The sweet pretty things are in bed now, of course
The city fathers, they're trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse
But the town has no need to be nervous

The ghost of Belle Starr, she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun, she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper, who sits
At the head of the Chamber of Commerce

Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes
Daddy's in the alley, he's lookin' for food
I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues

The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming, she moans, "I've just been made"
Then sends out for the doctor, who pulls down the shade
And says, "My advice is to not let the boys in"

Now, the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride
"Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
You will not die, it's not poison"

Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes
Daddy's in the alley, he's lookin' for food
I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, "Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?"

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, "Death to all those who would whimper and cry"
And, dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, "The sun's not yellow, it's chicken"

Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes
Daddy's in the alley, he's lookin' for food
I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues

The king of the Philistines, his soldiers to save
Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
Then sends them out to the jungle

Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch, he burns out their camps
With his faithful slave Pedro behind him, he tramps
With a fantastic collection of stamps
To win friends and influence his uncle

Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes
Daddy's in the alley, he's lookin' for food
I'm in trouble with the tombstone blues

The geometry of innocence, flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo's math book to get thrown
At Delilah, who's sitting worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter

I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after

Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes
Daddy's in the alley, he's lookin' for food
I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues

Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks' home and the college

Now, I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes
Daddy's in the alley, he's lookin' for food
I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues, oh right


Lyrics submitted by roger wilco, edited by Funky_Nickie

Tombstone Blues Lyrics as written by Bob Dylan

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Lyrics powered by LyricFind

Tombstone Blues song meanings
Add Your Thoughts

56 Comments

sort form View by:
  • +10
    General Comment

    Yeah, I tend to agree with rider of waves, these are mostly little images of abuse of power.

    The city father's first ridiculously trying to legislate the reincarnation of a horse. He then characterizes them "the chamber of commerce": Belle Starr (a famous criminal), Jezebell the nun (hypocrit), Jack the Ripper (famous killer.)

    The chorus just puts it in perspective, real, everyday people are just trying to survive.

    Who would John the Baptists commander and chief be, has to be Jesus Christ. After torturing a thief, putting judgement to a sinner, feels sick with guuilt. He looks to the commander in chief wondering, is this really what we should be doing? Christ is portrayed as so freaking tough that he is pumping a barbell, saying death to all those who don't have the stomach for this, and challenging the sun directly (its a cool play on words, but also conveys the insane conviction.) Anyway, the abuse of power by christianity is the theme of these verses.

    The king of the philistines puts jawbones on the tombstones of his soldiers. Then heaps them with honors. Samson killed the philistines with a jawbone. Its the same as putting a rifle on the grave of a soldier (the impliment of their death!) and honoring them. The hypocrisy of probably the president in particular, but the US governemt in general, blithely sending soldiers off to die, and honoring their deaths so shallowly, at the same time, jailing pied pipers (those who would lead the youth presumably to protest the war). Fattening the slaves before sending them out tio the jungle, is the same hypocracy of honoring the soldiers deaths.. If you had so much honor for them, you'd not send them off to die!.

    Gypsy davy, is the soldier in the army. He's burning down camps, ie burning villages, the fantastic collection of stamps means, enjoying travelling around the world, to win friends and influence his Uncle (Sam), that is to gain favor in the military. He's saying, the avergae Joe soldier burning down villages, isn't thinking about what he's doing, he's thrilled to be travelling the world, and not looking at the bigger picture.

    Brother Bill is probably Billy Graham, or some one like him, a reactionary judgemental rightwing christian type, and he's ironically saying, that he wishes he could give him his greatest wish and let him die a martyr in cecil b. demill cinemagraphic glory.

    Ma Raney was a famous Blues-Woman, he is equating her to bethoven as a true musical originator, they've now been replaced by tuba players saluting the flag, its a humorous image of crappy music that serves the mainstream purpose. And any one trying to save your soul is making a profit, preying off the old and naieve.

