The Ballad of a Thin Man

The Ballad of a Thin Man

Andy Behrman '24

It is no big secret that Bob Dylan had a complicated relationship with the press, to say the least. A prime example of this is his famous hour-long press conference in 1965 when Dylan would only respond with sarcastic half-answers. Around halfway through the press conference a reporter asked an ironic question, “Who is Mr. Jones?”  Dylan smiled and responded, “I can’t say his first name.”  

It was at this point, although still early in his career, that Dylan began to be considered by many to be the voice of a generation. With this came ever-increasing attention and eventually harsh criticism from the media, which was only exacerbated by his unique style of music, cryptic lyrics, and various political views. “Ballad of a Thin Man” would come out in the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, when Dylan was only in his mid 20’s. In this song, Dylan criticized these reporters right under their noses and created a masterpiece which, in my opinion, is his greatest song of all time.

The song begins and the listener is immediately hit with an absolutely amazing piano rift which is soon accompanied by an organ reminiscent of gospel music.  Dylan strays away from his iconic harmonica and acoustic guitar and instead uses a piano and organ, along with a soft snare drum and bass guitar to drive the beat throughout the song.  

The first line, “You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand,” is perhaps one of the most important lines in terms of understanding the song, which, as anyone who’s ever read Dylan’s lyrics before knows, can be equivalent to translating Latin. The pencil in your hand paints the picture of a reporter. In the next line, “naked” should be taken in a biblical sense as being vulnerable, sort of like Moses when he was betrayed. And then in the next line, despite the man being vulnerable, the reporter gets excited as he plans to write a humiliating headline about him.

Dylan makes the interesting choice of telling the story in the 2nd person, where the listener is put into the shoes of Mr. Jones. This allows the second and third verses to be left intentionally vague and confusing as there seems to be a lot left out. This is explained by the repeated line, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Everyone seems to know something that Mr. Jones does not.  

The next verse is filled with sarcasm, describing how the media see themselves as members of high society and therefore have a certain sense of superiority over the people they report on, and how they criticize anyone who says otherwise. I particularly like the fourth to last line, which is filled with brutal sarcasm. Dylan makes it sound as if being able to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books is some great feat that requires being an extremely smart and well-read person with a lot of time and energy. However, Fitzgerald only wrote four major books, all of which were relatively short, his most famous being The Great Gatsby, a story about a man who fakes his way into high society.

Then there are some other amazing insults that don’t require any research, where Dylan tells the reporter directly, “You’re a cow.  Give me some milk or else go home.”

The final verse begins with what could be another Biblical reference where “a camel walking through the eye of the needle” is more probable than Mr. Jones understanding his work.  The third line of the verse is pretty self-explanatory. The final lyric of the song, other than the repeated Mr. Jones’ line, is likely the main point of Dylan’s argument with the press. I think what Dylan is trying to say in this verse is that he couldn’t care less about what these reporters write about him. They can write stories about him if they want, but if they do they have to actually listen to his music and understand it before writing about and criticizing him.  

This is not my full interpretation of the song. There are seemingly endless subtleties buried deep within the lyrics of the song, so much so that the full list would more resemble a senior thesis project than a Record article. I challenge the reader to listen to the song and interpret the lyrics for himself. I intentionally left out the 5th verse as I would like to encourage the reader to find out what it means by themselves.  

“Ballad of a Thin Man” separates itself from other great Dylan songs such as “It’s Okay Ma” (“I’m Only Bleeding”) or “Tangled Up in Blue”, as the greatness of the song does not solely rely on its lyrics. Not only is the song an amazing commentary on the modern American media, but it is also the type of song that could easily get stuck in one’s head, allowing the listener to replay it time and time again. Bob Dylan has been making music for over 60 years now. He has released dozens of albums and hundreds upon hundreds of songs. Although it will not likely remain my favorite Bob Dylan song forever, as opinions about songs constantly shift and change, “Ballad of a Thin Man” will always be a prime example of Bob Dylan’s musical genius.