Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #28: Ballad of Hollis Brown

Having grown up in urban areas for my entire life, I cannot begin to imagine what the life of a self-employed, small-land farmer must be like. Even with the latest technological advances, without the benefit of a major commercial farm, there is always the threat of hardship and poverty looming over the horizon (especially in today's economy, with food prices at all-time high levels). Any false move - an unplanned drought, problems rotating the crops, a random hailstorm - and your crops, your livelihood, can be destroyed. Conditions are tough, and the work is hard; most of us are glad to get away from our jobs in our everyday lives, so what do you do when your job IS your everyday life? There's a reason you see very few small farmers with Benzes in their driveways, Rolexes on their wrists, and plasma TVs in their homes.

And then there's life as a small farmer in the 1960s, when many of the innovations that has made farming so much easier were yet to be invented. Even with Rural Electrification (one of the best New Deal public works projects) moving things into the future, being a farmer was still an arduous, back-breaking profession with the promise of great reward tempered by the specter of brutal failure. The days of the Dust Bowl and its nationwide ramifications were in the past, but there were still plenty of places in the country where the land simply refused to bear any fruit. Imagine being a farmhand back then - low wages, long hours of toiling, and the constant threat of being instantly unemployed. Small wonder that, in this era of constant national change, this would be the decade of Cesar Chavez and the creation of the United Farm Workers of America. Those men needed a voice, and Chavez helped give them one.

And then there's Bob Dylan, who helped give them an anthem (ETA: anthem probably isn't the phrase - a song to draw attention to their strife might be better). I wonder if Dylan, as a young man in Minnesota, would've had a chance to travel through the state and witness the ravages described in "Ballad of Hollis Brown" for himself. Maybe he'd have seen fields of dried earth, parched and cracked, unable to even sprout the slightest weed. Maybe he'd have seen barns with peeling paint, empty and ghost-like, fire-traps waiting to happen. And maybe he'd have seen the next generation of Okies, their eyes haunted and wandering, their faces caked with dirt and sweat, their despair following them like their shadows. And maybe he saw all those things and stored those images in the back of his mind, waiting for the moment where he could properly unleash them in a powerful fashion.

"Ballad of Hollis Brown", which cannibalizes yet another traditional song for its verse structure and melody ("Pretty Polly", a murder ballad that supposedly influenced Nirvana's "Polly"'s certainly creepy enough, that's for sure), takes that thousand-yard stare of the impoverished farmer and materializes it into lyrical form. The imagery in the song is something out of John Steinbeck's worst nightmare: children with wild eyes, rats crawling through foodstuffs, drought and dead plants as far as the eye can see. And there's Dylan asking "if there's anyone that knows/Is there anyone that cares?", a question that doesn't seem to blow in the wind so much as be swept up and carried away in a cloud of dust. Small wonder that the thought of eating a shotgun shell looked pretty good to the unfortunate Mr. Brown.

What prevents the song from being truly great, in my eyes, is that Dylan just wrote too many damn verses. The imagery is strong in my mind, but by about the eleventh verse the images tend to run together, a jumble of screams and dust and blood. This makes listening to the song both a harrowing and depressing experience - it's kind of like watching Requiem For A Dream, an incredible film that leaves the listener looking for his own shotgun by the end. Perhaps that's just me - after all, every individual verse retains great power, from the metaphors (I've always loved "seven shots ring out like the ocean's pounding roar") to those repeating couplets, which help build the song's momentum as it pushes towards its dramatic climax. It's just that, taken as a whole, "Ballad of Hollis Brown" leaves me utterly drained, and not in a good way (unlike, say, Metallica's "One", which leaves me utterly drained and yet utterly exhilarated). Maybe that's what Bob was going for, and in that sense, he absolutely succeeded.

As a postscript to this entry, I'd like to point out that the ideas of Dylan's songs were actually used to hit-making effect, albeit in a rather different context. "In The Ghetto", while turning the focus from the plight of a penniless farmer to the life gone bad of a kid living in the inner city, also cast a light upon the less fortunate, couching the story in a "circle of life" metaphor as the song ends with another child born in the projects as the first child meets his death. In the able hands of Elvis Presley (at his last commercial peak in 1969), "In The Ghetto" became a top-10 hit and one of his signature on-stage songs. Kind of funny, too, how Elvis both tried his hand at Dylan-lite social progress songs with "In The Ghetto" and covered legendary unreleased track "Tomorrow is a Long Time", yet always felt the need to say that "it feels like Bob Dylan slept in my mouth" whenever he had bad breath. I can safely say that if I ever had Elvis sleep in my mouth, it'd taste like pork cracklins and Vicodin.

And, while I'm adding postscripts, how very "Bob" was it for Dylan to stand on stage at Live Aid (not in Adidas, I'd wager), a concert dedicated to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia, and sang a song completely dedicated to the plight of the American farmer, THEN mutter "it'd be nice if some of this money went to US farmers" at the end? Sure, we got Farm Aid out of it, but talk about completely missing the point. Or, I suppose, manipulating the point for one's own ends.

