Ballad of a Thin Man

Album: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
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  • While speculations remain rampant as to who "Mr. Jones" is and what exactly this song is supposed to mean, there is no definitive answer at this time. The closest thing we've seen to an answer from Dylan himself appears in an interview given in Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, where Dylan asserts that the "Mr. Jones" in question is a real person not known by this name, who is a pinboy, wears suspenders, and "puts his eyes in his pocket" which might mean that he wears glasses.
  • Before launching into this song in Japan, 1986, Dylan said, "This is a song I wrote in response to people who ask questions all the time. You just get tired of that every once in a while."
  • Of the many references to "Ballad of a Thin Man" found throughout media, are the lines "feel so suicidal, just like Dylan's Mr. Jones" from the Beatles' "Yer Blues," "Mr. Jones is a man who doesn't know who Mr. Jones is" from Momus' "Who Is Mr. Jones?," "I wanna be Bob Dylan, Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky." from Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones," and "Mr. Jones won't lend me a hand" from Country Joe and the Fish' "Flying High." While we cannot speculate on the true identity of Mr. Jones, it can be said that the name "Mr. Jones" has come to symbolize for the music world the kind of old-guard "square" who "doesn't get it," similar to our modern usage of the mythical "Joe Sixpack."
  • This is the song which Bob Dylan and his band played at the Forest Hills concert of 1965 in an attempt to soothe the unruly crowd. As Al Kooper recounts in Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, "It had a quiet intro, and the kids persisted in yelling and booing all the way through it. Dylan shouted to us to 'keep playing the intro over and over again until they shut up!' We played it for a good five minutes - doo do da da, do da de da - over and over until they did, in fact, chill. A great piece of theater. When they were finally quiet, Dylan sang the lyrics to them."
  • A 1966 cover of this song (titled "Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man)") was the first single for The Grass Roots. At the time, the group was led by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. Sloan credits Bob Dylan for sticking by him when many other musicians and industry insiders dissociated themselves from him. Sloan was an up-and-coming songwriter/producer when he wrote the incendiary hit "Eve Of Destruction," which went to #1 in 1965, but caused a great deal of controversy and made it very difficult for him to find work.
  • According to Al Kooper, Bob Dylan took from Ray Charles's "I Believe to My Soul" for "Ballad of a Thin Man."
  • In a September 22, 1966 interview in Austin, Texas, a reporter asked Dylan if "Ballad of a Thin Man" was about "a newspaper reporter or something." Dylan, who spent the entire interview mocking and evading the questions, responded with a single line: "No, it's just about a fella that came into a truckstop once."
  • The opening line, "You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand," was at one point, "You walk into the room with a hatchet in your hand." This was revealed in a lyric sheet that is part of Dylan's archives in Tulsa.
  • In discussing the song, Dylan told biographer Robert Shelton, "I could tell you who Mr. Jones is in my life, but, like, everybody has got their Mr. Jones."
  • Before and after their speeches, Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale regularly played this song over the PA system. Insiders reported they listened to it almost obsessively. The two men felt it was speaking about the black struggle in America.
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Comments: 19

  • Tommy from Los AngelesI had heard the same thing, that it was about a Time magazine writer.
  • Ken from Levittown, NyIf you see the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker, there is a part where Dylan berates a Time Magazine reporter. It is believed that the Mr Jones character is based on that reporter and his views of the counterculture of the time. The Mr Jones character is also mentioned in the John Lennon penned song Yer Blues on the White Album (the eagle picks my eyes. The worms they lick my bones. I feel so suicidal, just like Dylan's Mr Jones). High praise!
  • Tp from La, Ca This song was written back in the day when young people were heavily questioning their government who was dragging them out of their lives and sending them to Vietnam. Students were not as concerned with making money as with the youth of today, they wanted change from the plastic conformist life they were expected to jump into. They wanted something different, not so superficial, some thing real. Listen to other songs of the era, people are not so absorbed with themselves or who they loved, lyrics had much more social meaning to them. I think the most important part of the song is the repeating refrain, " But something is happening here and you don't know what it is
    do you, Mr. Jones?" No one cared if there was a litteral translation or a specific person. It was very meaningful in the general sense. It is what stood out most to the people listening in those days. The 'something going on' had to do with government activity, students of the time were not agreeing with and were suspicious of, and questioned with gusto. I think the lyrics are even more meaningful today in that light.
  • Chuck from Joppa, Md, MdI always took Mr. Jones to be Dylan himself--well-read, well-regarded, yet feeling like an outcast and a freak; charitable donations are expected of him, his imagination is under attack (music critics) and nobody has any respect, showing how folks idolize him in many respects but are always willing to turn on him should he not meet with expectations.
  • Don from Seattle, WaTo me, the song is about being disoriented and confused, using several images to convey that feeling = one eyed midgets, sword swallowers, naked men, "geek" performers...Bob Dylan isnt pointing a finger at anyone. But he is always withdrawn and never talking about what his songs mean.
  • Jeff from Chicago, IlThis song is about critics. They often do not have any idea what they are talking about and they just don't get it.
    It is not about Homosexuality, it may be about Brian Jones as a critic, but I think it more likely that it is about critics in general.
  • Paul from Detroit, Azi thought the Mr. Jones referenced was referring to a british reporter who didnt quirte get bob
    straight, mainline type

