Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' Lyrics And Meaning Of The 1965 Rap

By | March 8, 2021

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Source: centerforpoetry.wordpress.com

"Johnny's in the basement / Mixin' up the medicine" -- so begins Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a single from his album Bringing It All Back Home that sounded unlike anything else in pop music. Even today, this hipster patter, with deceptively simple lyrics whose meanings are more complex, is startling. What is it? It's been called proto-rap, the kind of street-corner sermon that meant something to the kids in the know but sounded like gibberish to their parents. 

Released in March 1965, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was a counterculture anthem when the counterculture was still percolating. The Summer of Love was still two years off, and Woodstock another two years after that. It was Dylan's first single to crack the top 40 -- "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" are also anthems, but they weren't hits. A few months later, Dylan would release "Like A Rolling Stone," his all-time biggest hit.

Bob Dylan Had Been Folk Music's Bad Boy, But Was Ready For A Change

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Source: Artcurial

For the first half of the '60s, Bob Dylan lurked behind the happy facade of the folk-music scene, writing brutally honest or confrontational songs that many "regular" (or older) Americans couldn't handle. Dylan was finding success in a scene that was thriving on anodyne material, from the clean-cut folk of the late-'50s Kingston Trio to the hipper (yet still mostly inoffensive) folk of Peter, Paul and Mary. Dylan was harsh; his lyrics weren't all sunshine and rainbows and his voice struck many listeners as downright unpleasant.

If the pop charts weren't quite ready for Dylan, his manager Albert Grossman had a solution. Grossman had Peter, Paul and Mary (whom he also managed) record "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and both singles were top-10 hits for the vocal trio. With Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Kingston Trio, and other folk artists including Joan Baez, recording Dylan's songs, perhaps America would be ready to hear these instant folk classics sung by the man who'd written them.

It didn't exactly happen that way, as Bob Dylan was done with the folk scene by 1965. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is not a folk song at all.