Bob Dylan Countdown #120: “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”Posted: February 15, 2012
What do you make of two characters who are inseparable and yet want to kill each other? Dylan chose to reference the nursery rhyme and Lewis Carroll twosome “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” for a reason. Was it simply to throw us off the path? Could be. As an allusion that is meant to lead us toward the meaning? Could be that as well. Could be both.
Come to think of it, it probably is both. In the song, the titular duo certainly vacillate between best mates and mortal enemies, sometimes in the same verse. The nursery rhyme where the duo originated is filled with black humor, about two men fighting over a rattle before being distracted by bigger worries. Carroll makes them hapless and seemingly harmless, although, as with many of his scenes, a slight tinge of uneasiness trickles through their meeting with Alice, as if they could do something awful at any minute.
I think you’re meant to feel that kind of menace when listening to Dylan’s version of these two. The first thing you see them doing are “throwing knives into the tree,” an act of almost pointless violence. They come on as righteous (“Trustin’ their fate to the Hands of God”) and even are respectable members of society (“They run a brick and tile company”) while holding positions of power (“They got a parade permit and police escort.”)
Along the way, their conversations with each other run from the conspiratorial (“What’s good for you is good for me”) to the adversarial (“Your presence is obnoxious to me.”) Yet it’s the threat they pose to others that is more worrisome.
“They’re lyin’ low and they’re makin’ hay/They seem determined to go all the way,” Dylan sings, highlighting their ambition. In the end, stripped of all their nobler aspirations, their true colors are revealed: “Tweedle-dee Dee is a low-down, sorry old man/Tweedle-dee Dum will stab you where you stand.”
The music that accompanies this tale is a tough customer as well, signified by David Kemper’s rattling rockabilly beat, Augie Meyers’ organ squeals, and Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton dueling on guitar. Dylan sneers and wheezes throughout, as if disgusted by the whole scenario.
So what kind of men could these two be? Politicians? Bankers? Booking agents? You can insert your unassuming boogeyman of choice here, but rest assured that “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” are far more threatening to you than they are to each other.