    I remember seeing an interaction of the two in the dylan tour movie from 64
  • Rod from Gainesville, FlAndrea´s comments rock Thanks for the interpretation
  • James from Tulsa, Okits about steve urkel duh haha think about it
  • Fred from Laurel, MdKen/SD,CA -- excellent point, in view of Dylan's well-publicized admiration of Allen Ginsberg's poetry (and the fandom was mutual there). Which leads us, if we take his lyrics as largely stream-of-consciousness, to ask, if the lyrics come out sounding of gay tendencies, are those tendencies in the lyricist, or in the beholder? Are they verbal Rorschachs, or actual portrayals? Personally, I don't think this question has a definitive answer. I just find his lyrics remarkably creative, and fun!
  • Ken from San Diego, CaAlmost all of Robert Z'Man's lyrics come from random thoughts or from what he is reading at the time. He is a follower of the William S. Burroughs school of rambling beat generation writing. Used by Lennon, Bowie, Anderson, Fagen and many many more it is a useful and effective tool for the (sic)ecclectic Rock generations focus on the "beat" and let the lyrics flow way of doing things. Happy Trails
  • Fred from Laurel, MdAndrea/Columbus, OH -- This is amazing, but my sister and one of her (female) friends heard this suggestion in the early 70's (maybe from someone in the gay community they were in touch with?), and went poring over his songs trying to glean lyrical evidence that BD was gay, and I think it was based on this song, mostly. One of the big "keys" is right at the beginning, "You walk into the room, your pencil in your hand..."
  • Andrea from Columbus, OhI never thought about Brian Jones so I'm going to have to go back and take a listen, but I've always thought it was about homosexuality. Particularly a gay guy playing it straight and not even admitting to the fact to himself that he's gay. Key phrases like "sword swallower," "hands you a bone," and "here's your throat back, thanks for the loan" is why I've interpreted it this way. There are several other references like to Fitzgerald and lumberjacks that help, too. Maybe the song is about a gay journalist, too.
  • Reed from New Ulm, MnBob from Pheonix----i too had heard that it was about Brian Jones.
  • Timmy from Mukilteo, Waat first i thought it was talking about the halocaust from a tourists point of view, but now im really not sure what it means
  • Tom from Chester, United KingdomI think this song is largely to do with social circles and not really realising when you are not welcome. it also seems to attack the idea of ignorance with, "Something is happening but you don't know what it is," even though Dylan explains that Jones is "Well read."

    Its mocking the said, "Mister Jones," for being so blind.

    The idea that Zach posted about it being about them media is fair and I like it, I think it could also mean a variety of different things and thats what is so great about it!
  • Jake from Baltimore, Mdthis is a great song that delves deep into dylans song and is the subject of a great scene in the dylan movie, I'm Not There
  • Marissa from Akron, OhIf you listen to this song's lyrics, it's absolutely the most random, weird thing I have ever heard in my life... or maybe that's just the version I have. If anyone knows of the 2-disc set called No Direction Home, that's where all my knowledge of Bob Dylan comes from so I don't know the normal versions of his songs except Mr. Tambourine Man, Blowing in the Wind, Chimes of Freedom, Like a Rolling Stone, and some songs that weren't on there ("Lay Lady Lay," "Tangled Up In Blue".) Then again, this is Dylan we're talking about: "normal" and "Bob Dylan" don't belong in the same PARAGRAPH, let alone the same sentence. But admit it, that's why we love him, right? :D
  • Bob from Pheonix, NmI thought it was about brian jones
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