What does Ballad of a Thin Man mean?

Bob Dylan: Ballad of a Thin Man Meaning

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Album cover for Ballad of a Thin Man album cover

Ballad of a Thin Man Lyrics

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...


    #1 top rated interpretation:
    click a star to vote
    Dec 5th 2011 !⃝

    You have many contacts
    Among the lumberjacks
    To get you facts
    When somebody attacks your imagination
    But nobody has any respect
    Anyway they already expect you
    To just give a check
    To tax-deductible charity organizations

    He is talking about business associates or non-beats “lumberjacks” or the press that are helping him navigate critics/public perception. When they don't get it or ”attack his imagination” or muse/musical ability. He is also complaining that nobody appreciates him and in fact they all want something from him. They want him to play the media/public relations game and sell out or “just give a check to charity” in order to clean up his image to sell records and play the game. These constant attacks by critics, fans as well as playing the public relations and corporate profit game are starting to suck him dry creatively and are the reason Dylan ends up becoming a “thin” man by the end of the song. But the desire to know “what is” drives him on even as he mocks his own failed attempts.

    You've been with the professors
    And they've all liked your looks
    With great lawyers you have
    Discussed lepers and crooks
    You've been through all of
    F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
    You're very well read
    It's well known
    Because something is happening here
    But you don't know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones

    He is commenting that the movers and shakers of society are now in his inner circle and he has a reputation among important people like intellectuals “professors” and people within the music industry “lawyers” these also could include beat movement leaders. He says he has done his study of the musical masters “F. Scott Fitzgerald” and he has been recognized by the music industry for it. But despite the accolades and boost to his ego he still doesn't understand the ultimate meaning of “what is”.

    Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
    And then he kneels
    He crosses himself
    And then he clicks his high heels
    And without further notice
    He asks you how it feels
    And he says, "Here is your throat back
    Thanks for the loan"
    Because something is happening here
    But you don't know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones

    The sword swallower is a reference to beat poet Alan Ginsburg. A gay man in drag who worships Dylan. He “kneels” and “crosses” himself at Dylan's feet. He asks him how it feels to be the new spiritual leader of the beat voice. Ginsberg gives him back beat voice that he borrowed or hands over the mantle. Acknowledgment of Dylan's superiority in beat circles by one of the founders of the movement. But despite the title “voice of a generation” and all of his outward success Dylan still doesn't understand “what is.”

    Now you see this one-eyed midget
    Shouting the word "NOW"
    And you say, "For what reason?"
    And he says, "How?"
    And you say, "What does this mean?"
    And he screams back, "You're a cow
    Give me some milk
    Or else go home"
    Because something is happening here
    But you don't know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones

    The one-eyed midget is record executive who is only concerned with profiting from Dylan's success. He demands that Dylan give him product “now” like he was a factory worker making widgets. Dylan has become a cash “cow” for the record company. They are only concerned with getting “milk” or money from him. They tell him if he doesn't like it he can go back to being a nobody where he came from and “go home”. And even through this humiliation he still doesn't understand “what it is”.

    Well, you walk into the room
    Like a camel and then you frown
    You put your eyes in your pocket
    And your nose to the ground
    There ought to be a law
    Against you comin' around
    You should be made
    To wear earphones
    Because something is happening here
    But you don't know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones

    Finally, Dylan ends up where he started the journey “walking into the room”. However this time he is wearing a “frown” weighed down with responsibility like a pack animal “camel” He has put his awareness or keen insight of human nature “eyes” away in his pocket and his work now feels like has to put his “nose to the ground” or grindstone. He mocks his label of voice of a generation saying that a law needs to be passed to keep him from pretending to be spiritually aware. As a final insult he should be made to listen “wear earphones” rather than speak. Even though this song ends with Dylan still not understanding what is, spiritually, Dylan has reached a tipping point. He is worn thin but thinness allows the spirit to shine through. He realizes that the world is not the answer to his question. The final answer to his question is answered in the no-sound stillness that comes when the music stops and the song ends. It is not spoken but heard. When he/we hear the stillness we have found the answer he/we were looking for.


