Bob Dylan

Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

Composed by Bob Dylan

Song Review by

Among the masterpieces of Bob Dylan's amazing outpouring of songs in the mid-'60s, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" is a minor pleasure. For anyone else, its extravagant imagery and literary references would make it a sophisticated, comic tour de force. But it has tended to be overshadowed by Dylan's other songs of the period. When he came to record it on August 4, 1965, it was only the warm-up to the lengthy, surreal "Desolation Row," and that sequencing carried over when the two songs appeared at the end of the Highway 61 Revisited LP later in the month. In the song, after the usual Dylan backup instrumentation of the period -- guitar, piano, organ, bass, drums -- sets up a lazy, rolling groove, the singer comes in sounding tired and telling a tale about being lost in the rain in Juárez, Mexico, at Easter time. Critics have pointed out the similarity of the setting to Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano, and that's only the start of the footnotes. Before the end of the first of the six verses, you are "down on Rue Morgue Avenue," calling to mind Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." The tone is established: This is a tale of horror and dissipation. You and the narrator (who is acting as something of a tour guide) encounter shady women like Saint Annie and Sweet Melinda, as well as corrupt authorities. The narrator drinks and drugs his way into helplessness, and having done so, declares ironically at the end, "I'm going back to New York City/do believe I've had enough." And what does Tom Thumb (never mentioned in the lyrics) have to do with all this? By 1965, Dylan had established a pattern of using titles that had little apparent relationship to their songs, and this may be another one. But biographer Robert Shelton, recalling Dylan's affection for Rimbaud, cites the poet's "My Bohemian Life (Fantasy)," in which he refers to himself as "Tom Thumb in a daze," as a possible source of inspiration for the title. Dylan performed "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" frequently during his band tour of 1965-1966. In June 1966, a live version of the song that had been recorded on May 14 in Liverpool was released as the B-side of the Dylan single "I Want You." This marked the first commercial release of a live recording by Dylan and the only release of material from the 1966 British tour until the 1998 release of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Live 1966. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" earned one of its few covers when Judy Collins recorded it for her fall 1966 In My Life album. Dylan put his recording on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 in 1971 and performed it regularly on his 1974 comeback tour. It has continued to be an occasionally performed song in his concert repertoire ever since. Though there haven't been a lot of covers, the song has appealed especially to women singers, earning recordings by Nina Simone and Linda Ronstadt. At the 1992 Dylan tribute concert held at Madison Square Garden, it was sung by Neil Young.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Highway 61 Revisited 1965 Columbia / Legacy 5:31
Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 1971 Columbia / Sony Music Distribution 5:25
Masterpieces 1998 Columbia 5:36
No Image 2001 Sony Music Distribution 5:32
Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde on Blonde 2002 Sony Music Distribution
Bob Dylan [Limited Edition Hybrid SACD Set] 2003 Legacy 5:31
Greatest Hits, Vol. 1-3 2003 Legacy / Columbia 5:28
A Musical History 2005 Capitol 5:37
The Collection: Another Side of Bob Dylan/Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited 2009 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 5:31
Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde on Blonde 2009 Columbia / Sony Music 5:31
The Original Mono Recordings 2010 Columbia / Sony Music 5:11
The Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1 2013 Columbia Records / Sony Music 5:27