Top Five: Bob Dylan’s histories

By Kevin O’Sullivan

I use the term ‘histories’ loosely. For, as any of you who have seen No Direction Home, read Dylan’s own brilliant Chronicles, Vol. 1, or had the urge to peruse any of the myriad biographies produced over the last forty years or so will know, Bob Dylan is a man well versed in the art of bending the truth. (And no stranger to others doing the same for him, as he recently commented: ‘I’m encouraging anybody who’s ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.’) Since he turned 70 last week, and since we haven’t had a ‘Top Five’ in a while, I thought it would be fitting to have an American history as told by Bob Dylan list. All corrections, suggestions, contradictions and admonitions gratefully accepted via the comments box below.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

The opening lines say it all: ‘William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll / With a cane that had twirled round his diamond-ringed finger / At a Baltimore hotel society gathering’. Here was Dylan at his storytelling best: basic history combined with active mind and a genius for storytelling, with a twist of racial injustice – Carroll was a black waitress – thrown in for good measure. Zantzinger, who served a six-month prison sentence for manslaughter, died in 2009 still bitter at what he viewed as Dylan’s distorted picture of the events. 

Hurricane

Dylan returned to his true story theme with relish on 1976’s Desire. One song, ‘Joey’, drew criticism for its rose-tinted depiction of New York gangster Joey Gallo who had died three years earlier. But it’s ‘Hurricane’ that remains the most remembered. Recounting the dramatic story of black American boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who in 1966 had been charged with triple murder and ‘Falsely tried’, the song draws a damning picture of race relations in 1960s New Jersey: ‘In Paterson that’s just the way things go / If you’re black, you might as well not show up on the street / ’Less you want to draw the heat’. Carter’s conviction was overturned in 1985.

Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues

If Dylan was a master raconteur, the images he painted of early 1960s America are still among the most powerful of the era. An early live favourite, ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ parodies the anti-communist group, the John Birch Society, to capture the excessive, and farcical, reaction to the ‘Red’ threat: ‘I was looking everywhere for them God darn Reds / I got up in the morning, looked under my bed / Looked behind the kitchen / Behind the door / Even tore loose the kitchen floor / Couldn’t find any.’

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

But it’s ‘Hard Rain’ – overworked by hundreds of guitar-wielding protesters in its near-fifty years of existence – that remains the most potent evocation of the Cold War threat. With lines like ‘I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleeding / I saw a white ladder all covered with water / I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken’, the song is an impressionistic counterpoint to Allen Ginsberg’s famous beat poem – ‘America when will we end the human war? / Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.’ Maybe Dylan really did write all those songs just to impress his then girlfriend, and not out of any deep-rooted belief in changing the world. But who cares? 

Blind Willie McTell

Yet Dylan didn’t confine himself to his own era. On this early 1980s outtake – eventually released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (1991) – he draws on the life of early twentieth-century blues singer ‘Blind’ Willie McTell to sketch an evocative picture of a timeless America. ‘See them big plantations burning / Hear the cracking of the whip / Smell that sweet magnolia blooming / See the ghost of slavery ships’.

5 Responses to “Top Five: Bob Dylan’s histories”

  1. Staged Reaction Says:

    Great post! I’d throw “the times they are a-changing” into the mix, may be an obvious one but fits in well here!

    Come senators, congressmen
    Please heed the call
    Don’t stand in the doorway
    Don’t block up the hall
    For he that gets hurt
    Will be he who has stalled
    There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
    It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
    For the times they are a-changin’

  2. Patrick Says:

    On Dylan books, can I heartily recommend Sean Willentz’s brilliant Bob Dylan in America, published last year. Its a superb cultural history, written by a professional (Princteton) historian and huge Dylan fan.

    In terms of songs can I add John Brown, a superb but little known song on the Vietnam war, somewhat similar to the much older traditional Irish-American song Mrs McGrath (itself recently covered by Bruce Springsteen), with its description of a mother’s anguish at her son’s war injuries.

  3. Juliana Says:

    Great post, Kevin.
    It’s really interesting to think about the power that a popular song can have in public perception and thus historical legacy. Dylan had completely opposite but equally powerful effects on the popular imagination of Zantzinger and Carter. You can see why the protest singers were so disappointed in his lack of interest in embracing their agenda.

    Juliana

  4. Eamonn Grimes Says:

    How about Roy Keane’s favourite?

  5. David Toms Says:

    I’d agree with Patrick above there, Sean Wilentz’s work (which I finished late last night) is a superb book not just for Dylanists. It’s especially useful as an easy intro into the world of nineteenth century popular musics, and reminded me (in parts) of How Shall We Sing In A Foreign Land?

    As for Dylan songs to represent history, Who Killed Davey Moore? is great not just for its commentary on the sport, but also it’s little nod and wink to Cuba!

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