Happy Birthday Bob

Bob Dylan is 70. His birthday made me get out the old records to see if Dylan really is what I thought he was back when I used to listen to him. There are plenty of bootleg releases too now, of course, which catch him even more ragged and real than on the studio records, including a 1963 concert at Brandeis University (it’s under four quid on iTunes, amazingly, perhaps because it’s in mono).

Listening to the performance of ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ from this set it hit me what the Blues do, and what Dylan does, that The Reader Organisation relies on in its work: gives voice to a story at a pace that means you can’t escape it and don’t want to. It’s the slowness. The lines are repeated. There’s the unrelenting guitar in between. There’s something about it that has you caught as the words keep coming in his ordinary human voice, seeing things, in patterns that let you anticipate where you’re going. And then there’s the inevitability of the conclusion. ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ is a true story and it’s a perfect song for a live audience.

People always say of Dylan that he brought poetry to popular music, fulfilled the Beatnik hopes, but in a song like this, he seems more the storyteller. I don’t know if it will read off the screen the way it sounds. (I searched on YouTube for a recording but can find only covers.) Perhaps looking at the time-scale will help to unlock that ‘live’ feeling – you’re listening to the whole story (Hollis Brown is dead and gone), but the telling puts you into a ‘now’ where his experiences are too acute to belong to the past. The shift happens almost as soon as the address changes from ‘He’ to ‘You’. It’s desperate:

The Ballad of Hollis Brown

Hollis Brown

He lived on the outside of town

Hollis Brown

He lived on the outside of town

With his wife and five children

And his cabin broken down.

You looked for work and money

And you walked a ragged mile

You looked for work and money

And you walked a ragged mile

Your children are so hungry

That they don’t know how to smile.

Your baby’s eyes look crazy

They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve

Your baby’s eyes look crazy

They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve

You walk the floor and wonder why

With every breath you breathe.

The rats have got your flour

Bad blood it got your mare

The rats have got your flour

Bad blood it got your mare

If there’s anyone that knows

Is there anyone that cares?

You prayed to the Lord above

Oh please send you a friend

You prayed to the Lord above

Oh please send you a friend

You ain’t got that much money boy

You ain’t a-got no friend.

Your babies are crying louder now

It’s pounding on your brain

Your babies are crying louder now

It’s a-pounding on your brain

Your wife’s screams are stabbin’ you

Like the dirty drivin’ rain.

Your grass is turning black

There’s no water in your well

Your grass is turning black

There’s no water in your well

Your spent your last lone dollar

On seven shotgun shells.

Way out in the wilderness

A cold coyote calls

Way out in the wilderness

A cold coyote calls

Your eyes fix on the shotgun

That’s a-hangin’ on the wall.

Your brain is a-bleedin’

And your legs can’t seem to stand

Your brain is a-bleedin’

And your legs can’t seem to stand

Your eyes fix on the shotgun

That you’re holdin’ in your hand.

There’s seven breezes a-blowin’

All around your cabin door

There’s seven breezes a-blowin’

All around the cabin door

Seven shots ring out

Like the ocean’s pounding roar.

There’s seven people dead

On a South Dakota farm

There’s seven people dead

On a South Dakota farm

Somewhere’s in the distance

There’s seven new people born.

In ‘Masters of War’ Dylan blames the Cold War politicians for throwing ‘the worst fear that can ever be hurled / Fear to bring children into the world’, and the angry song is one of the great protest songs. But the regret of ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ is harder hitting still. Like most blues and folk music, it doesn’t seem to have been written so much as you feel it’s always existed, part of an ongoing cycle.

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