Percy’s Song: Dylan’s car crash and judge songs

By Tony Attwood

Ask anyone who has performed a song on stage which has multiple repeated lines: it is much harder to pull off than a song with ever changing words.  You have to do something to those endless repeats in order to take the audience with you, but it is so easy to go over the top when you sing the same line for the sixth time or more.

If you want a perfect example of how to carry it off, then the 1963 Carnegie Hall recording of Percy’s Song is it.  You never get tired of the repeated lines, you are utterly spellbound by the story, and its journey.

I think Dylan’s personal journey to this song is, for me (if for no one else) directly connected to Ballad for a Friend.  The recordings of Percy’s Song comes from 1963.  Ballad for a Friend which deals with an actual motor crash was recorded the year before.  A song that is reportedly related to the accident of Bob’s friend Larry Kegan accident which left him in a wheelchair.

If this is so, consciously or sub-consciously, then it is a remarkable journey for Dylan, for in Ballad for a Friend he is saying goodbye to a dear friend seriously injured in a car crash, (in the song the character actually dies) while in Percy’s Song he is pleading against the disproportionate sentence of man-slaughter for a man whose driving has killed four.

The song itself comes from the English ballad of the 17th century “The Twa Sisters” in which a girl drowned by her sister – a song which quickly became transmuted into “The Wind and Rain” and many other versions – which is where Dylan’s phrase comes from.

But it is not the question of how original this song is as a Dylan song that fascinates me, but the beauty of the rendition in the Carnegie Hall version.

It is all so astoundingly simple

Bad news, bad news
Come to me where I sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin’ one of your friends
Is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the rain
And the wind

and yet verse after verse Dylan pulls it off.

As I say, it is all so simple, so low key, and that is what makes it work so well, for what is resting on the story is the life of a man – a man who is imprisoned for 99 years.

Listening to the song again today I suddenly thought also of the Drifter’s Escape, perhaps for no reason than that too is a dead simple song and it has a judge in it.  But there the judge is sympathetic to the accused – it is the jury who gets it all wrong.  One way or another though, Dylan is never a fan of the legal system.

I am not saying Dylan thought of one song as he composed another, rather it is probably just Dylan working out themes over time in different ways.  But even so somehow I find this connection between these simple songs delivered with such power and assuredness, each in a different form, each with the legal incidents being seen from three different angles with three different outcomes, to be completely fascinating.

Percy’s song revolves around the life imprisonment, in the Drifter’s Escape there is the walking out of the courtroom following the lightening strike, and in Ballad of a Friend the death of the man hit by the truck.

And so Percy’s Song ends

And I played my guitar
Through the night to the day
Turn, turn, turn again
And the only tune
My guitar could play
Was, “Oh the Cruel Rain
And the Wind”

One interesting point about the music – at the end of each verse it doesn’t get back to the key chord, the tonic, around which the song is focussed, but ends on the dominant at the end of each verse, preparing us for another verse and another and another as the story continues.

Which I guess is in keeping with the outcome of the tale – the man in imprisoned for the rest of his life.

However…

what disturbs me with this song is that the essence of the singer’s plea is that “he didn’t mean it.”  Is this a valid defence or not?

When I learned to drive a car (and of course I learned in England, not in the US) I was taught that part of the essence of driving was that one had to expect the unexpected.  You have to drive with caution.

Now of course most of us don’t much of the time, but that is what the basic law of the road in the UK requires.  You don’t have to be ready to avoid a sheep suddenly walking into your lane on a motorway while you drive at 70mph, but in an urban area with a pavement and shops next to the road one has to drive with the awareness that a pedestrian might do something silly and step out into the road.

We don’t do 99 year sentences for manslaughter in England, but I don’t think we let people off on the grounds that they didn’t mean it, either.

