The Ballad of Hollis Brown; the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

As I listened to Hollis Brown for the first time in many a long year, following a request from a reader of the site for me to do a review, I thought: can I say anything that has not been said before?  Surely everything that could be said, has been said.

And by and large that is true, but then as I turned the basics over in my head I did remember that it was originally recorded as a track for Freewheelin’ but dropped from that album, only to return on Times they are a Changin, in the context of which it seems to make a sort of reverse comment.

For the whole essence of the title song of Times is what it says in the title – the old world order has gone and you’d better keep up if you want to be part of the new world..   The essence of Hollis Brown is that nothing ever changes.  The appalling inequality of the human race and the desperation which drove Hollis Brown to kill his family and himself, followed by seven more people being born, suggests nothing but nothing ever changes.

But then I guess it doesn’t matter.  No one has ever claimed Times to be a concept album – Times they are a changin is just the most immediately approachable and most iconic song on the album, so it is natural that the album bears that song’s title.   Hollis Brown is about the opposite view.

Fittingly Hollis Brown is a very simple blues based around one chord with one line repeated and then an answering line.  It is based completely on “Pretty Polly” an English folk song that also turned up in the Appalachian tradition, and of which there a multiple versions recorded through history.

The song itself has mutated over time also being known in places as “The Gosport Tragedy” or “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter”.  In this latter version the ship’s carpenter promises to marry Polly, but murders her when he finds she is pregnant.  Leaving the body he returns to his life on board, but is haunted by her ghost, and dies utterly insane.

Many commentators have also pointed out that versions of Pretty Polly and its related songs often have the man ready to kill the woman, and certainly not out of compassion and heart-felt sorrow and desperation as in Dylan’s version.

Indeed in one version he takes the girl out for a stroll in the woods, but then she sees

A new-dug grave with a spade standing by.

and then (and remember the words change from version to version so this is just one sampling of the song) he confesses

I dug on your grave six long hours of last night.

And why would he do such a thing?

Your past reputation’s been trouble to me.

In many versions, the song “Pretty Polly” constantly switches its point of view with the singer speaking as a witness at one moment and as a the killer in another, and then as Polly.  It takes some doing to bring it off.

Dylan alternates too but in a different way, starting and ending as a distant observer, but through the bulk of the song, talking directly to the character, and he seems to make no difference between the viewpoints in terms of the music.  It adds to the bleakness.

Dylan performs on his own on the album version, with most common variant tuning of a guitar – the top and bottom string both tuned down one tone, but with a capo on the first fret to help remove the brightness of open string tone, so he performs in E flat minor.

Dylan’s version consists of the standard Pretty Polly approach spread over 11 verses and is set in South Dakota.  There is no deception here, just the horror of a downtrodden man trying

The horrors come as early as verse two

Your children are so hungry, That they don’t know how to smile.

and a little later

If there’s anyone that knows, Is there anyone that cares ?

What is interesting, if we can pull ourselves back from the power of the emotion, is that this is an anti-religious song.  Brown prays to God, but there is no response, and Dylan makes no excuse for this.

And to add to that Dylan is talking directly to a murderer.  He’s not interceding or asking “why oh why did you do it?” he is just there as an observer, watching, unable to intercede.

You prayed to the Lord above  “Oh please send you a friend”

Your empty pocket tell you that you ain’t a-got no friend

That repeating of friend at the end of all three lines in that verse is very powerful.  Any attempting at rhyming would have been just another rhyme.  Here the line is so bleak that hammering home the same word pushes the message out much more strongly.

The murder of the family and the suicide are not taken lightly – the man is so deeply tormented he can hardly stand to commit the deed, and then we have that immortal last verse so matter of fact like an antiseptic police report of a murder

There’s seven people dead on a south Dakota farm

Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born.

What has actually happened here is the the singer, the man and his family who are at the heart of the story, and the listener have all melded together.  We feel the family pain, we hear the wind blowing, we are part of the despair, part of us is blown away each time we hear the song and appreciate its message.   Hollis Brown may have killed his family and shot himself, but that is not the end of it at all.  The tragedy of extreme rural poverty lives on and on, amidst all the affluence of the United States.

Index to all the songs

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4 Responses to The Ballad of Hollis Brown; the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Sam Chianello says:

    When my mother was a child, she heard of such desperation. She often told me the hardships my grandparents suffered during the Great Depression. She also recalled rumors heard of folks worse-off than them. What Dylan did was to expose those unspeakable tragedies, our society ignores.

  2. leslie says:

    i like this way that you doing this caouis is nice

  3. Rick says:

    With the possible exception of “The Mighty Quinn,” Hollis Brown is the only other Dylan song I associate with another artist. Nina Simone’s version is so desperate, so angry. She was able to convey Dylan’s message, the cycle will simply continue.

  4. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at:
    Play every version of every song performed or written by Bob Dylan plus notable interpretations legally for free…

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