Thursday, 3 May 2018

Listening to Bob.

When I was in my early to mid teens, Bob Dylan’s folk songs with their cutting social commentary were a big influence on the way I saw the world. A lot of his lyrics were clever and poetic; some were enigmatic, and even arcane, and there are plenty I still don’t understand to this day.

I could quote many of those clever and poetic lines (one of which I have done many times when referring to myself as being ‘one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind’) to illustrate their power to influence a young mind. They would mostly come from the longer classic like Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, and It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding.)

But tonight I was reminded of a shorter song called The Ballad of Hollis Brown which was written early on in his career and featured on the album The Times They Are A-Changing. It tells the story of a poor farmer driven to desperation by poverty and helplessness who finally murders his wife and five children before turning the gun on himself. I Googled it just to find out whether it was based on a true story. It wasn’t; it was fictional and written to illustrate a general condition as the best fiction usually is.

The story is poignant enough in itself, but one commentary I read highlighted the final ironic lines as evidence of its enduring worth. I remember them impressing me all those years ago when I was but a thoughtful adolescent:

There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewheres in the distance there’s seven new people born

It’s almost a throwaway concluding note, and yet it says so much about a world which doesn’t really care very much, and about a culture representing itself with images of rich folks dripping fine houses, prestige cars and solid gold trinkets who don’t really care very much. And most of all, perhaps, it says something about the nature of life that the desperation and violent deaths of seven insignificant people doesn’t really matter very much.

No comments: