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Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man. Mr. Jones’ questions

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[Monday Notes no. 23] The recording of the album Highway 61 Revisited was long and complicated, Bob Dylan wanted to replay some tracks many times, to the point of exasperating his musicians. Yet in his music there are no difficult instrumental passages and the singing part is simple, at times almost declamatory. So what was Bob Dylan looking for in these multiple takes? To try and find out, I analysed Ballad of a Thin Man.

Ballad of a Thin Man has suggestive lyrics that are open to multiple interpretations. The subject of the song is alienation, the protagonist Mr Jones is in fact incapable of understanding the world around him. The questions he asks himself always seem wrong and the answers he receives raise further questions.

Like many other Dylan songs, the piece has a strophic form. The progression is repeated seven times, always the same, and consists of the following chords.

Bob Dylan Ballad of a Thin Man, accordi della canzone
Bob Dylan Ballad of a Thin Man, accordi della canzone

The sung verse has a duration of 12 measures, but before starting the next verse Bob Dylan always lingers one measure longer on the last chord, the progression becomes 13 measures, creating a sort of suspension.

This chord sequence is not very different from other famous rock pieces, e.g. Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin or Nobody Home by Pink Floyd, which came out many years later.

At the centre of Bob Dylan's message, however, is not so much the music as the poetic text, which is evocative and mysterious. The music contributes with a vaguely bluesy sound, unsteady and weary just like Mr Jones who wanders from one side to the other with his many questions, and no answers.

With the album Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan abandoned the acoustic sounds of his early records and moved decisively towards an electric, almost Rock sound.

It is a fascinating album, music and lyrics express well the desire for renewal of an entire generation of Americans, a renewal that was expressed in music with the birth of rock.

Until next Monday

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