These songs are, of course, filtered through Dylan’s eyes and may not be 100% accurate in terms of history. But they are “accurate” in terms of the times they represent, which certainly were a changin’. For example, I’m sure that if there was a real Robin Hood he might not have been as pure and good as made out in the ballads, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. But these tales tell us about who we are and what we want as a society at the times they come about. (All song credits are at the end.)
Hurricane tells the story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a middleweight boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder in a complicated case that took many years to resolve. After his murder conviction, Carter spent 20 years in prison, eventually being released on a writ of habeas corpus. Though to give both sides, there are those who dispute his innocence. Dylan read Carter’s book, came to believe he was innocent and decided to write a song about it. He goes through many verses telling Hurricane’s story in a way only he can.
Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder “one,” guess who testified?
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game
John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s song about old west outlaw John Wesley Hardin, without the “g”. I’d heard that he added the G because in so many instances he dropped Gs from word endings. Is it true? Is it apocryphal? Either way, Hardin was hardly a hero or even an anti-hero. He’s said to have killed 30 to 40 men, depending on who you talk to. One for snoring too loudly.
John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man
Much as I like this song, and I do, these lyrics have little to do with the real-life man. In an interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, Dylan said, that the song "started out to be a long ballad. I was gonna write a ballad on ... like maybe one of those old cowboy ... you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a tune, and I didn't want to waste the tune; it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and I recorded that."
Joey: Dylan expounds on Joey Gallo, an enforcer and hitman for the Profaci crime family. Dylan, at the urging of co-writer Jacques Levy, had a more sympathetic take on him. He also claimed that Levy wrote all the lyrics to the song. I suppose you could say this song continues in the tradition of ballads that tell of the exploits of criminals in a more sympathetic and heroic way than they were in reality. Because of this, critic Lester Bangs, described the song as “repellent romanticist bullshit." Decide for yourself.
King of the streets child of clay
What made them want to come and blow you away.
The Ballad of Hollis Brown is the story of a South Dakota farmer who, beaten down by hopelessness and poverty, and in desperation, kills his wife and children. Then himself. It seems nobody knows if this is based on a real person. The details of such a real man are hard to find. But again, even if it’s something out of Dylan’s imagination, the sensibilities in it are a reflection of the times.
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born
William Faulkner wrote this about the case in On Fear (1956), “If the facts as stated in the Look magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him… What are we Mississippians afraid of?”
’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
All of these stories, the true ones at least, are more complicated than the songs might suggest or that I can go into here. My objective in writing this is not to get into the politics but to show how crimes, real and fictional, become song and thus part of the culture and sometimes even change it.
Please also check out my guest post on Madeline Gornell’s blog this week. I talk about “Getting Sucked into the L.A. Vortex,” via various Los Angeles and Southern California locations in my noir novella Vortex. People have said that Los Angeles is a whole ’nother character in my writing. And I agree. The top pic below is The Shakespeare Bridge in the Los Feliz Neighborhood of L.A. The bottom pic is Bombay Beach ruins at the Salton Sea, Southern California.
|Oakshade at English Wikipedia [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons|
Hurricane: written by: Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll: written by: Bob Dylan
Only a Pawn in Their Game: written by: Bob Dylan
John Wesley Harding: written by: Bob Dylan
Joey: written by: Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy
The Ballad of Hollis Brown: written by: Bob Dylan
The Death of Emmett Till: written by: Bob Dylan