Bob Dylan – Ballad of a Thin Man

And you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

There is a lot of power in just that one line and the song. Not only the lyrics but the intensity that Bob sings it. When it was released everyone wanted to know who Mr. Jones was and people still wonder. Bob Dylan set it straight like only Dylan does with this statement…“I could tell you who Mr. Jones is in my life, but, like, everybody has got their Mr. Jones.” 

“Ballad Of A Thin Man” was recorded on August 2, 1965, at the same session as “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” when you get those songs out of a session…you are doing alright.

The song was on the great album Highway 61 Revisited. The album peaked at #3 in the Billboard 100 and #4 in the UK in 1965.

From Songfacts

While speculations remain rampant as to who “Mr. Jones” is and what exactly this song is supposed to mean, there is no definitive answer at this time. The closest thing we’ve seen to an answer from Dylan himself appears in an interview given in Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, where Dylan asserts that the “Mr. Jones” in question is a real person not known by this name, who is a pinboy, wears suspenders, and “puts his eyes in his pocket” which might mean that he wears glasses.

Before launching into this song in Japan, 1986, Dylan said, “This is a song I wrote in response to people who ask questions all the time. You just get tired of that every once in a while.”

Of the many references to “Ballad of a Thin Man” found throughout media, are the lines “feel so suicidal, just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones” from the Beatles’ “Yer Blues,” “Mr. Jones is a man who doesn’t know who Mr. Jones is” from Momus’ “Who Is Mr. Jones?,” “I wanna be Bob Dylan, Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky.” from Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones,” and “Mr. Jones won’t lend me a hand” from Country Joe and the Fish’ “Flying High.” While we cannot speculate on the true identity of Mr. Jones, it can be said that the name “Mr. Jones” has come to symbolize for the music world the kind of old-guard “square” who “doesn’t get it,” similar to our modern usage of the mythical “Joe Sixpack.”

This is the song which Bob Dylan and his band played at the Forest Hills concert of 1965 in an attempt to soothe the unruly crowd. As Al Kooper recounts in Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, “It had a quiet intro, and the kids persisted in yelling and booing all the way through it. Dylan shouted to us to ‘keep playing the intro over and over again until they shut up!’ We played it for a good five minutes – doo do da da, do da de da – over and over until they did, in fact, chill. A great piece of theater. When they were finally quiet, Dylan sang the lyrics to them.”

A 1966 cover of this song (titled “Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man)”) was the first single for The Grass Roots. At the time, the group was led by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. Sloan credits Bob Dylan for sticking by him when many other musicians and industry insiders dissociated themselves from him. Sloan was an up-and-coming songwriter/producer when he wrote the incendiary hit “Eve Of Destruction,” which went to #1 in 1965, but caused a great deal of controversy and made it very difficult for him to find work.

According to Al Kooper, Bob Dylan took from Ray Charles’s “I Believe to My Soul” for “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

In a September 22, 1966 interview in Austin, Texas, a reporter asked Dylan if “Ballad of a Thin Man” was about “a newspaper reporter or something.” Dylan, who spent the entire interview mocking and evading the questions, responded with a single line: “No, it’s just about a fella that came into a truck stop once.”

The opening line, “You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand,” was at one point, “You walk into the room with a hatchet in your hand.” This was revealed in a lyric sheet that is part of Dylan’s archives in Tulsa.

Before and after their speeches, Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale regularly played this song over the PA system. Insiders reported they listened to it almost obsessively. The two men felt it was speaking about the black struggle in America.

Ballad of a Thin Man

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?

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, “Well, what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

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
And something is happening here but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

You have many contacts among the lumberjacks
To get you facts when someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect, anyway they already expect you to all give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

Ah, 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
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

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”
And you know something is happening but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

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”
And you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Well, 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 ought to be a law against you comin’ around
You should be made to wear earphones
‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?