And so at this point, somehow the transmutation of the song from its early origins into the modern day breaks down for me.  To enjoy the song I must forget the meaning and listen to the music and the voice (without a focus on the words) it is awe-inspiring and other worldly.  With the meaning, I feel uncomfortable in a way that I never am with Ballad of a Friend – and yet knowing that Dylan wrote Ballad of a Friend from point of the victim’s friend, and then Percy’s Song from the point of the guilty man’s friend, just one year apart is, well, strange.

But no one else ever seems to have mentioned it, so I guess it is just me.

The index of all the Dylan songs reviewed.

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17 Responses to Percy’s Song: Dylan’s car crash and judge songs

  1. Benny says:

    I enjoyed reading your informed comments. Sheds a lot of light on the song structure and interesting “notes” on three different stories pulled together to make a lovely oratorial “chord”. Well done! I suppose for me i have to listen to the meaning and have to buy it as anyone would have to in order to then relate it in a performance. The key for me is that the narrator appeals not at all that the driver “did not mean it”. The narrator agrees, after “hearing the facts without fear”. that the driver has a “sentence to serve”. It is the severity of the sentence and the fact it is “beyond repeal” which sends the narrator to dwell on the disproportionate cruelty and regret echoed in the ballad of “the wind and rain”? Here’s hoping you can include and identify with the narrator and “own the song” in a performance……much like I feel Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny done so well.

  2. Jack says:

    This song has haunted me for years..Thanks so much for the insight. I am relieved to know Percy is not a real person….knowing full well that other cases of injustice occur regurlaly.

  3. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/489/Percy's-Song (Additional Information)

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    ‘Percy’s Song” appears on Side 2, track #3, of yesteryear’s vinyl bootleg album ‘Bob Dylan: Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been(His Gothham Ingress).

  5. Donald Andrews says:

    Love the tunes in all of its itirations, but there’s not much sympathy or sorrow for the lives, loves, futures lost or the wave of grief rolling through a family, from parents, bothers, sisters grandparents and friends.

  6. Donald Andrews says:

    Love the tunes in all of its itirations, but there’s not much sympathy or sorrow for the lives, loves, futures lost or the wave of grief rolling through a family, from parents, brothers, sisters grandparents and friends.

  7. Laurette says:

    My opinion.
    According to the law one can ask for attenuating circumstances ( premeditation or not), and that is perhaps what Dylan wants to apply in this story.
    I think it’s Dylan’s genius to be able to defend two opposing positions.
    For me it shows his empathy and his great sense of humanity.
    I put this song close to ‘Ballad of Donald White’ and ‘Who killed Davey Moore?’
    Guilt, blame, responsibility…

  8. Billy Mills says:

    It’s not the fact of the sentence the narrator protests against, but its severity:

    That may be true,
    He’s got a sentence to serve,
    Turn, turn, turn again.
    But ninety-nine years,
    He just don’t deserve,
    Turn, turn to the rain
    And the wind.

    So, he’s not asking for his friend to be let off, he’s asking for proportionality in sentencing.

  9. Irma Prunesquallor says:

    Before you judge, just remember

    “What happened to him could have happened to anyone”.

    My view on driving is that anyone who completes a journey without having an accident should consider themselves lucky, and look to John Bradford’s words: “There but for the grace of God go I”.

    Driving is inherently very risky, and the sentences put upon people today are utterly disproportionate and do not take this into account. I have lost friends in car accidents, but that is the price we pay for the great freedom of having cars available to us. A blanket, enforced, 30km/h speed limit would reduce injuries but cripple personal freedom: it would also dramatically increase air pollution!

  10. TonyAttwood says:

    Irma it took me a moment to place the name – I thought “I know Prunesquallor, but from where…” Then it came back. Thanks for reigniting the memory.

  11. Gary Edelman says:

    Thanks Tony Atwood for the background information on this song .Dylan often denigrates the judiciary,honing in on their self righteousness and corruption.Few singers could match Sandy Denny for emoting anger and regret .Combine that with RT and a very strong Fairport lineup and it all clicks.

