Mobile is a town in Alabama that is known for folk music, while Memphis, Tennessee is known for blues and rock.
A few different characters show up in the narrative, starting with "the ragman." Dylan did offer a rare song interpretation when he told Robert Shelton, author of No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, that the ragman is Satan. Many of Dylan's lyrics are filled with biblical images, but shrouded in inscrutable stories.
It is often said that Dylan "found God" in the '80s, but the Bible and God have been running through his work in a very serious way ever since the very beginning. Dylan later said that if he had to "do it all again," he'd teach theology or ancient Roman history.
Dylan session artist Al Kooper's memoir, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, tells many fun anecdotes of the time around the recording of Blonde on Blonde. Anecdote the first: He was delayed on his way to Nashville for the first day of recording with Dylan, due to a night with some lady fans. So he delayed the plane the next morning while he came riding up beside it in a jeep. He boarded literally minutes before the plane's wheels would have left the runway, only to turn around and discover that this flight had originated in New York and was half-full of people who knew him.
Kooper Anecdote the second: He was on foot in the city when a gang of thugs started chasing him with the idea of beating him up. He ducked into a bookstore and called to Dylan's manager, Al Grossman, from a phone booth (remember this was in the day before mobile phones). Al Grossman dispatched Lamar Fike, a bodygaurd who had also worked for Elvis, to the scene in a Cadillac to retrieve Kooper from his imminent curb-stomping, thoroughly freaking out the thugs in the process.
Kooper Anecdote the third: one of the session players for Blonde on Blonde was a keyboard player named "Pig," who happened to be blind. On a night when the band was drinking and blowing off steam, winding around the streets of Tennessee, they decided to let Pig drive. Pig was doing quite well, supplemented by directions from the passengers, until the Highway Patrol pulled them over.
Some notable uses of this song include the opening credits of I'm Not There, both the film and book version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas play it and mention it, respectively, and the various Grateful Dead covers throughout the '60s and '70s.
One of the lines in the song was inspired by "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground," by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Lumsford, who was known as the "minstrel of the Appalachians," wrote:
'Cause a railroad man they'll kill you when he can And drink up your blood like wine
Which compares closely with Dylan's:
Mona tried to tell me To stay away from the train line She said that all the railroad men Just drink up your blood like wine
A live version of the song was included on the album Hard Rain and released as a single on November 30, 1976. "Rita May" was the B-side.
The first known live performance of the song was at the University of West Florida on April 28, 1976.
Cat Power covered the song for the film I'm Not There, which is about Bob Dylan.
W.C. Handy, sometimes called the Father of the Blues, released a song titled "Memphis Blues" in 1912. In The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Michael Gray suggests that Dylan is implicitly tipping his hat to this inspiration by adding the word "Again" to "Memphis Blues." If true, this would be similar to the Grateful Dead, in "New, New Minglewood Blues," adding "New" to the old song title "New Minglewood Blues."
On the 2017 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde tribute album, Old Crow Medicine show performed a version of this song.
Jim from Long Beach, CaThis sog is genius!! This is Bob Dylan at his finest moment..
Rhyan from Geelong, Australiaanother backwards line would be, "he just smoked my eyelid, and punched my cigarette".
Marissa from Akron, OhThis song was referenced in Hunter S. Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (how appropriate, a masterpiece referenced in a masterpiece.) It also appears in the film, but it's just a few seconds of it playing on the radio while Johnny Depp is driving in the Great Red Shark. Apparently Thompson (or his "character"... the book is VERY loosely based on truth so who knows what's fact, what's fiction and what's LSD/mescaline induced) was sort of tortured by the song because it brought back unspecified bad memories. On the other hand, I absolutely adore this song, not just because it was in one of my all time favorite books but because it's totally awesome in general. I love the line "The post office has been stolen and the mailbox is locked" because it takes you a minute to realize that's totally backwards... mailboxes can be stolen and post offices can be locked, but not the other way around! Tricky, Mr. Dylan, very tricky.