As we all undoubtedly remember from kindergarten, Tom Thumb is a character in many folk tales. According to Wikipedia, Tom Thumb first appeared in these stories in the sixteenth century. The gist of the typical story (there are many versions) is that an old couple wants a baby. Merlin the Magician overhears the couple saying they would be willing to take any baby, even one that’s no bigger than a thumb. Merlin grants them their wish, and thus little Tom Thumb is born. Tom goes on to win favor with the king, suffers through various tribulations, and is eventually killed by a bite from a spider.
How does all that relate to the lyrics of this song? I guess one could argue that the narrator is comparing his tribulations with those of Tom Thumb. Or perhaps he feels he’s been hammered down so hard that he feels as small as Tom Thumb. Or maybe Dylan just liked the story. Who knows?
Here’s what Dylan said about it before playing the song at a concert in 1966.
This [song] is about a painter – down in Mexico City, who traveled from North Mexico up to Del Rio, Texas all the time, his name’s Tom Thumb, and uh, right now he’s about 125 years old but he’s still going, and uh, everybody likes him a lot down there, he’s got lots of friends, and uh, this is when he was going through his BLUE period, of painting, and uh, he’s made COUNTLESS amount of paintings, you couldn’t think of ’em all. This is his blue period painting I just dedicate this song to him, it’s called Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.
Unlike most Dylan songs from this period, Just Like Tom Thumb is a narrative ballad. The lyrics describe a man who has taken a trip down south into the border town of Juarez, Mexico, apparently looking for the pleasures of wine and women (in this case “burgundy” and “Melinda”). Things take a nasty turn for the worse. Disillusioned, the narrator returns for a respite to, ironically, the rough and tumble streets of New York.
It’s possible that the source of the song was Dylan’s own experiences during his well-known 1964 trip through the South with his road manager and buddy Victor Maimudes, writer Pete Karman, and folk singer and friend Paul Clayton.
The song may be a narrative, but it certainly is not your daddy’s narrative. Although the song tells a story, it is frustratingly vague and jumps around like an ADHD kid on acid. Dylan not only completely changes the scene and characters in each verse, but he also changes the tense in mid-song from “you” to “I”, a technique Dylan uses often. Examples include Tangled Up in Blue, Hollis Brown, and Black Diamond Bay.
Many commentators have cited possible literary references, although they seem to be something of a stretch. “Rue Morgue Avenue” could be a reference to the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Rimbaud refers to himself as “Tom Thumb in a daze” in his poem, “My Bohemian Life (Fantasy)”. The poem, however, has little in common with the song, although it does have a guy playing a “lyre”, which is sorta like a guitar.
I went off with my hands in my torn coat pockets;
My overcoat too was becoming ideal;
I travelled beneath the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;
Oh dear me! what marvellous loves I dreamed of!
My only pair of breeches had a big whole in them.
– Stargazing Tom Thumb, I sowed rhymes along my way.
My tavern was at the Sign of the Great Bear.
– My stars in the sky rustled softly.
And I listened to them, sitting on the road-sides
On those pleasant September evenings while I felt drops
Of dew on my forehead like vigorous wine;
And while, rhyming among the fantastical shadows,
I plucked like the strings of a lyre the elastics
Of my tattered boots, one foot close to my heart!
Dylan commentator Michael Gray thinks the phrase “housing project hill” comes from Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. That seems like an odd phrase for Dylan to remember and insert into the song, but it’s certainly possible. Dylan was a Kerouac aficionado. He told Allen Ginsberg that he “read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” He also said: “Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul in 1959 and it blew my mind. It was the first poetry that spoke my own language.” In Chronicles, and again in the film No Direction Home, he speaks favorably of Kerouac. In the film, he says that On the Road
had been like a bible for me. I loved the breathless, dynamic bop poetry phrases that flowed from Jack’s pen . . . I fell into that atmosphere of everything Kerouac was saying about the world being completely mad, and the only people or him that were interesting were the mad people, the mad ones, the ones who were mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn, all of those mad ones, and I felt like I fit right into that bunch.
Dylan’s sixties sidekick Bob Neuwirth is quoted as saying that he wrote the first two lines of the song In Bob Spitz’s biography of Dylan. The two lines:
When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too
He grumbles that these two lines are the heart of the song and Dylan never gave him credit. They are very good lines, but there’s no real evidence that Neuwirth wrote them, at least that I’ve ever heard.
This song does not appear on any official Dylan live albums except The Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966. It’s an interesting take. The performance is looser and more exuberant than on the official recording. Dylan’s vocals are also quite different, with much more of an off-the-cuff feel.
An alternative studio take is included on “The Bootleg Series Volume 7: No Direction Home”. Not much different than the original except it doesn’t sound as well-rehearsed.
When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don’t pull you through
Don’t put on any airs
When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there
And they really make a mess outa you
Now if you see Saint Annie
Please tell her thanks a lot
I cannot move
My fingers are all in a knot
I don’t have the strength
To get up and take another shot
And my best friend, my doctor
Won’t even say what it is I’ve got
The peasants call her the goddess of gloom
She speaks good English
And she invites you up into her room
And you’re so kind
And careful not to go to her too soon
And she takes your voice
And leaves you howling at the moon
Up on Housing Project Hill
It’s either fortune or fame
You must pick up one or the other
Though neither of them are to be what they claim
If you’re lookin’ to get silly
You better go back to from where you came
Because the cops don’t need you
And man they expect the same
Now all the authorities
They just stand around and boast
How they blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms
Into leaving his post
And picking up Angel who
Just arrived here from the coast
Who looked so fine at first
But left looking just like a ghost
I started out on burgundy
But soon hit the harder stuff
Everybody said they’d stand behind me
When the game got rough
But the joke was on me
There was nobody even there to call my bluff
I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough