Bob Dylan’s best songs: Tombstone Blues

bob dylan tombstone blues

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

The Vietnam War was one of the things going through Dylan’s mind when he wrote/sang “Tombstone Blues” (” … fattens the slaves/then sends them out to the jungle”), but one would be hard put to claim the song is about the war. The influence of Depression-era songs like “Wandering” (“Daddy is an engineer/Brother drives a hack/Sister takes in washing/And the baby balls the jack”) can also be spotted, but shall we then say it’s a song about the “new Depression”?
~Paul Williams (Bob Dylan Performing Artist I: The Early Years 1960-1973)

… the star of this show is [Mike] Bloomfield, whose between-verse solos build from heated to blistering, jackrabbiting helter-skelter over the fretboard, anticipating and pointing the way to Alvin Lee, Johnny Winter, and any other late-sixties guitarist who took blues riffs and fed them uppers. It is practically the only time on the album that he’ll get to shine like this. [..] Bloomfield uses his axe like a flamethrower, spewing liquid fire over the space between the vocals, he and Dylan marauding the tune like twin Gypsy Davies burning out the camps, leaving only scorched earth. Take him away and the song remains lyrically strong but musically weakened, its engine a few cylinders short.
~Mark Polizzotti (Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (33 1/3))

 

Grooveshark:
Tombstone Blues by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

Spotify:

TOC

  1. Facts
  2. Lyrics
  3. Live versions

@#75 on my list of Bob Dylan’s top 200 songs.

Facts

Bob_Dylan_-_Highway_61_Revisited

Wikipedia:

Released August 30, 1965
Recorded July 29, 1965 at Columbia Studios,New York
Genre Blues rock, garage rock
Length 5:56
Label Columbia
Writer Bob Dylan
Producer Bob Johnston

“Tombstone Blues” is the second track of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Musically it is influenced by the blues, while the lyrics are typical of Dylan’s surreal style of the period, with such lines as “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”.

Known studio recordings:

Studio A
Columbia Recording Studios
New York City, New York
29 July 1965
The 3rd Highway 61 Revisited session, produced by Bob Johnston.
11 takes.

Musicians:
Bob Dylan (guitar, piano, harmonica, vocal), Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Paul Griffin (piano), Bobby Gregg (drums), Joseph Machao Jr. (bass) & Al Kooper (organ).

bob-dylan 1965

“Tombstone Blues”—the one post–“Rolling Stone” song he tried out on the Newport throng (albeit during an acoustic workshop!), and the first song completed when work resumed at Studio A on July 29—was probably the first song he finished after being struck by lyrical lightning. Indeed, on Highway 61 Revisited he placed it directly after his new hit single. “Tombstone Blues” represents the formal unveiling of what would become the stock scenario for a midperiod electric Dylan song,
~Clinton Heylin (Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973)

Live:

  • First known live performance:
    Freebody Park
    Newport, Rhode Island
    24 July 1965
    Newport Folk Festival. Contemporary Songs Workshop.
    Here is a small clip:


    Here is the audio:
    Tombstone Blues by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark
  • It has been performed only 165 times live – last performance: Memorial Coliseum, Portland, Oregon – 14 October 2006.
  • Top year 2002 with 35 performances & 1984 with 24 performances.
bob dylan nates 1984
Stade Marcel Saupin Nantes, France 30 June 1984

 

Album:

“Mama was in the kitchen, preparing to eat /
Sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast /
Pa was in the cellar mixing up the hops /
And Brother’s at the window, he’s watching for the cops.”
~”Taking It Easy” by Woody Guthrie

Many of the song’s references, . from the title nod at the Arizona badlands to its name-checking of the nineteenthcentury Oklahoma bandit Belle Starr, carry the unmistakable
scent of America’s hardscrabble past. “Tombstone Blues” is not about the Depression of the 1930s, the ·wild West, or any specific historical period. But in its mood, tempo, and much
of its imagery, it conjures up an atmosphere of American hardship, and of Guthrie the Dust Bowl troubadour.
~Mark Polizzotti (Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (33 1/3))

The typical melee of totally unrelated events involving totally unrelated weirdo characters.
~Paul Cable