    #2 top rated interpretation:
    click a star to vote
    Nov 3rd 2008 !⃝

    ballad of a thin manwasn't about Jesus, although dylan had a high regard for Him in many of his songs before he became born again. the song was about people coming to the village and trying to fit right with their hey dudes and and peace signs while wearing a brooks brother's sport jacket with leather patches at the elbows . they wantedto expose their children to the aura that the 60s and early 70s emitted on Sundays at washington square and not realizing that to the locals he was the show for them . as they threw their dollars into hats near the various magicians and and singers theywere oblivious to the spectacal they were being goofed on(that's a word you don't hear too often anymore) after an afternoon of paying too much money for food at the local bistro, they packed the family into the chevy 9 seat wagon and drove home to Westchester or Jersey or connecticutwhere the would regale the folks at the office or the next cocktail party about their day among the radicals while they wrote checks to the family who were hosting the party to raise funds for a new playground in the town park. dylan and so many others saw right through them but as far as i know he was the only one to write a song about the absurdity of these "supporters"


    #3 top rated interpretation:
    click a star to vote
    Jan 8th 2009 !⃝

    Ive always thought of this song as about someone who hates himself, or at least views himself as a loser. Let's take it verse by verse:
    First verse: Mr. Jones comes by and finds his girl in bed with another guy. He just walks out.

    Second version: He ask God why this is happening, and God tells him (or he thinks God tells him) I am taking everything away from you.

    Third verse: He visits a carnival and visits the Geek (a person who bites the heads off of chickens.) A geek is a freak by way of his actions. For some reason, the two of them feel a connection.

    Fourth verse: Mr. Jones has a lot of friends from different walks of life, but they aren't real friends...they always take advantage of him. He is also a very smart guy and feels more comfortable with the other typical "nerds" (academics.)

    Fifth verse: A sword swallower at a carnival. Another guy who is a freak by way of what he does. He and Mr. Jones find common ground again. (Great line: "Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan." A sword swallower would scratch the back of his throat while performing. Well instead of using his own, why not use Mr. Jones'? You know the feeling when you are upset, especially after a relationship ends. It feel like a lump or hurt in the back of your throat.)

    Sixth verse: A one-eyed midget is a freak...not cause of what he does (like the geek, sword swallower, and Mr. Jones) but because of the way he looks. He gets in Mr. Jones face and basically says, "Look at me. I am a freak. Tell me what is so freakin' weird about you. Nothing huh? Get the hell out of here!"
    At this point, you would figure that Mr. Jones has learned his lesson...unfortuantely no.

    Seventh verse: He goes back home and once again his girlfriend cheats on him and he is the one that apologizes. "He puts his eyes in his pockets"...He acts like he sees nothing. "There ought to be a law/Against you comin' around You should be made To wear earphones" Bob is saying this should be illegal to keep you from being hurt. You should have to wear earphones so you don't have to listen to your girl lie to you again.

  4. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Sep 30th 2023 !⃝

    I always thought this song had homosexual references and the stigma associated by narrow minded people.

  5. anonymous
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    May 8th 2021 !⃝

    I see it as an approach to surrealistic views, criticizing the middle-class lawyers (liars), unable to see the reality that changes fully in front of him. I see it like a drama/theater scene. The verses are so imagetic as an Buñuel movie or a Cocteau play on stage. Anyway, it's brilliant even more for the open doors.

  6. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Oct 18th 2016 !⃝

    Most, if not all the interpretations here are creatively honest about the ''Ballad Of The Thin Man'' and 'who is he? all about. This song to me could also be about the time when the Legendary Singer of this song might have been inspired to Write It Down, during and after meeting the once gifted musician Brian Jones[r.i.p] who started the Rolling Stones Band, but gradually after Mick Jagger got joined in, he started to be the cocky rooster, while slowly Mr. Jones became more of the outcast with a drug addiction where most of his inner circle friends in society saw through him and his insecurities where he didn't realize what was happening around him all the time and sadly taken away from us in 69 at the age of 27. With a good peaceful thought a long time ago before he left us, Mr.Jones, who[Rose In Peace] left a ''Song For Bob Dylan'' to remember him by it.

  7. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Sep 24th 2012 !⃝

    if you know the definitive meaning of the poem then you are mr jones, if you would like to and write of all other interpretations then your showing mr jones syndrome symtoms sir.