    Theres more here, its all in that vein i think.

    shockandaweon March 08, 2006   Link
  • +5
    General Comment

    more about "the sun's not yellow, it's chicken": the roman sun god is apollo and the spanish word for chicken is "pollo". chew on that for a while

    ronwomanon September 16, 2005   Link
  • +3
    General Comment

    smeared -- basically, that line is a purposely ambiguous and awesome pun. Dylan plays with word connotations here.

    Yellow's most obvious connotation is the color.
    However, it can also mean "cowardly" or "scared."

    Chicken's most obvious connotation is the food. However, it can also mean the same thing as the second connotation of yellow -- scared (You're chicken!)

    So, no matter which way you look at this statement, one of the words will screw up the sentence's meaning.

    For instance, the sun definitely can't be chicken, but something that's yellow can be.

    What an awesome pun. This song is amazing. The lyrics are great, and Michael Bloomfield's guitar work is exceptional.

    MagiDrakeeon February 04, 2005   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    I've read that this song is an attempt to render musically the same kind of crazy randomness that surrealist artists in the 1920's put in their paintings and movies. This song is full of one liners and verses that are almost by definition non sequitors. From what I understand, surrealists were trying to get people to look at the world differently by placing normal, run of the mill images in unexpected, and sometimes unsettling, contexts.

    By the way, "The sun's not yellow, it's chicken," may just be one of my favorite lines ever.

    distopiandreamguyon December 05, 2004   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    It's hard to tell how all the allusions fit together. Who are Gypsy Davey and Ma Raney?

    The Biblical references are a bit easier. Jezebel (corrupt queen of Israel) shows up in the first verse, John the Baptist in the second, but Samson (though unnamed) is the big allusion.

    He killed 1000 Philistines with a donkey's jawbone (see third verse), married and was betrayed by Delilah (fourth verse), and finally killed his captors by tearing down the pillars of the great house of the Philistines (fourth verse; note the reference to Cecil B. DeMille, who directed several major Biblical epics in the 1950s).

    As far as how Samson and the others fit into the larger context of the song, I have no idea. Any thoughts?

    orthonormalon December 13, 2005   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    ok i just signed up after seeing the lack of commentary on this song. i have always felt that it is talking about the way people with power or who recieve power go a little nuts. first few verses about the city counsel trying to bring back a dead horse. and in latter parts it talks about how people try to keep their power through flattery or making people feel important the king of the phillistines for instance. but i must say that the drugged period of dylan is a very unique and abstract form of conveying messages. honestly some probably mean nothing and he is laughing at fools like us trying to analyize everything

    riderofwaveson January 31, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    As soon as I read the lyric I thought of Vietnam in particular and war and capitalism in general. To me, verses 1&2 say that the gangsters are now running the country, using patriotism as a cover. The chorus notes that capitalism is tough and that here Dylan is singing about it from a relatively comfortable position.Verses 3&4 are about being made to shut up and accept a brutally exploitative system. In 5&6 we see a sarcastic incarnation of Christian icons as military figures. 7&8 are self-explanatory - think My Lai. 9&10 use a biblical allusion to suggest LBJ ought to kill himself rather than sending others off to war. 11 says the military-industrial complex has usurped education and culture and 12 says that even if you realise all this, you can't change it. I'd see it as a picture of Dylan's disillusion and bitterness at the time he moved from his 'protest' period to his electric period.

    Just a first impression, you understand. I'm sure there are broader and deeper interpretations, but mine certainly fits the anger of the song and the death motif.

    losttangoon November 05, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    I love the way this song sounds like it's perpetually about to go off the rails, but manages to stay just balanced.

    Michialon September 06, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    more about "the sun's not yellow, it's chicken": the roman sun god is apollo and the spanish word for chicken is "pollo". chew on that for a while

    ronwomanon September 16, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    I think the ultimate aim is tell us that the upper crust sucks and the people are starving to death. I think that's why he wrote the chorus the way he did. I think's that also the point of the second to last stanza. "The National Bank sells at a profit road maps for the soul to the old folks home and the college." Only the priveleged have a shot at getting into college and the old folks home, and if your underpriveleged, then you have to sell your soul for a promissary note. You'll never escape the debt of this life with those bills. Dylan's the best songwriter of the 1960's.