BONUS! Below is an audio file (m4a) of "Ballad of Hollis Brown", as performed on January 31st, 1974 in an early show at Madison Square Garden and mixed professionally from the soundboard for Before The Flood (but never used). The version of "Hollis Brown" here is one of my favorite songs from the entire 1974 tour - the Band's arrangement, at full power and damning the torpedoes, suits the song quite well, turning it from the dirge of The Times to a churning, snarling rock & roll beast. Enjoy!

(Thanks to the late lamented Dylantree for this audio file, from the 1974 Anthology.)

Bob Dylan - Ballad of Hollis Brown (1/31/74, early)

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Thomas said...


it's nice to read how you compare a song like "hollis brown" to the movie "requiem for a dream".

The experience sort of is the same. The first time i saw requiem for a dream it blew me away. It's one of those where you just stay seated after the final scene and you only want to stand up after the final note of the music has faded away and you suddenly realize the movie is over for a couple of minutes now.
The soundtrack was essential to create the mood of the movie.

In Hollis brown, i love how Dylan creates the image that Mr Brown and his family are pre-destined to do what they do. It seems like they don't have a choice, no other options. In the last verse "Somewhere in the distance, there's seven new people born",
he kinda says it's all going to happen again. On another farm, in a far off place, history will repeat.

Again, this is one of those stories that can easily be placed in some other time and place. Hollis brown might as well have been a miner or some hard working factory employee who can't afford to pay his loan for the house anymore.
Not my favorite song and far off from being bob's best but very noteworthy to say the least

andrew! said...

My grandpa was a farmer-a moderately successful one, I suppose & I highly doubt that he would consider this anything close to a theme song. There is a sense of the farm being an all encompassing way of life, you never get away from it, you make your living from it, you get your food from it, your children & your wife work for it. Not to get religious about it, but farming requires alot of faith, which my grandparents had in spades. Also there's a sense that you get out of the land what you put into it. If you cut down a tree, you better plant one. None of this really has much to do with the song, other than the sheer loneliness you must experience to depend solely on the ground & the rain & the soil & the sun for your livelihood.

Bob played this song wonderfully at the concert in Elizabeth last weekend. There's not much of a melody to it, but if it has enough focus & energy put into it it can be quite a moving song.

Tony said...

Thomas, IIRC, the soundtrack is really good. One of the people at Treble (the website I occasionally write for) suggested that it was one of the best albums of the year. And, yes, the conceit of the song is very flexible, and that helps it, a little.

andrew, thanks for sharing your reminiscences here. You made me realize that "anthem" was too strong a word, and I've changed my post as such. Hopefully, I didn't suggest that every small farmer has things rough; again, that might be my narrow view as a lifetime urbanite speaking.

The Celestial Monochord said...

I too wrote that Hollis Brown was based on Pretty Polly, following Greil Marcus.

But a reader was able to convince me that, while the driving feel of Pretty Polly is kind of similar, Hollis Brown is almost certainly borrowing directly from a song called "Poor Man," recorded in 1961 by the Louisiana Honeydrippers and credited to Dave Rankin.

Once I actually heard the recording, and compared it with Pretty Polly, it was obviously that the Pretty Polly thing is vastly overstated, at best. It's probably outright wrong. We should be thinking about Poor Man instead.

I believe I can send you an audio file if you want ...

Excellent work, by the way. I appreciate the instinct to generate fresh content, new ideas. Too much cutting and pasting in the blogosphere, for sure.

Tony said...

Celestial Monochord, that is a beautiful username.

Thanks for the compliments! It's probably for the best that I hadn't read your blog entry at some point - your depth and breadth of research leaves me in the dust, and I'd probably have lifted a few facts from your article wholesale for my own...which, I suppose, would have rendered your very nice comments totally moot. :D

I'd definitely like to hear Poor Man, to see if it's as close as you say.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a farming community in New Mexico, so I know the life pretty well. Droughts and hard times do put pressure on them, but doesn't put them in a state of no survival anymore.

I actually know of a true story eerily similar to the one of Hollis Brown. I was in a cemetary, and I saw six graves together, each person having the same last name and each died on the same day. Turns out the father shot his wife and four little kids before killing himself (this had more to do with him being insane than dealing with the hardships of farming though). The whole thing added to the eeriness of the song.

carla vanessa said...

Very interesting Dylan blog and good comparison... I have a Dylan blog also, maybe you want to check it out.

Tony said...

Cody, thanks for sharing your experience as well. That IS a very creepy story.

Carla, thank you very much! Your blog is very cool as well (the tribute to the late I Am The Fan, Thomas was very sweet), and I'm going to add you to my blogroll.

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Gerry Myerson said...

I don't know whether you ever got to hear Poor Man. It was also recorded by Tom Rush on the first album he did for Elektra, in 1965. That album, just called Tom Rush, is now available on CD.

David George Freeman said...

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