camps.”, therefore he is a symbol for the American soldier that participated in the “Zippo Raids” that caused great controversy with people’s opinion towards the war: “One of reporting’s finest hours was Safer’s 1965 piece from Vietnam, […] on the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite, showed U.S. Marines burning the village of Cam Ne. The pivotal broadcast was one of the negative reports that helped change America’s view of the war.” The verse continues describing:
“With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps
With a fantastic collection of stamps
To win friends and influence his uncle”
The possible interpretation to be derived from “slave Pedro” would be that of a minority (being a slave and foreigner), therefore the fact that Gypsy Davey “tramps” behind him symbolizes the minorities that serve as the first to fall in the war. And afterwards, Davey is described with having a “fantastic collection of stamps”, otherwise known as the passport stamps, meaning he has traveled around the world, possibly because of wars. And last, but not least, we have “uncle”, to be none other than Uncle Sam, though historically only a business man who provided the army with food during the War of 1812, he is now a personification of the United States and sometimes of the American government; clearly the song uses the latter symbolism. Davey in collecting stamps to influence Uncle Sam translates as the soldier not knowing the true cause for which he is being sent around the world, he merely enjoys the travel and intends to win favor in the military.
The next verse sings:
“The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who sits worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.”
It’s a tricky verse, mostly caused by the opening line “The Geometry of innocent flesh on the bone” whose interpretation I gather to be the logic (“geometry”) behind the innocence “flesh on the bone” (each is born with) is now confusing, as it “causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown.” Galileo (1564 – 1642) an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, considered “responsible for the birth of modern science”, represents the ultimate knowledge of a time (the sixties). Throwing his math book is clearly a sign of frustration at being stumped with such a complicated notion, translated as not even the greatest minds could understand what went on in the minds of the young. As Dylan sees it, the complicated nature of the youth in the sixties, accentuated by drugs and music was clearly something that had smarter minds confused. Next comes Delilah, another biblical character. She was Samson’s (King of the Philistines) one weakness, for he had loved her and she betrayed him, revealing the root of his strength to the Philistines in exchange for money. Having Delilah been a lover to Samson, “the tears on her cheeks are from laughter” suggest she both pretends to be saddened by Samson’s defeat but laughs triumphantly at winning her money. Samson in the seventh verse buried and “honored” the fallen soldiers, Delilah’s win implies hypocrisy by the government for replacing the fallen for the sake it’s political interest in Vietnam, as felt by Dylan.
In the penultimate verse is Brother Bill, a fictional character that for having the word ‘brother’ capitalized, is of religious stature. Dylan also mentions Cecil B. DeMille, a deceased American film director famous for his dramatic Hollywoodesque Bible adaptations, including one of Samson and Delilah. In the verse, Dylan writes:
“Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after.”
Granting Bill’s wishes to be chained to a hill with pillars (as Samson was) to die is translated as letting him die a martyr in Cecil B. DeMille cinematographic glory, an entertaining way not worthy of praise or respect. Dylan is clearly mocking religion’s character in the sixties, known for it’s fleeting attempt to maintain followers, as the religious revival of postwar was in a severe decline. “While religious commitment in the United States remained the highest in the industrial world, people stopped talking of a new revival and began to discuss decline. In 1957, 14 percent of the Americans polled said religion was in decline in the United States.” The counterculture of the time that questioned many of religion’s past principals (the greatest example being how the fifties preserved the conservative views on women and marriage) was enough cause for it’s decline.
Now, the last verse to narrate a recognizable character includes Beethoven and Ma Raney, both musicians but of different time, nationality, genre and gender, and yet Dylan compares them, at a same level of appreciation:
“Where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college”
German born Ludwig van Beethoven, is a highly regarded and most acclaimed and influential composer, having been a crucial figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic. Ma Raney was the earliest known American professional blues singer, known as the “Mother of Blues”, as she did much to develop and popularize the form. The verse describes the place where Beethoven and Ma Raney used to live (a bedroll being a sleeping bag) as now being replaced by tuba players who practice around the flagpole, the flagpole belonging to the American Flag, the United States. Having such highly regarded artists been replaced by tuba players, I can only infer that Dylan is referring to the fact of music in the sixties being overrun by mainstream mediocrity. Next, the National Bank sells “roadmaps for the soul”, namely, guidebooks for your life. If the National Bank is giving guidebooks, this can only mean that consumerism was in full growth and becoming a way of life. Dylan clearly disapproved of this, describing the roadmaps being sold to the “old folks home and the college” translated as consumerism is attacking the young to inherit the country and the elderly who leave it behind.
“Mama’s in the fact’ry, she ain’t got no shoes!”
or the meaning of the chorus
“Mama’s in the factory, She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley, He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen, With the tombstone blues”
The on going chorus of three lines that repeats throughout the song is confusing, for once again it can have more than one interpretation, each just as different as the others. For one, we have to consider the inclusion of a father, a mother and Dylan himself, this can be either interpreted as a family from the era or merely a presentation of adults in contrast to the constant reference to the you in the rest of the song. If we were to take the idea of being a family, we have a picture of poverty, as the mother instead of being a housewife, like most women of the past decade, is of the working class stature (“Mama’s in the factory”). Lacking shoes, one can assume she is poor and working to be able to purchase some. The woman being constantly accused of purchasing an excessive amount of shoes here is lacking some Dylan uses her as a sign of the growing consumerism.