  8. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Sep 24th 2012 !⃝

    ruthless, smart, post-structuralist, cynical, annoyed, critical poem, maaaaaaaaaaaaan.
    If you think you have a definitive interpretaion of this poem or ANYTHING then you are showing the symptoms of Mr Jones syndrome and have been pissing of bob for over 30 years at least.

    'You wish you new what the definate meaning of ever word and sentence in this song and think you do, but somethings happening and you dont know what its is dooooya mr Jooonnneees'

  9. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Sep 24th 2012 !⃝

    My interpretation is that it is a song that ruthlesslly offends a type of person or a characteristic of many people. However it also pointing out in order stop this characteristic. To me its that people try to label and condemn or talk definitavely about stuff that they either cant fully understand through lack of experience [ conformist types] or simply most stuff isnt definate, ie theres forces at work that you cant simply explain in so many words, like a poem so many people including 'hippies' and 'non-conformist' try to box, catergarise condemn or erase other versians of the truth.
    To me its against the type of person who would write on this site that there interpretaion of a song is definative and dismiss others.
    Its essentially an ahead of its time post-structuralist poem.

  10. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Sep 18th 2012 !⃝

    I've listened to this song hundreds of times and have come to the conclusion DYLAN is the Thin Man

  11. Klark_Kent
    click a star to vote
    Dec 5th 2011 !⃝

    The song can be viewed a variety of ways: as a "beat down" song aimed at "you" plural, the white middle class america, by black culture or the beat culture that sympathized with black culture. They mock white americas errant attempts to understand their culture. Also this song can be viewed as autobiographical. Dylan looks in the mirror with self-loathing and mockingly tells "you" singular that he does not grasp the "what it isness" of the cultural scenes he has come to witness with "pencil in hand". It can be viewed as the voice of a generation of youth telling the previous older generation that they just don't get "it". It can be viewed from point of view of god frustratedly speaking and looking down upon humanity that keeps grasping for understanding and still doesn't understand "what it is" or the "I am that I am" of the bible.

    The thin man of the song is a man of very little depth and is shallow spiritually speaking.

    The following are quotes from several sources regarding the beat philosophy that Dylan was living and driving him artistically at the time. These are meant to give some context to my interpretation of this song.

    "The Beat philosophy was generally countercultural and antimaterialistic and it stressed the importance of bettering one's inner self over and above material possessions."

    "Much of Beat culture represented a negative stance rather than a positive one. It was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program.
    beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction. We'd even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn't gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization..."[4][5]

    Dylan is new to the culture of New York music scene of the culture of beats as a beat poet and musician and his artistic and spirtual journey up to this point in his career.

    This is multi-layered song that can be interpreted from many different perspectives. It is a put down song about somebody who doesn't understand "what it is" both an autobiographical and spiritual song that chronicals Dylan's music career from his wide-eyed arrival at the beat scene in NYC to the annoited voice of the beat generation or star of counterculture “freak”, and ultimately to his creative collape due to pressures exerted by greedy record executives, philistine critics and demanding fans that cause him to end up in self-loathing and closing his eyes to the outside world “put eyes in pocket”

    Spiritually Dylan is saying that all of us including himself "Mr. Jones" do not understand the meaning of life or "what is" This is the question that is gnawing at us in the subconscious of our lives. In the foreground we have the experiences of life or the freak show and like reporters we take note of them. We then interpret them according to our own meaning of life and he is saying that we still don't have the answer.

    As a musician Dylan is comparing himself to a reporter who faithfully reports the facts and then tries to interpret those facts through his filter or voice. The NYC music scene is like nothing he has experienced growing up in middle america, Minnesota, and the music scene is like a freak show to him. He arrives “in the room” ready to observe the NYC music scene and “pencil in hand” to be a faithful witness to the truth symbolized by the “naked” performer. Frustrated by not understanding the meaning of the naked man who spiritually is Jesus and musically might be one of his heros such as Woody Guthrie he wonders what he could “say” or sing or spiritually speaking witness to the people of middle america about what he has seen “when he gets home” or has found his voice.

