Originally posted April 7, 2009
The RealPlayer was chugging along on random last evening as I caught up on several editions of Rolling Stone, laughing ruefully at Matt Taibbi’s tales of greed on Wall Street and wondering if I should take Taylor Swift seriously, when a very soft version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” began to play. I put the magazine down and checked out the music.
(A little later, when I got back to my reading, I was still laughing at Taibbi’s work but decided to pass on Taylor Swift, a decision helped by her rather lame performance the evening before during a country music awards show. But that’s just me, and I’m neither the correct age nor the correct gender to be part of Ms. Swift’s target audience. From what I’ve read, it sounds as if Ms. Swift has her head on pretty straight, and I admire that, even if I don’t invest myself in her music.)
Anyway, when I got to the RealPlayer, the music turned out to be an album track from a very obscure group called West, a late 1960s group that – from what I read at All-Music Guide – had a hard time deciding on a musical identity. Shimmering folk-rock, sweet sunshine pop and a few other hard-to-describe styles crowded together in the grooves of West’s records, the website indicated. I listened to a few more tracks by the group and decided it wasn’t interesting enough to dig into actively. But it was inoffensive enough to be good background music, so I didn’t delete it. (And I have no idea where I found it. I’m guessing it came to me sometime in late 2006, during the first weeks after I discovered music blogs, a time when I was trying to be the Download King of the Universe.)
Hearing the song did remind me, though, of the late winter and early spring of 1972. As I mentioned once before, I think, I’d bought my first Bob Dylan album during that late winter, shelling out a little bit of cash for the newly released Greatest Hits, Volume II. Among the Dylan personas that I discovered there was the surrealist wordsmith who crafted “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” The emerging writer inside me fell in love with that stuff, and I spent hours listening to those two songs – I loved the entire album, but those two tracks especially – over and over.
As I went about my days, I’d ponder their lyrical construction and find myself murmuring lines under my breath. It’s quite likely that some of my fellow students at St. Cloud State thought me a little odd as I walked along, muttering, “I cannot move; my fingers are all in a knot,” with my head bobbing as if I were hearing voices. (And I was, of course, hearing a voice: Dylan’s.) My own lyrics changed, becoming more surreal and sprinkled with obscure references.
It would be nice to say that I continued to explore Dylan’s work at the time. But I didn’t. I was still catching up on all the pop and rock music I’d missed during earlier years, and the Joe Cocker/Leon Russell/Delaney Bramlett/Bobby Whitlock/Eric Clapton axis of sounds was beginning to fascinate me. I still listened to Top 40, and in all those places, I found so much to explore that – with a few exceptions like Blood on the Tracks – Dylan didn’t come close to the center of my musical universe again for years. (When he did, in 1987, it was in a flood, as – with the help of a lady friend – I put together a complete collection of Dylan on the Columbia, Asylum and Island labels by the summer of 1990.)
But through those years, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” has remained a favorite of mine, one that often pops into my head with its jangly piano intro. There are more than a hundred CDs in the market with a version of the song, according to AMG, and there are others that list the song under a variation of the title. (As an example, Judy Collins called it simply “Tom Thumb’s Blues” on her In My Life album in 1966). Some of the performers listed as having recorded the song are: Jaime Brockett, Dave’s True Story, Bryan Ferry, the Grateful Dead, Robyn Hitchcock, Jimmy LaFave, Gordon Lightfoot, Barry McGuire, Medicine Head, Linda Ronstadt, Nina Simone, the Sir Douglas Quintet, the Sting Cheese Incident, the Walking Wounded, Jennifer Warnes and Neil Young.
Here’s the version by West that started this post, a recent version by Dylan contemporary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and a live version by Dylan and The Band recorded in Liverpool in 1966. (I’ve posted that last version once before; that post is here.)
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” by West from West 
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” by Bob Dylan & The Band, Liverpool, England, May 14, 1966
Gypsy, Part One, by Gypsy (1970)
Gypsy, Part Two by Gypsy (1970)
In The Garden by Gypsy (1971)
Original post here.
Edited slightly on archival posting.