Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #18: Ballad of a Thin Man

I really like the lyrics to this song. I mean, I get that I probably appear to like Dylan’s lyrics all the time, but I really like them in this song. They’re caustic and clever and cogent. Just the refrain itself is a beautiful piece of simple, forceful poetry: “Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”

The song is pretty clearly directed at a music critic, which may seem petty or small-minded of Dylan, particularly since Dylan himself admitted that “Mr. Jones” is a real person who would have been known by name when the song was released (although you have to take anything Dylan said to the press at that time with, like, 87 grains of salt). But it’s not petty. Not at all. Because Mr. Jones isn’t just a music critic—he’s a tastemaker, a peddler, a card-carrying member of the establishment and the status quo.

What’s so great about “Ballad of a Thin Man” is that Mr. Jones doesn’t become just some caricature of the Old Guard to be ridiculed by Bob Dylan, hip new superstar. Mr. Jones is one of Dylan’s most fully realized figures. Like Miss Lonely and the female figure on Blood on the Tracks, we get a real sense of who Mr. Jones is. Indeed, it’s hard not to recognize a bit of Mr. Jones in yourself.*

*I, for one, sometimes cringe at the line, “You’re very well-read, it’s well-known.”

Mr. Jones may be best represented as a music critic, but what he really is at heart is an arbiter of good taste, sent to pass judgment on the value of something new. Dylan’s attack is not on criticism itself—it’s on the notion of sending somebody from one world to evaluate something from another.

Mr. Jones is alienated from the beginning. Everyone he meets in the song is a freak of some kind—a “geek” or a “sword swallower” or a “one-eyed midget.” Mr. Jones may be good at what he does, and he may “have been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books,” but that is of no use to him here. Here, as somebody points out to an incredulous Mr. Jones, he is the freak. 

It’s not simply that Mr. Jones is out of place, but that he ventures out of his comfort zone for the sole purpose of passing judgment. Everything Mr. Jones does is for the purpose of gaining approval or doling it out. He wants to impress people with his looks and how well-read he is, and he wants everything in this new, unknown world explained to him for his benefit. This is what makes him so venal and, in the end, inhuman. As the one-eyed midget tells him, “You’re a cow: Give me some milk or else go home.”

Musically, “Ballad of a Thin Man” is eerie and menacing. It feels completely natural for Dylan to ditch the guitar completely for this song, showing how far he’s evolved from his folk roots. The first notes on the piano lay the groundwork for the whole song, setting up the condemnatory feel of the entire composition. Dylan’s vocals in this one also convey the perfect sentiment: He seems to be alternating between scolding and downright mocking of Mr. Jones.

This song is an example of Dylan at his best: Sharp, witty, audacious, crisp, melodious. It’s a song that is both simple and resonant, accessible and impenetrable, explicable and deep. There’s a lot going on here, and I only know some of what it is.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] him of selling out, but many, including Sean Wilentz, rushed to his defense, essentially calling Dowd “Mr. Jones.” The case is obviously complicated, but Dylan is […]

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