Pete's Blog

Quinn the Eskimo

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I was humming "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)" the other day and the person beside me said, "I hate that song - Quinn's not even an Eskimo name." The PBM is a creature of strong and fequently expressed opinions and this one had its desired effect: to make me think. "Quinn the Eskimo" is a perennial in my This Week's Favorite Bob Dylan Song sweepstakes (along with "This Wheel's On Fire," "In the Summertime," and "Don't Think Twice") for lots of reasons. First, it has a great singalong chorus, so it's good at parties. And that's where the song's real interest begins. Because "Quinn" is a deeply subversive tune, and it subverts in the best and most subtle way, by challenging the preconceived notions of the very people who are singing it so happily. To begin with, it has a raucous, bluesy melody and folkie singers-along are uncomfortable with blues. This is a subject for another post, something I call the "hat and glasses syndrome." Suffice it to say for the moment that this vague disquiet sets the listener up for lyrics that are light on the surface, barbed underneath. "Quinn" was written at the peak of the '60s drug-messiahtry fad, with various cheap hustlers in expensive suits prescribing LSD and other drugs as a cure-all for society's spiritual void. "Everybody's building big ships and boats" the song begins. "Everybody's in despair, every girl and boy/But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody's gonna jump for joy." So, who is this Quinn the Eskimo that everybody is so happy to see? Typically, Dylan never says. And that's the point. The name conjures up images of a bluff, hearty, smiling man, but in the second verse Dylan makes the listener wonder just how benevolent that smile may be. "Everybody's under trees feeding pigeons out on a limb/But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here all the pigeons gonna run to him." In the third verse Dylan addresses the extraordinary expecations visited on him at the time, with a certain amount of contempt. "A cat''s meow, a cow's moo, I can recite them all/Just tell me where it hurts you, honey, I'll tell you who to call." And the last line of this last verse drops the biggest hint of all. In all the songbooks I've seen the line reads "And when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody's gonna wanna doze." This by itself is a trenchant criticism of the Dylan audience's blind acceptance. But in performance (for instance the 1969 Isle of Wight concert with the Band) the word is often pronounced, or deliberately misheard, as "dose." And here we get to the question of the name. Yes, Quinn is not an Eskimo name, and that by itself would be enough to underscore the essential phoniness Dylan's talking about. But there's more. Quinn is an Irish-American name, like that of Dr. Timothy Leary, whose increasingly self-aggrandizing advocacy of LSD was one of the most prominent features of the late-'60s-hippie cultural landscape. You can make too much of Dylan's lyrics, as the man himself has said many times. For all anyone knows "Quinn the Eskimo" may be a loving portrait of Dave Van Ronk, Dylan's Greenwich Village mentor and himself big, bluff, and Irish. But Dylan's lyrics work with hints and allusions. He leaves out crucial bits of information the better to create an overwhelming mood. And in the case of ""Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)" this mood is all the more ominous for the jollity on its surface.

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