Tombstone Blues

Commentary

Tombstone Blues is a very simple blues song at heart. But it’s much more than a typical blues song, and in fact, is one of the better examples of the brilliance that is Bob Dylan. One of the marks of a great artist is that he takes a standard art form and transforms it into something entirely new. Stravinsky did it with classical music. Picasso did it in painting. Bob Dylan did it with the popular song.

Many artists have written great blues songs, many much more sophisticated than Tombstone Blues, which for most part, consists of two chords played over and over again. Dylan, however, transforms the art form by raising the lyrical sophistication into the realm of literature without losing the essence of the blues. He also modernized the music, adding a rough rock ’n’ roll edge as well as a unique vocal style.

The chorus retains the simplicity and obviousness of a typical blues shout:

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

The verses are something else entirely, wildly inventive and wonderfully obscure. There is a parade of characters: Beethoven, Ma Raney, Jack the Ripper, John the Baptist, just to name a few. I count eighteen proper nouns, which must be some kind of record. Although many of the characters are well-known historical individuals, some of are a bit obscure. A little historical knowledge of these characters might contribute to the readers understanding of the song.

Belle Star is an interesting character. She was the subject of a popular book Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in 1889 (and still available at Amazon.com today). The book made her out to be a wild outlaw of the American Wild West, robbing banks and shooting guns and so forth. Although Starr did associate with outlaws and may have participated in legal misdeeds (possibly selling stolen horses), there is apparently no hard evidence that she robbed banks or killed anybody.

Everybody’s familiar with Jack the Ripper, but probably not the details of his sordid existence. Jack the Ripper was the name given to a serial killer (although it was never proven that the deeds were done by a single person) who killed several women in London towards the end of the 19th century. The killer specialized in prostitutes, stabbing them and often mutilating their bodies.

Several letters were sent to police from people who claimed to be the killer. The web site of the National Archives of the UK says that only one of the letters seems to be legitimate. In this letter the killer included part of the kidney of one of his victims and closed the letter with “From Hell”. The author of one of the letters now believed to be a hoax referred to himself as “Jack the Ripper”, thus the name. The killer was never captured.

Jezebel – as in “Jezebel the Nun” – is probably a reference to either the Jezebel described in Kings from the Old Testament or the Jezebel in Revelations in the New Testament. More likely from the Old Testament, given Dylan Jewish upbringing and the multitude of Old Testament references is his early work. In both stories Jezebel is portrayed as a very wicked, evil person, and Dylan is certainly being ironic when he refers to her as a nun.

The story of John the Baptist is complicated and way too long to cover in any depth here. In short, John was a prophet who spoke of the coming of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He baptized his followers, as well as the baby Jesus. All did not end well for John. He was beheaded by King Herod at the request of the beautiful and seductive Salome, the king’s step-daughter, whose mother was angry with John because he had called her marriage to the king adulterous.

The Philistines is another biblical allusion. The Philistines occupied the territory around Jerusalem before the arrival of the Israelites. Many bible stories, including those of Samson, Samuel, Saul and David, describe conflicts between the Philistines and Israelites. In the story of Samson, the Philistines kill Samson’s wife and father-in-law.

Cecil B. DeMille was the first film director to gain considerable fame during his lifetime. DeMille’s career began in the silent era and continued through the 1950s. His most famous movie, The Ten Commandments, starred Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. Interestingly, he also directed Samson and Delilah, another biblical tale, which may (or may not) account for his appearance in the song.

Other interesting references. Ma Rainey (spelled Raney on Dylan’s web site and in the official lyrics book) was born in 1886. She became one of the first well-known women blues singers. She was also an outspoken lesbian, which must have been a hard road to hoe at that time. Check out the lyrics of Prove it On Me Blues, recorded in 1928:

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me;
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

Gypsy Davey is mentioned, which is a reference the traditional song of that name, often associated with Woody Guthrie.

Galileo of course is known as the father of modern science.

Delilah, another biblical reference, betrayed Samson by telling the Philistines that his long hair was the source of his great strength, which of course they promptly cut off.

There’s a lot of wacky stuff in Tombstone Blues. I’m not sure that some of it makes any sense at all. Why would anybody want to reincarnate Paul Revere’s horse? I can understand maybe Paul Revere himself, but his horse? I suspect he needed a rhyme for “endorse.” The line “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone”, although it sounds interesting, is meaningless, at least to me.

I don’t see a great deal of influence of William Burroughs in Dylan’s writing, but I do see it in this song. If you randomly open Burroughs most famous work, Naked Lunch, which was banned in the early sixties and for which he was drag to trial on obscenity charges, you will probably see an abundance of characters given very colorful names, just as Dylan does in this song (such as “Brother Bill” and “Commander-in-Chief”). Other Dylan songs from this period draw on this same technique, including Ballad of a Thin Man (“Mr Jones”), Like a Rolling Stone (“Miss Lonely”),Highway 61 Revisited (“Mack the Finger”, “Georgia Sam”), and Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (“Saint Annie”, “Sweet Melinda”), and Desolation Row (“Doctor Filth”, “Good Samaritan”).

Like many Dylan songs from this period, the tone and point of view are very much those of the outsider. The narrator clearly disdains those in power: Politicians (see the lines about the “city fathers”, members of the “chamber of commerce” (note the lack of capitalization), religious figures (“Commander-in-Chief” (and alias for God/Jesus?), moronic doctors, and corrupt businessmen (working of the “National Bank”).

Many commentators on rec.music.dylan have pointed out the possibility that the lyrics might contain veiled references to the Vietnam war, which was beginning to ramp up significantly around the time the song was written. An interesting theory suggests that the “king of the Philistines” represents the US president Lyndon Johnson, the “pied pipers” are war protesters and the “slaves” are the innocent soldiers that were being sent into the Vietnam “jungles” to fight. Mike Marqusee, author of Bob Dylan: Chimes of Freedom, believes this song is the closest Dylan comes to making a statement about Vietnam. Although these ideas are interesting, the protest movement against the war did not really begin in any substantial way until 1966, well after the song was written. Of course, Dylan has often been ahead off the pack, so I guess these ideas could have some merit. Or not.

Dylan plays Tombstone a fairly regular basis. He played it on the MTV Unplugged show. During that performance Dylan sings everything in a carefully controlled voice, a style that doesn’t really fit this song, which works better with a raucous blues shout.

The soundtrack for the Scorsese film No Direction Home contains an alternative take. Instead of “John the Baptist” Dylan sings “John the Blacksmith” and he changes “Daddy’s in the kitchen looking for the fuse” to looking for “the food”. Some background vocals are added to the chorus and the song ends prematurely as Dylan breaks out in laughter.

The booklet included with No Direction Home mentions that an unreleased version contains background vocals by, of all things, the staid folk group The Chamber Brothers.

A decent version appears on the 1984’s Real Live , although it doesn’t top the original.


Lyrics

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous

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

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming she moans, “I’ve just been made”
Then sends out for the doctor who pulls down the shade
Says, “My advice is to not let the boys in”

Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride
“Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
You will not die, it’s not poison”

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky
Saving, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
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

Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns out their camps
With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps
With a fantastic collection of stamps
To win friends and influence his uncle

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

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

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

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

Where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll
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

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

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for the fuse
I’m in the streets
With the tombstone blues

2 thoughts on “Tombstone Blues”

  1. Avatar

    John the Baptist was just a few months older than Jesus, (they were cousins) therefore there is no way for him to have baptised”baby Jesus”. Instead,he baptised Jesus in the Jordan River and they were both adult men.

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