Death of Emmett Till: a powerful couplet and a critic seriously out of order

by Tony Attwood

The Death of Emmett Till is a song by Bob Dylan that was written around the time of Talkin John Birch and Ramblin Gamblin Willie.  As with those songs Dylan uses an old established musical format, alongside an old lyrical theme to create a new piece.

Musically the song is “House of the Rising Sun” sung at full speed, using that song’s highly distinctive chord sequence.

“House” was one of the songs that back in those days every aspiring folk guitarist would learn because it gives the chance for all sorts of melodic invention above a chord sequence which is so easy for the guitar beginner to play and yet which actually sounds quite complex…

Am, C, D, F

Am, C, E

and so on.  If you don’t play an instrument yourself go out and find a pianist or guitarist and get him to play that sequence.  You’ll recognise it at once.

The song was originally recorded for Broadside and Dylan considered it the most important song he had written thus far.  The Spotify version from the “RTL and BD music album” has a nice commentary after.  It is also on the Bootleg volume 9.  There’s a link to the radio version at the end and to the Whitmark version.

“Emmett Till” retells the story of events in 1955 when a black man was murdered seemingly for whistling at a white woman.  Two white men were arrested for the crime, found not guilty by an all white jury, and then subsequently confessed knowing that they could not be tried again.

It is not a major piece in Dylan’s list of compositions at this time, but it has become noteworthy because of one singular use of language within the song, and the commentary made by Heylin in “Revolution in the Air”, which seems to misunderstand completely what is going on in the song.

Heylin began his review by complaining that Dylan was “hopelessly confused” about the facts of the case, seemingly not recognising that the whole folk music tradition is about taking incidents and then writing them larger to enhance the dramatic effect.  Indeed one only has to ponder what songs would be like if composers were forced only to tell everything exactly as in some sort of court report set to music.

It is patently obvious that folk songs are not newspaper reports, any more than newspaper reports are theatre.  Each has a restrictive form and for those which are entertainment they are set in a way that can be understood and recalled easily. They change details for dramatic effect.

But far worse (at least for me, and of course as always these commentaries are just my opinion), Heylin then suggests that the murderers “only intended to frighten the boy; that he had ample opportunity to escape; and that it was his continuing insolence and repeated claims to have had white girlfriends that finally drove the brothers to silence him for good.  Such motivations were simply disregarded by a Dylan bent on his own verbal execution.

“The couplet

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what

the only line in the song in which the narrator addresses the listener directly – is an open admission that the facts of the case held zero interest for this zealot.”

Now leaving aside the point I have just made – that folk songs are not exact detailed reporting of historical events, but retelling to make a moral point – when I first heard those two lines

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what

I was really knocked out by them.  To me they have a totally different meaning from that which Heylin found, one that says that the reasons the men gave as an excuse for murder were so trivial and so awful, that the mind can’t conceive that anyone could trivialise human life in such a way.

Heylin’s point appears to be that the behaviour of the young black man made the murder excusable, or at least should be grounds for a plea of what in the UK is called “diminished responsibility” for the crime.

But how can there ever possibly be diminished responsibility for the crime of a racist murder?  Dylan is quite right, the killers’ excuses should not be remembered because they are so appallingly trivial.

I think (and of course as in all the commentaries here, this is just my opinion) this review of the song by Heylin actually tells us infinitely more about the author of the review than about Bob Dylan.  What we can learn about Dylan at this time is that he was a young songwriter who was exploring every possible way of writing songs and that real and exciting talent was breaking through.

If we look at the songs written in this year, in the order they were written, this point is well made.  They cover the death of a friend, folk heroes, classic blues, opposition to the far right, social commentary, the notion that it is not the world that affects us but the way we see the world, lost love, leaving and finally one of the greatest songs of the last century expressing the notion that is very difficult to express in song, that everything is falling apart.

Of course, as ever, all of this is my opinion, just as it is my personal opinion that the review of this song by Heylin is not just mistaken in its analysis, but quite awful for the way it criticises Dylan for using the medium of folk music as it has always been used – a shorthand to make a point.  And for seemingly to excuse a racist murder on the grounds that “he was asking for it”.

From an artistic point of view, it also shows (again just to me perhaps, but I still want to make the point) that Heylin hasn’t got a clue about the meanings that can be woven into poetic couplets.

Indeed the couplet I have quoted above gets a doubly powerful meaning when we consider it in relationship to the first verse which contains the phrase “I can still remember well” contrasting with “I can’t remember what” in the second verse…

Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what
They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat
There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds
out on the street

It may look incredibly simple on the screen, but it is hard to pull off in a song (believe me I have spent a lifetime trying) without it sounding simplistic.  Here is doesn’t because of the horror of the reason that the killers had.

It is a song in which Dylan doesn’t allow us any room for sentimentality

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie
Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die

What makes the song complete, is that the penultimate verse seems to be addressed across the years to what Heylin and to those who think as he appears to think. (Although to be clear let me add that I am saying “what Heylin appears to think” from what we read in this review, for of course I cannot take this little piece to be representative of his broader opinion, shocking those these views are).

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!

And maybe I am biased because that is exactly how I feel.  I don’t care one bit if details of the case are misrepresented in the song, the song makes the point so clear and simple.  How did we come to sink this low?

I’m not arguing that this is a great song to stand alongside “Ballad for a Friend” at the start of the year, or “Blowing in the Wind” or “Hard Rain” later in the year, but it shows elements of Dylan’s ability with words and ideas which already take him far beyond the norm of this type of folk song.

It also reminds us that there are still some out there who would excuse a racist murder on the grounds that “they were provoked”.  There is no provocation that excuses such acts.

Here’s the Whitmark version

And the radio version

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

 

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5 Responses to Death of Emmett Till: a powerful couplet and a critic seriously out of order

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    The Whitmark version is on the vinyl bootleg album (197l) released by Trade Mark of Quality(71009)-side 2, track 3 –
    Talkin’ Bear Mountain Massacre Panic Blues.

    I play it on a fine ‘Candle’ stereo that was left on the side of a street not that long ago for anyone who wanted it ….a heavy carry for a bit of distance it was too!

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    * The should read ‘Picnic’

  3. Birt says:

    Mr. Attwood,

    Your hearing of the song seems most credible. Meanings of the song aside, Your remarks about Mr. Heylin are entirely in line with my perceptions of this critic. While it might be tempting to tar Mr. Heylin with the pitch of racism or the taint of being an apologist, it is less likely that he is racist or an apologist and more likely that he suffers from a peculiar strain of insufferable superiority. In his writing on Dylan–and his writing on Springsteen and on Welles–Heylin always seems to know better than the artists themselves what they are doing and–more often–what they should have done. Most critics–me, you, Ricks, Marcus, whoever–offer a hearing of the song, a reading of the text; Mr. Heylin is prone to offering rewriting and correction, meant, no doubt, in the spirit of construction criticism. So it goes.

  4. Babette says:

    When I was very young I read a book about Billie Holliday.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHGAMjwr_j8

    That song was necessary in the fight for human rights .

  5. Damian says:

    I agree with you re Heylin. Reading him can be excruciating at times. He has a formidable knowledge of Dylan dates/recording sessions/etc, but breaks down badly with his analysis of the songs, and the outrageous condescension that he extends to Dylan and other Dylan commentators.

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