From the start, the topography is established as native. In contrast to the underside of urban sophistication that “Rolling Stone” evokes, this is . grassroots America, smalltown,
Main Street America, the America of Dylan’s youth, which he once described as “s.till very ‘straight,’ ‘post-war’ and sort of into a gray-flannel suit thing, McCarthy, commies,
puritanical, very claustrophobic.”71 From the “city fathers” voting “the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse” (clinging to long-dead national myths) to the Chamber of Commerce,
from shoeless Mama in her non-union factory to the swaggering medicine man, from the National Bank selling road maps for the soul to “Gypsy Davy with a blowtorch” (a nod to a Guthrie standard), the reality sketched here comes straight out of American folklore, the flora and fauna of a thousand time-tested verses underlying thousands of attitudes Americans hold about themselves. (The song also makes reference to the English Jack the Ripper, the Italian Galileo, and the German Beethoven, but even these are absorbed into Dylan’s melting pot.)
~Mark Polizzotti (Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (33 1/3))

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 1) 2)
He’s lookin’ for the food/fuse
I’m in the kitchen/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” 3)

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 1) 2)
He’s lookin’ for the food/fuse
I’m in the kitchen/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 4)
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 barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “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 1) 2)
He’s lookin’ for the food/fuse
I’m in the kitchen/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 1) 2)
He’s lookin’ for the food/fuse
I’m in the kitchen/streets
With the tombstone blues

The geometry of innocence flesh on the bone 5)
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who sits worthlessly alone 6)
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 1) 2)
He’s lookin’ for the food/fuse
I’m in the kitchen/streets
With the tombstone blues

Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll 7)
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul 8)
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 1) 2)
He’s lookin’ for the food/fuse
I’m in the kitchen/streets
With the tombstone blues

Lyric variations

1) Real Live 1984

Dad’s in the hallway
Looking hard for the fuse

2) MTV Unplugged

Daddy’s in the hallway
Lookin’ for the fuse

3) Real Live 1984

Sends for the doctor who pulls down the shade
Sayin’, “Don’t let the boys in”

4) TBSv7 – No Direction Home: The Soundtrack

Ah, John The Blacksmith, he’s torturing a thief
Says to the hero, the Commander-in-chief
Tell me great hero, but please make it brief

5) Real Live 1984

innocence

6) Real Live 1984

who sits

7) Real Live 1984

their bedroll

8) Real Live 1984

National Bank is selling road maps to the soul

.. Same verse starts with the phrase, “the geometry of innocent flesh on the bone.” Isn’t it exquisite? Whatever does it mean? Well, actually, we know. It’s about teenage desire. But how does it convey that? That’s the mystery. I mean, the math book, Delilah’s contradictory reaction (she feels worthless, she laughs in his face), the word “innocent”-this could never have turned out so well if it had been thought out beforehand. (On the other hand I never have much liked the verse about “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”)
~Paul Williams (Bob Dylan Performing Artist I: The Early Years 1960-1973)

Live versions

Minestadio del F.C. Barcelona
Barcelona, Spain
28 June 1984
Tombstone Blues by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

St. James’ Park
Newcastle, England
5 July 1984
Tombstone Blues by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

Sony Music Studios
New York City, New York
15–16 November 1994
Camera rehearsals for MTV Unplugged taping sessions

Aston Villa Leisure Centre
Birmingham, England
2 April 1995

Guildhall
Portsmouth, England
25 September 2000

Uptown Theater
Kansas City, Missouri
28 October 2002
Tombstone Blues by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

First Union Center
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
15 November 2002

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Sources

-Egil

3 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s best songs: Tombstone Blues”

  1. This poem shows so wel why the followers of his poetry of the electric period just did not get it, they threw together weird names in surrealistic circumstances, but they lacked the sense of roots and the deep reaching references to high and low culture, always carried by historical insight, channeled through own experience by preference, and executed with a telepathic ingenuity of rhyme and inner allusion that made disparate elements, seemingly without connection into a whole that sparked recognition in a lot of people that heard him singing it then, without overt rational explanation, you just felt what he was singing… not many could even imitate this with a fragment of the same strong sense…

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