    OpinionHeadon October 12, 2005   Link

Add your thoughts

Log in now to tell us what you think this song means.

Don’t have an account? Create an account with SongMeanings to post comments, submit lyrics, and more. It’s super easy, we promise!

More Featured Meanings

Album art
Standing On The Edge Of Summer
Thursday
In regards to the meaning of this song: Before a live performance on the EP Five Stories Falling, Geoff states “It’s about the last time I went to visit my grandmother in Columbus, and I saw that she was dying and it was the last time I was going to see her. It is about realizing how young you are, but how quickly you can go.” That’s the thing about Geoff and his sublime poetry, you think it’s about one thing, but really it’s about something entirely different. But the lyrics are still universal and omnipresent, ubiquitous, even. So relatable. That’s one thing I love about this band. I also love their live performances, raw energy and Geoff’s beautiful, imperfectly perfect vocals. His voice soothes my aching soul.
Album art
No Surprises
Radiohead
Same ideas expressed in Fitter, Happier are expressed in this song. We're told to strive for some sort of ideal life, which includes getting a good job, being kind to everyone, finding a partner, getting married, having a couple kids, living in a quiet neighborhood in a nice big house, etc. But in Fitter, Happier the narrator(?) realizes that it's incredibly robotic to live this life. People are being used by those in power "like a pig in a cage on antibiotics"--being pacified with things like new phones and cool gadgets and houses while being sucked dry. On No Surprises, the narrator is realizing how this life is killing him slowly. In the video, his helmet is slowly filling up with water, drowning him. But he's so complacent with it. This is a good summary of the song. This boring, "perfect" life foisted upon us by some higher powers (not spiritual, but political, economic, etc. politicians and businessmen, perhaps) is not the way to live. But there is seemingly no way out but death. He'd rather die peacefully right now than live in this cage. While our lives are often shielded, we're in our own protective bubbles, or protective helmets like the one Thom wears, if we look a little harder we can see all the corruption, lies, manipulation, etc. that is going on in the world, often run by huge yet nearly invisible organizations, corporations, and 'leaders'. It's a very hopeless song because it reflects real life.
Album art
Just A Little Lovin'
Dusty Springfield
I don't think it's necessarily about sex. It's about wanting to start the day with some love and affection. Maybe a warm cuddle. I'm not alone in interpreting it that way! For example: "'Just a Little Lovin’ is a timeless country song originally recorded by Eddy Arnold in 1954. The song, written by Eddie Miller and Jimmy Campbell, explores the delicate nuances of love and showcases Arnold’s emotive vocals. It delves into the universal theme of love and how even the smallest gesture of affection can have a profound impact on our lives." https://oldtimemusic.com/the-meaning-behind-the-song-just-a-little-lovin-by-eddy-arnold/
Album art
American Town
Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran shares a short story of reconnecting with an old flame on “American Town.” The track is about a holiday Ed Sheeran spends with his countrywoman who resides in America. The two are back together after a long period apart, and get around to enjoying a bunch of fun activities while rekindling the flames of their romance.
Album art
Plastic Bag
Ed Sheeran
“Plastic Bag” is a song about searching for an escape from personal problems and hoping to find it in the lively atmosphere of a Saturday night party. Ed Sheeran tells the story of his friend and the myriad of troubles he is going through. Unable to find any solutions, this friend seeks a last resort in a party and the vanity that comes with it. “I overthink and have trouble sleepin’ / All purpose gone and don’t have a reason / And there’s no doctor to stop this bleedin’ / So I left home and jumped in the deep end,” Ed Sheeran sings in verse one. He continues by adding that this person is feeling the weight of having disappointed his father and doesn’t have any friends to rely on in this difficult moment. In the second verse, Ed sings about the role of grief in his friend’s plight and his dwindling faith in prayer. “Saturday night is givin’ me a reason to rely on the strobe lights / The lifeline of a promise in a shot glass, and I’ll take that / If you’re givin’ out love from a plastic bag,” Ed sings on the chorus, as his friend turns to new vices in hopes of feeling better.