Picnic on Bear Mountain
I’ve indulged some pretty niche interests on this “news” letter over the past year, and I’m eternally grateful to anyone who is still reading. And by this point, I’m fairly confident that anyone I haven’t alienated yet is with me for the long haul, so I’m about to get weird with it. I’ve recently been inspired by a subject whose time in the spotlight is long overdue: Bob Dylan’s comedy career.
Bob Dylan has written a lot of great songs, and his multitude of music awards are all well-deserved. I’d even go so far as to say he’s underrated (but that’s a column for another day). But upon revisiting what might be his funniest song, “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” I realized that he’s one of the all-time great comedy writers as well.
The song, which was never released on an album but easily found online, is barely a song. It’s a talking blues, an old music style that consists of a singer telling a rhyming story while he strums a guitar. But I’m pretty sure it’s the pinnacle of the genre. Bob Dylan tells the story of a time he bought a ticket to attend a picnic on a mountain, and how it quickly turned into a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Virtually every line is funny. But the real highlight is Bob’s delivery. It truly sounds like he is not only making everything up as he goes along, but has no real interest in telling the story. He comes across as lazy, confused, and overly opinionated without any knowledge to back it up. The words sound like they’re barely spilling out of him, like a guy at a party who decides to share his thoughts on an issue he knows nothing about. When he says that he’s done going to picnics because he’d rather “stay home and have a picnic in my bathroom,” it sounds like he truly believes it. You just have to listen to the song, because my words don’t do it justice.
I played it for my roommate the other night, and we both laughed hysterically. The humor has really stood the test of time, even more than the best comedy records from that era. Then he (my roommate, not Bob) said something peculiar. He pointed out that it was unbelievable that someone who could win a Nobel Prize for Literature for songs like “Desolation Row” could also write “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.” It’s like having Hamlet and an Adam Sandler movie come out of the same brain. But that’s completely missing the point. To me, this is a testament to Dylan’s intelligence and wit. I’ve listened to the song a lot, and he’s clearly choosing every word very carefully. He’s playing the character of an apathetic husband and father who is bad with words and telling an incoherent story about his own stupidity. And he writes that character so believably that some people think he’s just doing a bad job with the song. Writing stupid things in an intelligent way is the highest level of comedy writing, and Dylan’s mastery of it has been influencing a lot of my own work lately. Every time I think I’ve found every skill that he’s better at than me, Bob Dylan proves me wrong again. At least I’m good at picking heroes.
Dylanologist with Lots of Time on His Hands