Brilliant and beautiful. I have always considered Simone's version of "Tom Thumb" to be one of the best versions of any Dylan song; thank you for giving such precise voice to the weight and power of that rendition. And thank you for the poem by Yalie Saweda Kamara -- a truly stunning meditation on what it means to give voice to the self through song.

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What a privilege it is to revisit this song again and again and see it transform. Recently I’ve been listening to it a lot on Shadow Kingdom, where Dylan’s aged voice puts a completely different spin on the story. But Simone’s version has always existed in a different universe, as your reading so beautifully points out. I love Yalie Saweda Kamara’s poem and read it several times because it is so striking (thank you for introducing it to me in Tulsa). The difference between Dylan and Simone’s interpretation is all in their performance and Yalie manages to evoke the visceral element of that difference by filtering it through her own experience.

One particular detail I found interesting – in Dylan’s version, the singer sees himself at the mercy of the “hungry women” in the Mexican brothel where he’s a helpless victim of their voracious sexual appetite. In Simone’s empathetic interpretation, that line is transformed into a totally different meaning for me. Here, these women are working in the brothel because they need to make money to feed themselves. Yalie brings this inversion full circle by describing the men following Melinda up her staircase as “hungry fools”. It's a remarkable shift in power dynamics.

Also, that version of JLAW from 2000 is incredible – her active engagement which makes the song sprout a new meaning in the moment of that performance is incredibly powerful: a masterclass in song interpretation!

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Thanks, Laura! I love your point about the power reversal in Nina Simone's version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," and how Yalie Kamara echoes that by turning the "hungry women" of the lyrics into the "hungry fools." Viewed one way, the men "feed" on the women; viewed another way, the women feed themselves through financial transactions at the brothel.

You prompt me to hear another echo I hadn't noticed before: "When we meet again / Introduced as friends / Please don't let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world." Wish I had thought to make that connection back to "Just Like a Woman" while writing this piece, but thanks for belatedly planting the seed, Laura.

"Everybody's got a hungry heart," as the Boss sings, but there are different kinds of hungry hearts. One hunger conjures up a voracious predator, while another suggests someone hollowed out and empty with an unfillable void--like our old pal Kafka. The same song has the capacity to be interpreted either way in the hands of a sensitive performer. Alternate title: "Simone & Dylan: Hunger Artists."

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Jun 21, 2023Liked by Graley Herren

Super, Graley! Fundamentally important post!

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