Behind the Meaning of “Ballad of a Thin Man” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is one of the most highly regarded songwriters of all time. he further solidified his legacy as an artist and songwriter with the release of Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. One of the nine revered songs on the album is “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which has drawn as much intrigue as critical acclaim. Below, we look at the history of “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

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Meaning Behind the Song

Dylan is the sole songwriter of “Thin Man,” which he recorded at Columbia Records’ Studio A in New York City in August 1965. Dylan is the one playing the ominous piano while accompanied by a band of acclaimed musicians: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member Mike Bloomfield on guitar, drummer Bobby Gregg (also known for playing on “The Sound of Silence”), Harvey Brooks (Peter, Paul and Mary, John Sebastian) on bass guitar and organist Al Kooper (the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd).

The nearly six-minute song blends rock and blues, with the piano and organ intriguingly playing off one another that captures the eerie spirit of the lyrics surrounding a mysterious character referred to as “Mr. Jones.” You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand / You see somebody naked and you say, “who is that man?” / You try so hard but you don’t understand / Just what you will say when you get home / Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?” Dylan croons in the opening verse.

“The first time we got a take that we could listen to, we all went in the control room and when it finished, Bobby Gregg said, ‘I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I can’t play on a song with words like that,’ and just cracked everybody up, including Bob,” Kooper recalls of the recording session in an interview with Record Collector magazine. He also described the song as “more sophisticated than anything else on the album.”

As for the peculiar lyrics, Dylan insisted in a 1965 interview with Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston for Esquire that Mr. Jones is in fact a real person he encountered. “He’s a real person. You know him, but not by that name,” he explained. “Like I saw him come into the room one night and he looked like a camel. He proceeded to put his eyes in his pocket. I asked this guy who he was and he said, ‘That’s Mr. Jones.’ Then I asked this cat, ‘Doesn’t he do anything but put his eyes in his pocket?’ And he told me, ‘He puts his nose on the ground.’ It’s all there, it’s a true story.”

Though the song remains somewhat of a mystery, Dylan did give more insight into its origins during his 1986 show at the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium in Japan. “This is a song I wrote a while back in response to people who ask me questions all the time,” he told the crowd. “You just get tired of that every once in a while. You just don’t want to answer no more questions.

“I figure a person’s life speaks for itself, right? So, every once in a while you got to do this kind of thing, you got to put somebody in their place… It’s not a bad thing now to be put in your place, it’s actually a good thing. It’s been done to me every once in a while and I’ve always appreciated it. So this is my response to something that happened over in England. I think it was about ’63 or ’64. Anyway the song still holds up, seems to be people around still like that, so I still sing it. It’s called ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.'”

While the song itself didn’t make an impression on the charts, “Ballad of a Thin Man” has been performed by Dylan for decades. The song was also included it on nearly 10 live albums, ranging from Before the Flood released in 1974 to the 2016 boxset The 1966 Live Recordings. Highway 61 Revisited is largely regarded as some of Dylan’s best work and one of the best albums of all time. Commercially, it’s been certified platinum for sales of more than one million copies in the U.S. and reached a peak of No. 3 on the Billboard 200.

Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

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