    The next stanza Dylan struggles to make it in the NYC music scene. He has improved his musical chops "raised his head" or raised his consciousness spiritually speaking.
    Dylan asks if Beat scene or his head is where he can locate the “what is” he is trying to understand. He is told by critic or audience member or performer or spiritual teacher that in fact Dylan himself owns this location of "what is" which does not seem to be the answer to his original question. In fact some don't even understand the question and ask “where what is?” That freaks him out. Maybe nobody even understands me.

    Dylan by the end is worn “thin” by the world.
    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'll say
    When you get home
    Because something is happening here
    But you don't know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones

    Dylan or “Mister Jones” walks into the “room” or club/coffee house/NYC folk/beat scene
    prepared to take notes with pencil in hand or learn the art of performing songs/being beat. He sees a performer whose voice is pure truth “naked” and he is intrigued and asks who could do such a thing. Jesus/woody Guthrie/other hero of Dylan/. Dylan then tries to find his pure true voice/self/life but he struggles. It is “hard” work and he doesn't “understand” how to sing and he has no idea what it will sound like when he gets his sound or “home”

    Chorus: B/C something is happening here but you don't know what it is Do you Mister Jones. “Something is happening here” speaks of the world Jesus spoke of namely that of the material world or what we can see or touch. “don't know what it is” speaks to our collective ignorance of god/spirit/consciousness or “what is” also in the bible the god “I am that I am” or alludes to the saying "life is what it is" Mister Jones is metaphor for white middle america. Jones being the most common name in America. White middle america doesn't understand music or culture of beats or black culture.

    You raise up your head
    And you ask, "Is this where it is?"
    And somebody points to you and says
    "It's his"
    And you say, "What's mine?"
    And somebody else says, "Where what is?"
    And you say, "Oh my God
    Am I here all alone?"
    Because something is happening here
    But you don't know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones

    Dylan raises up his consciousness “head” and asks himself if his sound/soul/essence can be found in his head or thoughts, and a critic tells him “It is his” or somebody else s sound that he is copying and it is not unique. (probably referring to Woody Guthrie') So frustrated Dylan asks “What's mine?” or What is my voice/soul? Then the audience/critics ask “where what is?” They don't even understand the question. And he freaks out. acknowledge that he has a voice and refer him to the spirit or “what is”. He freaks out. “oh my God” maybe I'm all alone asking this question of the meaning of “what is” Don't even have a voice? Am I here onstage and not connecting with the people? “Am I alone?” Am I going to be a failure?

    You hand in your ticket
    And you go watch the geek
    Who immediately walks up to you
    When he hears you speak
    And says, "How does it feel
    To be such a freak?"
    And you say, "Impossible"
    As he hands you a bone
    Because something is happening here
    But you don't know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones

    Dylan goes to see the geek perform (nor sure who he is referring to) The geek loves Dylan's voice when Dylan “speaks” and walks up to him after Dylan's show and tells him he is going to be a star “freak”. Dylan is incredulous and says “impossible” but the geek throws him “a bone” or gets him gigs.

  12. oracle
    click a star to vote
    Aug 25th 2011 !⃝

    you walk into the room like a camel
    and then you frown
    you put your eyes in your pocket
    and your nose on the ground
    there oughta be a law against you comin around
    you should be made to wear earphones

    jesus comes back, searching for some signs to "drink up".... he's thirsty but there's an odd phenomena... he's metaphorically sniffing around (nose on the ground)
    yet he puts his eyes in his pocket...meaning he doesn't quite see the obvious....
    there oughta be a law against you comin around...dylan humor...banning Jesus from coming around....
    you should be made to wear earphones- song lyrics are the "spring" which Jesus drinks from on his return.
    His life is accurately portrayed by the prophesies within certain lyrics. Thus the line "you should be made to wear earphones"

  13. oracle
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    Jul 23rd 2011 !⃝

    The sword swallower asks jesus how his throat feels
    and thanks him for the loan

    my interpretation of this part of the song
    is that it is a colorful way to describe how Jesus takes the rap for our sins.

