The Ballad of Bob Dylan

A Portrait

by Daniel Mark Epstein

19 May 2011


The Poet’s Stark Presentation of the Problem

We bought the record as soon as we could get it, and so did a lot of other people. My uncle, a World War II hero, a teacher who read Walt Whitman and Hart Crane and had an amazing collection of blues and folk albums—78-rpm records of Leadbelly and Sonny Terry, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, and the Golden Gate Quartet—was the first person in my family to own Dylan’s second album. This veteran, whose opinion I valued above all others, gravely pronounced that Bob Dylan was the real thing, a genuine poet, prophet, and folksinger.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with its cover picture of the poet and his adoring girlfriend Suze Rotolo linked arm in arm on a snowy street, its enchanting melodies and lyric poetry, was far more approachable than the first album. When the popular folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary released “Blowin’ in the Wind” in July of that year as a single, and it shot toward the top of the Billboard charts, many people became curious about the folksinger who had written the enigmatic anthem. Nearly as many were even more curious about the “prophet” who had written the apocalyptic “Hard Rain” during the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Yet even after his triumphant performance at the Newport Folk Festival that summer, Dylan did not have so many fans in Washington that he could easily sell out a medium-size recital hall. My other friends, who would kill for seats to see the jazz musicians John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, or Thelonious Monk, were not particularly interested in going along with us. So my mother and sister and I, and my best friend, sat in the fifth row, surrounded by strangers, listening to Bob Dylan.


That night at Lisner Auditorium the applause erupted as soon as the last harmonica blast and triple-time guitar strokes signaled the end of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It was as much for the prophet’s message as for the song itself. No one in that place wanted to find himself on the wrong side of the argument for change.

He smiled warmly, looking up at us, squinting from the lights, turning his back to bow to the people clapping behind him. Pulling the harmonica rack over his head, he set it on the stool as the applause faded and the hall grew silent in anticipation. He began retuning the guitar, the low E string down to D. Dylan would have little to say to us between songs. Now he just said this is a true song and launched into the rapids of the “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” a song in D minor, in driving 2/4 time that sounded familiar though we had never heard it, a relentless horror story of a man in such desperate poverty he cannot bear the sight of his hungry children.

Your baby’s eyes look crazy

They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve (repeat)

You walk the floor and wonder why

With every breath you breathe

Hollis Brown looks for work and money, sees the rats eating his flour and his mare die of disease; he prays to God for a friend to save him. At last, when Brown’s wife’s screams are stabbing him, his well is dry, and his grass has turned black, he spends his last dollar. On shotgun shells. This was the Book of Job seen through the lens of Hitchcock and in the mood of Edgar Allan Poe, as Dylan built the suspense and volume to a climax. He had cast the tale in the second person, so that the “you” who was Hollis Brown eventually became every member of the audience.

There’s seven breezes a-blowin’

All around the cabin door… (repeat)

Seven shots ring out

Like the ocean’s pounding roar.

When the deed is done the song is all but over—no moral or commentary apart from the chilling observation that there are seven people dead on that farm and somewhere, faraway, another seven would be born. And then the double-time strumming that signaled the end of the song, an uneasy silence in the auditorium, and finally the rippling and swelling of applause.

I don’t believe that any of us was prepared for the questions raised by that bleak South Dakota landscape, the harsh “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” But now we stood warned and ought to be ready for anything. Another performer with Dylan’s range of themes might have gone for comic relief but he was not ready to let us off the hook. In March the Cuban boxer Sugar Ramos had knocked out the featherweight champion Davey Moore in the tenth round of the title fight in Dodger Stadium; Moore fell into a coma and died. Weeks later Dylan premiered a song in the form of “Who Killed Cock Robin” called “Who Killed Davey Moore?”

