When it come to Bob Dylan’s songwriting ability, there is very little in the way of praise that hasn’t been lavished on him . However, one that, for the most part, has been overlooked is his sense of humor. Many writers acknowledge his sarcasm and wit but they seldom go so far as to call him funny. Sarcastic, sharp-witted and even caustic, but he was never malicious. His sarcasm and wit had structure. It played to the linear time of a story. It was never random.
Bob Dylan’s dress and appearance in the beginning of his career was one of a pugnacious imp. His songwriting prowess was still in its infancy and, thus, simplistic. There was, however, one that stood out. “Talkin Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.” Based on an actual event, Dylan wrote the topical song and laced it full of what would become his trademark cheek. Quoting Anthony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan, the website BobDylanRoots had to say about the song’s inspiration, “A Harlem social club had chartered the Hudson Belle, for a Father’s Day cruise up the Hudson to Bear Mountain. As the picnickers were crowding the pier… rumors (later confirmed) spread that about a thousand counterfeit tickets had been sold around town and that those families with fake tickets would not be permitted aboard. The boat docked a couple of hours late and there was a mad scramble to get aboard and a good deal of panic and fighting on all three decks.”
As the narrator, Dylan is hooked into the taking the trip by a catchy advert “Come along ’n’ take a trip. We’ll bring you up there on a ship. Bring the wife and kids. Bring the whole family.” The narrator decides it would be a good idea to take his family but when he gets there he finds –
Six thousand people there,
Everybody had ticket for the trip.
“oh well.” I said, “it’s a pretty big ship.
The narrator and his family get on board the ship. As it becomes overloaded, like its real life counterpart, chaos ensues. While it was probably terrifying for the real life picnickers being aboard a sinking ship, in Dylan’s song, he paints a scene so surreal that it is funny in its tragedy. There is a Benny Hill-esque quality to the images Dylan conjures up as the ship sinks due to overcrowding –
Six thousand people tryin’ t’ kill each other
Dogs a-barkin’, cats a-meowin’
Women screamin’, fists a-flyin’, babies cryin’
Cops a-comin’, me a-runnin’
Maybe we just better call off the picnic
The punch comes soon after. The narrator is exasperated and Dylan’s delivery is pure genius –
Now, I don’t care just what you do
If you wanta have a picnic, that’s up t’ you
But don’t tell me about it, I don’t wanta hear it
’Cause, see, I just lost all m’ picnic spirit
Stay in m’ kitchen, have m’ own picnic . . .
In the bathroom
“Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” was just the beginning. It was the flippant Dylan that everyone would come to know and love.It was just the beginning.