  12. Frank says:

    Thank you for your thoughts about a song which touches me deeply.
    I always thought of the meaning different then you.
    To me it’s not about not punishing Percy at all but rather the unbelievably hard and unforgiving justice system. I mean he probably knew the people wo died in his car and isn‘t that a punishment in itself for a lifetime. I think that this is why the music is not at all aggressive, but so sad. The story is just so tragic… it touches my German Weltschmerz

  13. Warren Nelson says:

    Hello all, I stumbled upon this song by chance, with the Fairport Convention version. I was trying to find some background on it because I found the moral dilemma in the song intriguing. It’s not always clear who’s at fault and how much punishment they deserve. Considering our discussion, I’m surprised that no one mentioned the one line that really did bug me as it appeared to show an incredible lack of clear thinking and social responsibility on the part of the narrator. “But he ain’t no criminal
    And his crime it is none.” It strikes me as weird that the narrator says this, after earlier stating “he’s got a sentence to serve.” How did he make that incredibly irresponsible and almost selfish sounding leap? At that point my sympathy shifts a bit to the harsh judge who tells him to get out. The narrator appears to devalue the life of those who died. While this bugs me, it also makes the song more interesting because the narrator is not made a moral paragon, which I find can sometimes undercut the message of other songs about the legal system because it makes them sound very simplistic.

  14. Warren Nelson says:

    I also want to know more about the circumstances of the crash. Did a car back out in front of him with no warning, did he or another car ignore a read light etc.

  15. Gypsy Davey says:

    I first heard this song from the Fairport Convention version, but Arlo’s (Guthrie) version is probably my fave.

    I always wondered if Percy was at all intoxicated, or under the influence, but then came to the conclusion that he must NOT have been, or Mr. Zimmerman’s narrator would not have been as sympathetic to him, nor claim that “But he ain’t no criminal, and his crime is none”, even though Bobby himself was an ‘imbiber’, albeit I’m not sure that he ever drove, or rode his scoot, while wasted.

    Like Mr. Attwood, I find the lyrics and the topic quite disturbing, and even upsetting, (but they do force you to think).
    But what makes me love this song is that Old English murder ballad type/style melody and repetition, that’s the ‘hook’ for me. 😉

    Having heard Fairport’s cover before ever realizing that Dylan penned the lyrics, and most of the melody(??), I was thinking that it is based off of an ancient Brit folk/public domain/traditional song.

  16. Didacticus says:

    Here is an example of this style of American justice: in 2004 a 17-year-old Florida teen skidded into an intersection and collided a with an SUV whose two passengers died after being ejected due to not wearing seat belts. The boy was not impaired but the SUV driver was drunk and the intersection design was dangerous plus the stop sign was hard to see.

    The boy got 30 years in prison.

    Unsurprisingly, the boy was black.

    Note that the boy pleaded guilty; there was no trial, no attempt to avoid responsibility.

    The judge declared “the law doesn’t allow a do-over” when asked to allow the teen to withdraw his plea.

    See
    https://www.tampabay.com/archive/2005/09/23/outrage-boils-over-30-year-sentence/

    https://www.law.ufl.edu/yourfutureyourchoice/story-files/violence/story_content/external_files/St.%20Petersburg%20Times%20Article%20on%20William%20Thornton%20IV.pdf

    http://davidfeige.blogspot.com/2005/11/sick-ric-gets-whupping-on-oped-page.html

  17. J-Gittes says:

    As others have noted, the narrator is not questioning the legality of the conviction, rather the injustice of the sentence. In fact it is never actually stated what caused the accident. The narrator asks the judge to relate the facts and though those facts are never explicitly related we can extrapolate from the narrator’s response that they were not criminal in nature. It’s the ambiguity of what actually happened that makes the song effective in the sense that the listener brings his own judgment to the events of the narrative. This may have been young Bob’s intention, not to simply tell a sad story.

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