Now he retuned the guitar to the standard E tuning, fastened a capo on the third fret, and shouted out the question Who killed Davey Moore? at the high end of his vocal range. Everybody knew of the killing; the Vatican had called for an end of boxing; newspaper columnists debated the question. Dylan’s song was printed in the July 1963 issue of Broadside magazine. The poet poses the question, as a refrain, to the referee, the crowd, the manager, the gamblers who bet on the fight, the sportswriters, and finally Ramos himself, the fighter “whose fist / Laid him low in a cloud of mist.” Everybody has an alibi, and the singer articulates the half-dozen apologies, all sincere, all credible. The crowd? They just went to see a good fight: “We didn’t mean for him t’meet his death / We just meant to see some sweat…” The fighter’s manager? He claims he had no prior knowledge of the medical condition that doomed Moore. The gambler protests he bet on the boxer to win; the sportswriter says not to blame boxing—football is just as dangerous.

Fist fighting is here to stay
It’s just the old American way.

The most poignant response comes from the Cuban pugilist in the final stanza, who admits that it is true that he hit Moore, and that he was paid to do it.

Don’t say “murder,” don’t say “kill.”

It was destiny, it was God’s will.

And that’s the last word excepting the chorus, posing the question again, as coldly and heartlessly as any Elizabethan tragedian. No simple moral to be learned here, either.

The audience clapped louder than ever, although it is difficult to say why. The tune was not pretty. Some may have thought they were hailing a protest against the barbaric spectacle, the blood sport that claimed Moore’s life. And yet the song had broken down the social components of boxing, defending the human interests one by one. What we were applauding in fact was the vision of that tragedy from every human angle except for the feelings of the boxer’s wife and children. There was pathos, but no one in particular to blame. The social fabric is fatally flawed and all of us are complicit in the crimes of the social contract: war, boxing, starving children, legalized discrimination. We were applauding the poet’s stark presentation of the problem.

Fifteen minutes of the concert had passed and all three of the songs had been songs of protest, challenges in varying degrees of intensity. Now Dylan turned down the volume, softened his attack, smiling, picking out a delicate figure on the strings, double thumbing, anticipating the downbeat of the moderate 2/4 ballad. “This is called ‘Boots of Spanish Leather,’ ” he said, bashfully. Dylan blinked a good deal, as if his eyes were light-sensitive, or as if he struggled to control his emotions. “All it is, is ... is a ... kind of ... when you can’t get what you want you have to settle for less kind of song.”

This romantic ballad, already familiar to me in 1963, had caused me a memorable astonishment when I learned that Bob Dylan had written it in the middle of the twentieth century, in my lifetime.

Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love,

I’m sailin’ away in the morning.

Is there something I can send you from across the sea,

From the place that I’ll be landing.

The nine quatrains capture a dialogue between lovers, one departing. Although the melody never changes, stanza to stanza, the singer subtly distinguishes the voices. The woman is taking her leave, her voice ever-so-slightly stronger as she asks, again and again, if there is anything of silver or gold from the mountains or the coast of Spain that she might send her lover to assuage the pain of their long separation, to ease the passage of time. No, he answers, and again, no. He just wants her to return to him unspoiled. If he had the stars of the night, or the diamonds of the ocean (where diamonds are rare), he would forsake them, if he could, for one kiss from her. He wants nothing more.

Oh, how can, how can you ask me again,

It only brings me sorrow.

The same thing I want from you today,

I would want again tomorrow.

In the manner of all ancient ballads this one proceeds without a musical bridge, but that quatrain above marked a transition in narrative time.

The woman’s ship weighs anchor, and the last three stanzas are the words of the man left behind, yearning. He hears from her, on a lonesome day, that she does not know when she might return. He writes to her that, in that case, her heart is no longer with him but with the life ahead of her. With his heartfelt blessing and a warning to heed stormy weather, he lets her go. This gentle, mutual farewell could only come with time. Only now is he able to request the material gift that he had forsworn earlier. He mentions this in the final line almost as an afterthought, yet it is climactic because we have been wondering about it from the first, the song’s announced title. It is striking because he has withheld the words for the previous eight stanzas. In the woman’s physical presence, the notion of a material gift was repugnant. Now that they have let each other go he can accept her offer: he asks for the “Spanish boots of Spanish leather” that will carry him on his journey into the future.

This song brought down the house. It put everyone at ease. More than any other this lyric had revealed the singer’s vulnerability, and by now there was hardly a man, woman, or child in the space who was not captivated by Bob Dylan.


Topics: bob dylan
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