Lec. 1: Lead-in to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965)




As you can see in this 1968 album cover, Dylan is flanked by Bauls, a sect of musicians who play haunting one-stringed instruments known as ec-taras and who claim to be maddened by the sound of Krishna’s flute. The late anthropologist Victor Turner, who we will read later in this course and who called Dylan “a spokesman for the structurally inferior,” called the Bauls “the musical vagabonds of Bengal.” They, like St. Francis, Turner points out, were “troubadours of God.”


Some of you may know who Dylan is but let me say a few things to help us make sense of these lyrics.  In the fall of 1997, Dylan, a Jew whose real name is Robert Zimmerman, played before Pope John Paul II. Within the last few years, he has received the highest forms of national recognition from France and the United States and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He came on the scene, however, in the early sixties, a time of post WWII economic boom for the United States and enormous idealism as reflected in the Kennedy administration. This was before the Cuban missile crisis, before Kennedy’s assassination, before Vietnam, and before the civil rights movement and the war on poverty came to a halt.   The baby boom generation was emerging as the Kennedy administration brought youth, style and culture to Washington.

In the midst of the social and cultural changes and political issues of the sixties, Dylan articulated some of the deepest contradictions of our culture. About the sixties, Dylan once commented: “It was like a flying saucer landed…. That’s what the sixties were like. Everybody heard about it, but only a few really saw it” (Miller 1987:315). Mr. Jones, apparently, is one of the many who didn’t see it.

About his ballad he said, “Mr. Jones is suddenly locked in a room … he stumbled into a room. God knows, we all do that….” (Shelton 1986:281)

My own take on “Ballad of a Thin Man” is that Dylan is pushing us to wake up and open our eyes to the cultural and moral changes—crystallized during the sixties—American society was, and still is, going through. Just exactly what he wants us to wake up to is of course subject to multiple interpretations. What Dylan wants us to wake up to may best be represented by the new ethical demands the student, civil rights, anti-war, women’s, environmental, and new religious movements that came to the fore during the sixties were making on us all in terms of how we treat one another and it might be added, in terms of what seems to be increasingly important today, the natural environment.

Miller, James S. “Democracy is in the Streets”: From Port Huron to the Siege of
 Chicago. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. New York:
W. Morrow, 1986.