Dylan asks the media establishment: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?"
The real Highway 61 runs from Minnesota, where Bob Dylan was born in 1941, down through the Mississippi delta, the birthplace of the blues. Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan’s sixth successful studio album, was a chance for the troubadour to recall the roots music that had been so influential in his formative years. By 1965 Dylan was an accomplished, yet reluctant, folk star, but had become disenchanted with the industry after a draining tour of England several months prior.
Triggered by the aggressive publicity attention he incurred in the UK, a rebellious Dylan retreated to his home outside Woodstock, NY to write a record that would aggravate his folk acolytes and steer his career in a new direction. Inspired by early rock and roll as a teen, Dylan put pen to paper on Highway 61 Revisited, which was to be his first purely rock and roll record. Feverishly written in just one month in the early summer of 1965, he was soon thereafter ready to lay down the nine songs (including “Like a Rolling Stone") that would make up the seminal record. Dylan enlisted a group of renowned studio musicians (Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar, Bobby Gregg on drums, Harvey Goldstein on bass, and Al Kooper on organ) to help him stage his musical mutiny.
Appearing as the first song on side two of Highway 61 Revisited, “Ballad of a Thin Man” is the story of the local philistine, the most hated pariah of Bob Dylan’s crowd. The song tells the tale of Mr. Jones, an unrelenting and judgmental journalist who earns Dylan’s disdain for asking too many of the wrong questions. The ignorant Mr. Jones is unable to see what is in front of him: a group of emotionally honest (“naked”), outlying (“geek” and “freak”), cross-dressing (“and he clicks his high heels”) and wonderfully liberated progressives who have no one to answer to, and among whose ranks Dylan has risen as prophet, albeit reluctantly. Now it is the bourgeois Mr. Jones who is the misfit in comparison to Dylan's beatnik carnival, full of characters doing lewd and preposterous things. He asks the definitive question of the ‘60s: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?"
There is much speculation about the identity of Mr. Jones. In the 1967 documentary "Don’t Look Back," a videographic account of the tortuous 1965 UK tour, there is a moment when Time journalist Horace Freeland Judson asks Dylan, “Do you care about what you sing?” An incredulous Dylan responds: “How can I answer that if you’ve got the nerve to ask me? … I’m not questioning you because I don’t expect any answers from you.” This exchange led many to think that Judson himself was Mr. Jones. Journalist Jeffrey Jones wanted so badly to be associated with the song that he “confessed” to Rolling Stone magazine in 1975 that he was the real Mr. Jones and had incited Dylan to write the song after a failed interview at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. However, in 1986, Dylan divulged to a Japanese audience: “This is a song I wrote a while back in response to people who ask me questions all the time. You just get tired of that every once in a while. You just don't want to answer no more questions .... So this is my response to something that happened over in England. I think it was about '63, '64.” Other contenders include Pete Seeger, Tom Wilson, Joan Baez, and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. But as Dylan is wont to do, he contradicts himself on the question of Mr. Jones’s identity in an interview in 1990:
“There were a lot of Mister Joneses at that time. Obviously there must have been a tremendous amount of them for me to write that particular song. It was like, 'Oh man, here's the thousandth Mister Jones'."
On June 24, 2014, Sotheby’s achieved record prices for Dylan’s working draft manuscripts of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Both of those manuscripts revealed Dylan’s composition process in the extensive marginal notes. By contrast, the present manuscript (as well as the following lot, “Queen Jane Approximately”) was used during the Highway 61 Revisited studio sessions, held at Studio A of Columbia Records in Manhattan from 15-16 June and 29 July-4 August 1965. It is clear that this manuscript is from the time of the song’s composition and recording and was presumably used as a mnemonic text in the studio, either by Dylan himself or even more likely by a member of his recently convened electric band, who were not yet familiar with the material and not yet wise to Dylan’s vision.
With a new band and a new musical direction, Dylan was the only one in the studio with a strong vision for the record, and the present manuscript was a necessary point of reference. Although not always standard for Dylan manuscripts, it stands to reason that he would sign “Bob Dylan” in this instance should manuscript float between the musicians in the studio. The text of the present manuscript is almost exactly as recorded, but lacks of a complete chorus between any of the verses, replaced here with the shorthand “[cho]”. The name of the song is not present on the page, and the handwriting and minimal edits and emendations give the impression that Dylan quickly scratched down the lyrics, made a few adjustments, and sat down at his piano ready to get the song on tape. Dylan recorded the song with a vengeance, with only one false start, one complete runthrough, and one final take. Written with intention and executed expeditiously, this manuscript helped Dylan record “Ballad of a Thin Man” as he had envisioned, and the song taught his fans and critics that he needn’t be subdued to be poetic.
"You wouldn't believe what those sessions were like. There was no concept. No one knew what they wanted to play, no one knew what the music was supposed to sound like-- other than Bob, who had the chords and the words and the melody." Mike Bloomfield
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