Poor boy's working hard,
A step ahead of the law.
Things will work out fine.
"Po' Boy," which appears on the 2001 album "Love and Theft," is a curious collage built from sources from the Marx Brothers to the novel "Confessions of a Yakuza" by Japanese author Junichi Saga. In between there are references to Blind Willie McTell songs and Shakespeare's "Othello," along with a "knock knock" joke to round it out. It's not a palette that I ever would have thought of, but I'm not Bob Dylan. I can't crack the nut of this song, but I was game to go along with it because its charm sells itself.
1. Poor boy shows up. Me: who are you looking for? Him: Your wife. Me: She's in the kitchen, cooking. Don't make me tell you again.
2. I'm at the store, buying something. The guy there wants $3. I offer him $4. "Poor boy -- never say die, things will be all right by and by."
3. I'm working on the mainline, and working hard. "The game is the same -- it's just on a different level. Poor boy -- dressed in black, police at your back."
4. Poor boy's in a happening town beyond the stars, socializing and riding first-class train cars. He's in a precarious spot though, "Tryin' to keep from fallin' between the cars." This says to me that he's not there as a welcome member of the upper class, but as a thief or a fraud or a huckster trying to make his score and get out before being discovered.
5. Othello to Desdemona: I'm cold, I need a blanket, and "by the way, what happened to that poison wine?" Desdemona to Othello: "I gave it to you, you drank it." "Poor boy, layin' 'em straight -- pickin' up the cherries fallin' off the plate."
6. I've been scratched by time and love like they were animals. Just like Blind Willie McTell, I had to go to Florida to avoid prosecution in Georgia. Poor boy, meanwhile, is living in a hotel by the charming name of the Palace of Gloom. "Calls down to room service, says send up a room," like Groucho Marx did. (I also note an oblique reference to Melinda, the one the peasants call the Goddess of Gloom in the song "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues.")
7. My mother: daughter of a wealthy farmer. My father: traveling salesman. (Dylan's first traveling salesman joke in a song since 1964's "Motorpsycho Nitemare.") I didn't know my father. When Mom died, an uncle who ran a funeral parlor took me in, did lots of nice things for me, and I won't forget him. This is the Yakuza reference, so I've read.
8. Your kiss thrills me. That's all I know. As for Poor boy, he's "pickin' up sticks, build ya a house out of mortar and bricks."
9. The song started with Poor boy knocking at the door, assuming that poor boy and I (or Bob or whoever the other person in the song plays the role of the narrator) aren't the same person. This time, I'm knocking on the door. The guy says "who are you?" I say: "Freddy." He says: "Freddy who?" I say: "Freddy or not, here I come." "Poor boy, 'neath the stars that shine, washin' them dishes, feedin' them swine."