Next comes the man, the father. “Daddy’s in the alley, He’s lookin’ for food”, he is in an alley, and starvation is the other idea implanted here, another sign of poverty. Business having been the common area for men in decades prior, was growing in the sixties. A true urban jungle to be fighting in, the man (the father) implies that competition was a tough business that was leaving the more traditional family man of the fifties to starvation.
And last, but not least, a first person description, to be implied as the son of the mother and father and the everyday person. Here Dylan makes one’s self identify with the character, as both a way of connecting them with the song as implying that they themselves, the everyday person, is worrying about the counterculture situation of the sixties. “I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues”. Both the tombstone blues referring to the song in itself that carries all the topics mentioned above as the implication of being “down with the blues” (sad) and depressed. Even if the last line of the chorus has one sole variation throughout the song, (“I’m in trouble with the Tombstone Blues” the use of the title as a symbol for the weight of the sixties counterculture in general, being in trouble in a first person narrative can only imply how each and everyone of it’s listeners, merely by the act of listening to the song were contributing to Dylan’s protest, and therefore were in trouble for doing so.
The last of the verses in the song, which I used in my introduction, goes as follows:
“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”
It’s one true interpretation could only both an act of Dylan challenging those who are not listening to the song to question what it is that the general culture was teaching them and his way of reaffirming his methods of protesting.
C o n c l u s i o n
Even though the counterculture of the sixties produces many varying forms of expression, the arts seemed to be the ones that truly embodied the personal feel of people towards that time. Music in particular, having both lyrics and music to embody a deeper feel served a greater social purpose (with examples like Woodstock in 1969) that united people for a cause and common feel. Dylan in particular achieved this, with master writing skills that produced more than his fair share of songs that impacted on the minds and souls of people, even to controversial points. With his particular song Tombstone Blues we get a peek at his point off view of society on that time. Exploring topics such as the Femenist Movement, Free Speech Movement, Anti-War Protests, the Vietnam War, and other counterculture events, with the use of mythological, biblical and historical characters he embodies the events, giving them a life of their own in their particular surreal portrait in odd juxtapositions, making art and using his rights for free expression without causing political controversy. In doing so, he forever creates a grand illusion in which the aura of the sixties can be understood by anyone present or non-present at the time. Should one have had the opportunity of conversing with Dylan himself, I bet we would probably get better feedback and comprehension than with personal interpretations alone.
B i b l i o g r a p h y
- Blake, Mark (Editor in Chief) (2005) Dylan: Visions, Portraits and Back Pages. Ney York: DK Publishing.
- NOTE: The book is a compilation of the hundreds of articles about Bob Dylan featured in the magazine “MOJO, The Music Magazine”, here are the articles I used:
- Kane, Peter “Boy Wonder: Robert Zimmerman’s childhood and teenage years… “ (page 17-19 in the book)
- Bailie, Stuart “Protest and Survive” (page 31-33)
- Lowe, Steve “The Fab Five” (page 45-51)
- Gahr, David “Dylan Goes Electric” (63-67)
- Sheppard, David “The Road to Glory” (74-75)
- Gale, Tony “Everybody Must Get Stoned” (85-87)
- DeMichael, Tom,& Markowitz, Rhonda. (2001) The Groovy Side of the Sixties. Publications International, Ltd. Lincoln Wood, Illinois.
- Metzger, Bruce M. , & Coogan, Michael D. (2001) The Oxford Guide to People and Places of the Bible, Oxford University Press.
- Sculatti, Gene (2007) The 100 Best Selling Albums of the 60s. Mexico: Editorial Diana.
- Dylan, Bob. (Artist) (June 15, 1965 – August 4, 1965) Tombstone Blues [song]. Highway 61 Revisited [Record] Columbia.
- Haynes, Todd. (Director & Writer) I’m Not There [Motion Picture] United States: The Weinstein Company
- Nicholas, Noah, & Bedell, Molly. (writers) Mysteries of the Freemasons: America [Documentary] The History Channel, August 1, 2006, written by
- Scorsese, Martin (Director) (2005) No Direction Home [Documentary]. United States: Paramount Pictures
- (2005) The Hunt For Jack The Ripper [Documentary] The History Channel,.
- Janovitz, Bill. (n.D.) “Tombstone Blues: Song Review”. Web. Retrieved October, 2009 from: http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=33:gjfqxzqrldhe
- LEGENDS OF AMERICA: A Travel Site for the Nostalgic & Historic Minded (2003 – 2010) Belle Starr – The Bandit Queen. Retrieved January 4th, 2010 from: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/WE-BelleStarr2.html
- Public Broadcasting Service, PBS (2005) The Sixties: The Years That Shaped a Generation. Retrieved December, 19th 2009. from: http://www.pbs.org/opb/thesixties/index.html.
- US History Retrieved December 11th, 2009 from: http://elcoushistory.tripod.com/economics1960.html
- 1960’s Religion, Public Issues. (n.D.) Retrieved December 12th, 2009 from: http://www.enotes.com/1960-religion-american-decades
- Economy, Overview