  14. oracle
    click a star to vote
    Jul 9th 2011 !⃝

    Mr. Jones is just another nickname given to Jesus....but the prophecy of this song deals with Jesus' return and his state of mind questioning who he is.
    You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand, you see somebody naked there and you ask "Who is that man"
    Jesus returns with his metaphorical dick in his hand, he sees himself as naked, and asks
    himself, who am I...
    he tries hard but literally has no idea what to say upon his return.

    Mr. Jones, Jesus, has been with the professors
    with great lawyers he's discussed lepers and crooks
    When interpreting dylan it is important to
    know when he's being sarcastic, literal,
    metaphorical, or something else entirely.
    the pencil "in your hand" is
    a metaphor for a metaphor....
    the pencil a metaphor for penis
    but this in itself is a metaphor
    for what Jesus upon his return feels like he has in his hand.

    It makes sense that the sword swallower would kneel and cross himself as he comes up to Mr. Jones if Mr. Jones is in fact Jesus.

    The next song on the album
    Highway 61 Revisited,
    Queen Jane Approximately
    features another nickname for Jesus
    "Queen Jane"

    When all the clowns you have commissioned...
    think of the apostles and others as the so called clowns.

    Other nicknames for Jesus in Dylan's lyrics

    Neighborhood Bully
    Man of Peace
    a promoter who nearly fell off the floor

    countless others

    Jesus is most certainly the subject of
    "When He Returns"
    from the slow train coming album
    in fact the slow train is again a reference to Jesus...

    Now all the all the authorities
    they just stand around and boast
    how they blackmailed a sergeant at arms
    into leaving his post....

    a reference to biblical passages concerning the resurrection.

    I'll post some more interpretations of dylan in the future.

  15. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Jun 29th 2011 !⃝

    Mr Jones is not a newspaper reporter. No reporter (even in the 1960s) walks about with a pencil in their hand. Pencil behind the ear, maybe. In their inside pocket. More likely it would be a pen. Today it would be a recording device and they wouldn't bother to leave the office. They would do it by phone tap.
    The pencil in his hand is a sexual reference.
    It relates to the one-eyed midget and sword swallowing. Mr Jones is a sexual tourist, a window gazer/voyeur, who is sexually and morally confused, who affects to be horrified, and really just worries about how he's going to explain things when he gets home (to his wife or partner).
    He has led some kind of intellectual life but he is afraid to make choices in real life. The song mocks his fear. It is a cruel song, reflecting a period of Dylan's life when he was very judgmental of people, their weaknesses, hypocracies, human failings. Mr Jones is mocked because he's closeted, uncourageous and untrue to himself.

  16. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Mar 24th 2011 !⃝

    This song--like most of Dylan's song--is a prophetic anticipation describing the sad lives of those who post interpretations of Dylan on the internet thereby proving they have never understood anything about anything he's ever written. They know somethings happening but they don't know what it is, do they, Mr. Jones?

  17. anonymous
    click a star to vote
    Oct 28th 2010 !⃝

    this song is about heroin (milk, cow, etc.) use within the "cool" crowd of the arts and music world. mr. jones is a writer who isn't part of that crowd but must try to fit in for his job, which entails going to parties to find material to write for his job, be it at a magazine or some other venue. the people at these drug fueled parties are being compared to circus freaks.

    This interpretation has been marked as poor. view anyway
  18. Piman
    click a star to vote
    Oct 24th 2010 !⃝

    Not my own idea but one that isn't up here and is worth looking at. I agree that best interpretation is the jerk of a reporter mentioned in other interpretations, but this might overlap or run parallel with that idea.
    Think of the 'thin man' as a gay man struggling to accept who he is. Dylan describes him as wanting sex but unwilling to admit that he is gay (happened in those days a lot) and so Dylan despises him for his hypocrisy.
    Homosexuality puts these lines in a different context; 'your pencil in your hand' 'see someone naked and you say, who is that man?' could refer to meeting partners but covering this up when he gets home (to mother or wife?).
    'Raise up your head' and the 'one-eyed midget who is shouting now' are about the sexual desire that Mr Jones struggles with. The high-heel wearing sword-swallower who kneels in front of him but the roles get reversed also could point to this theme.
    He has 'contacts' among lumberjacks and has professors who like his looks.
    Could all be a load of **** though!

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