The place where faith, hope, and charity died”, Murder Most Foul, 2020
This is not an exhaustive list or some kind of Wiki, just my most favorite Bob Dylan songs about trials, murder, and social injustice. I thought about this for quite a while, the final impulse came a week ago when he surprisingly released the massive 17-minute track Murder Most Foul. A song not only about the assassination of John F. Kennedy but about the dawn “of the age of the antichrist” and a swan song about the current state of the United States of America. But the latter is especially true for the other songs in my playlist, whose stories about racism, social responsibility, and abuse of office, unfortunately, lost nothing of their topicality.
Musicwise there were many different Dylans over the decades, of course. Since my mom introduced me to Desire, I am caught by his young-soul-early-work-storytelling especially on the above-mentioned topics. In general, I admire Bob Dylan for being a steady chronist and the reflection of the present. He still is the observing eye, the sharp tongue that transformed anger and fury into the most unbelievable combinations of words and went to fight social injustice.
As there are countless documentaries, books, dissertations, articles, fanzines e.g. I think more songs of praise need not be sung on the man, that was the first musician receiving the Nobel Prize for literature!
So, let’s get started with the tunes.
You find a Spotify playlist at the bottom of the article. ↓
Unbelievable that Seven Curses never made it on an album but always remained a bootleg and live piece. The injustice and abuse of authority that this song tells of are almost unbearable.
When the judge saw Rileys daughter, his old eyes deepened in his head. Sayin’ gold will never free your father, the price my dear, is you instead.”
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
William Zantzinger was a young and wealthy tobacco farmer. The story of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll took place on one evening in 1963 in Baltimore, when segregation was still a sad reality. After countless racist insults and in front of witnesses, Zantzinger kills the black housekeeper of the house, Hattie Carroll, in a drunken stupor and gets away with a 6 months sentence! Where others froze in disbelief, Dylan has served with his song a punishment for life and beyond, a stigma that can’t be removed. I love that music and words can do that.
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears. Bury the rag deep in your face. For now’s the time for your tears.”
The Ballad of Hollis Brown
The Ballad of Hollis Brown is Dylan’s story of a South Dakota farmer, who killed his 5 children, his wife, and in the end himself with the shotgun overwhelmed by desperate poverty, hunger, and hopelessness.
Your children are so hungry that they don’t know how to smile…
…There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
there’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born.”
The best of all Dylan songs, a protest song about the scandalous trial on Box-Champion Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who falsely has been charged triple murder, probably because, yes you guessed right, he was black. Every line is a roundhouse kick for the authorities involved in that trial and everybody out there not speaking up against this massive injustice. Besides the words, give closer attention to the furious violin of Anurag Sapkota.
Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties,
are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell,
an innocent man in a living hell”
Like the Hurricane, Joey is the second song on Desire, which is biographical and about the moving life and death of mobster Joe Gallo. It has polarized very strongly that Dylan lifted Gallo, despite his violent history, to some kind of local hero. He just claimed that he thought of Gallo as some kind of underdog and outsider fighting against the system. Be that as it may, the song is fantastic as with all the songs on Desire, the musical composition is especially firm. For example, the first lines are “Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the year of who knows when. Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion…” and at this moment the accordion sets in and gives you a touch of Little Italy. There are so many possible ways to say, that Joey was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Dylan created this:
What time is it? said the judge to Joey when they met. Five to ten, said Joey. The judge says, that’s exactly what you get.”
Who Killed Davey Moore?
In 1963 the Featherweight-Champion Davey Moore got knocked out during the fight and lost his title by a technical knockout. He died a few days later on from inoperable brain damage. In his song, Dylan asks the question Who Killed Davey Moore? to everybody involved (the audience, the manager, the referee …) not just to debate the morality of boxing as a sport but again include the enveloping society.
I hit him, yes, it’s true, but that’s what I am paid to do.
Don’t say murder, don’t say ‘kill. It was destiny, it was God’s will.”
The Death of Emmett Till
It’s 1955 and a 14-year-old African-American boy who was allegedly flirting with a white woman got beaten up and killed in cold blood by two white men. They confessed the murder but again “this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.”
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust, your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust. Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow, for you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!”
Only A Pawn In Their Game
Only A Pawn In Their Game is about two matters. First the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson in 1963. Secondly, Dylan blames rich white politicians and authorities for manipulating poor white people, so that they direct their anger against the black community, not those who deserve it. Another example with great relevance is the present political landscape.
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
‘You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,’ they explain.”
The Ballad Of Donald White
The heartbreakingly sad and honest last words of a murderer sentenced to death. A great change of perspective and therefore a question that also keeps me busy: What makes us who we are and why can’t everyone have equal chances?
But there’s just one question before they kill me dead,
I’m wondering just how much to you I really said,
Concerning all the boys that come down a road like me, are they enemies or victims of your society?
Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
The plot of that crime story is a bit more complex and there have been written two screenplays based on the song, but none of them became a movie in the end. I have chosen the solo acoustic version because I think that the song, unlike the album-band-version from Blood on the Tracks, needs the pureness of just Dylan’s voice plus guitar.
No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick. The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked.”
George Jackson is a song in tribute to the Black Panther Leader, who has been killed by San Quentin Guards on August 21, 1971. The last verse in the song is brilliant and so Dylan-like.
Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards.”
Masters Of War
This all-time-favorite-masterpiece isn’t about a murder, it’s about the cold war, about nuclear arms build-up, and the authorities behind all that. In this strong protest, song Dylan addresses them straight, like in a letter, full of hate — in the end, he wishes them all to die soon!
You hide in your mansion
While the young peoples’ blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.”
Another biographical Song in Dylan’s repertoire is about Delia Green, a 14-year-old African-American girl, who got shot in 1900 by a man, because no one knows — accidentally or because he got angry from being named son of a bitch. The incident became an inspiration for several well-known traditional American songs.
Delia’s dear ol’ mother took a trip out West, when she returned, little Delia gone to rest. All the friends I ever had are gone.“
Besides Murder Most Foul the far latest work of Dylan (Tempest is the 35th studio album!) is in my playlist. It a dark and haunting tale, only one chord, 9 minutes long and it’s about three people, who all die in the end.
She turned, she was startled with a look of surprise
With a hatred that could hit the skies
You’re a reckless fool, I could see it in your eyes
To come this way was by no means wise.”
tl;dr? Here you go, enjoy the playlist.