Seven Curses: Dylan’s feelings of legal betrayal

By Tony Attwood

I didn’t start out to write about the various times that Dylan’s interactions with the legal process in which judges play a central, and mostly appalling part.  But somehow that’s where we have got to.

The mistrust of authority is a central theme in the tradition of folk music across most of Europe much of the time, and this song comes directly from that tradition, and versions of it have been collected time and time from England to Hungary.  They have also undoubtedly existed in many other countries (whose folk traditions we didn’t study when I was a music student).  Others can trace such origins far better than I.

What makes Seven Curses work as a song by Dylan, is that apart from being a haunting and moving story sung well to an exquisite tune, it has within the production two elements – two elements which make it seem quite extraordinary that this was not released as part of Freewheelin.

The first is the guitar performance with its open tuned guitar picked perfectly and never over-played.  Just listen to the track which forms the opening of disc two on the Bootleg Series 1-3, and listen particularly to the opening seconds where the guitar is heard before Dylan’s voice comes in.   It has the faint echo of openness and desolation, or wilderness and nothingness – which is what the song is about.  For if our legal system is corrupt in this way, we, as a civilisation, have nothing left at all.  (I should add that my re-listening to this track comes at a time when in Britain, the corruption of the entire legal process through politicians ordering the police and judicial system to lay off other politicians suspected of the my appalling crimes against children is making headline news.  It seems we haven’t moved on an inch).

And then secondly, in listening to the whole piece, listen to what Dylan does to the rhymes.

In verse one and two there are hints of half rhymes at the end of line two and four (“back” and “neck” obviously don’t rhyme, but end with the same sound.)

Old Reilly stole a stallion
But they caught him and they brought him back
And they laid him down on the jailhouse ground
With an iron chain around his neck

Verse two does the same thing but with the start of the final word of lines two and four (“hang” and “hand”)

Old Reilly’s daughter got a message
That her father was goin’ to hang
She rode by night and came by morning
With gold and silver in her hand

This break with the tradition of rhyming lines in songs adds to the sense of openness and bleakness, it gives a jagged quality to the lines plus a sense of incompleteness that amplifies the opening tuning of the guitar and the lack of any musical in-fill.

But then we move on.

In verse three, lines one and three have the half rhymes (“daughter” “father”) but lines two and four have the first proper rhymes (“head” and “instead”)

When the judge he saw Reilly’s daughter
His old eyes deepened in his head
Sayin’, “Gold will never free your father
The price, my dear, is you instead”

Now lest we think that this is just coincidence, the next verse builds again on this rhyming approach, and at the risk of being even more pedantic than usual, let me reiterate: we started with no rhyme, we then had half rhyme, we then that half rhyme and a true rhyme, and now we have an internal rhyme.

And my skin will surely crawl if he touches you at all

Internal rhymes in songs are incredibly powerful because they are unexpected and rare – and actually for the songwriter very tough to do without sounding artificial.

And this internal rhyme comes with a verse that opens “I’m as good as dead”

“Oh I’m as good as dead,” cried Reilly
“It’s only you that he does crave
And my skin will surely crawl if he touches you at all
Get on your horse and ride away”

Next verse we get even more rhymes with a rhyme at the end of the first two lines (“die” and “try”) and then another brilliant internal rhyme

And pay the price and not take your advice

That is once more the third line, and thus the song has moved onto a new pattern.  But the power of that internal line would have been lost if the song had used the approach from the start – but we didn’t get that.   We started without rhyme.

“Oh father you will surely die
If I don’t take the chance to try
And pay the price and not take your advice
For that reason I will have to stay”

And yet there is still more variation.  Just look at the sixth verse: we have “gallows shadows” in line one, we have line two rhyming with line four, we have the half  rhyme of “evening” and “groaning” and we have yet more power added to the song with three lines starting with the same words, “In the night”

The gallows shadows shook the evening
In the night a hound dog bayed
In the night the grounds were groanin’
In the night the price was paid

This repetition of opening words in this style, is another power-play – just as the internal rhymes work, so does the repeat, and that then sets up the next verse starting “The next morning”.  The night has gone on and on, although it only takes one verse to make the point.  The time span emphasised by the repeats.

The next mornin’ she had awoken
To know that the judge had never spoken
She saw that hangin’ branch a-bendin’
She saw her father’s body broken

As for the rhyme in that verse we have three lines now rhyming (one, two and four), and then we move into utter bleakness, with no rhyme at all.

These be seven curses on a judge so cruel:
That one doctor will not save him
That two healers will not heal him
That three eyes will not see him

That four ears will not hear him
That five walls will not hide him
That six diggers will not bury him
And that seven deaths shall never kill him

There is no bile and no vindictive feeling coming from the singer, for he is still singing the same song in the same way with the same accompaniment – the emptiness is endless, as will be said in another context.  But instead the repeating of “him” is like the hammer blow.

I doubt very much that Dylan planned all this.  He took elements from the old songs, and devised his own new words and variations on the old.  It is the natural ability of the artist that tells him which words work in which context, and here Dylan gets it right throughout.

Seven Curses fits perfectly with Dylan’s deep feeling for miscarriages of justice, as expressed also in Percy’s Song and Ballad for a Friend, and later in Drifter’s Escape and which of course which turn up time and again in his music.  These are incredibly powerful works from a young man exhibiting a remarkable natural uncontrived talent, and we should be grateful that all of these songs were kept, even though they never made the albums.

Index to all the Dylan songs reviewed


  1. Hi,
    Any idea what guitar Dylan was using for the Seven Curses recording? Such an amazing sound — the best I’ve ever heard. Would also love to know how it was recorded and by whom (mics, preamps, sound engineer etc) I’ve been wondering about this for 15 years or so. Sounds to me like an archtop. I know it is in a drop tuning and i have the tuning somewhere. I play the first few seconds of the recording every now and then and marvel at the sound quality.

  2. Excellent piece. Just to add a few more points on structure. Every line in the first three verses (almost every word in fact) moves the story forward with astonishing economy. Verse 4 and 5 set up an argument and a counter argument that balance like the scales of justice. Verse 6 is surreal and nightmarish as the night it describes. Verse 7 is the bleak reality that daylight brings, the grim denouement. So, after the 7 verses of injustice come the 7 curses of retribution. As you said, “I doubt very much that Dylan planned all this” yet his instincts come from great knowledge of many forms of song . (And I agree too that Dylan never gives judges a good press – “false-hearted judges, dying in the webs that they spin”).

  3. Seven Curses appears on Side 2, track #5, of the Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been vinyl bootleg album.

  4. A couple of quick observations.

    The opening verse does have its own internal rhymes, or half-rhymes: ‘down’ and ‘ground’ in the third line; and ‘caught him’ – ‘brought him’ in the very first line.

    The morning-after verse has a powerful sequence of hang-bend-break, all the more remarkable for the way ‘broken’ finishes that sequence at the same time as it completes the heavy triple rhyme of ‘awoken-spoken-broken’, as you point out.

    Interesting that ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ was written in the same period and shares not only the issue of judicial corruption but also the experimentation with rhymes, including highly inventive internal rhymes (William Zanzinger-diamond ring finger / killed-twirled / table-level / gavel-level / slain-cane / room-doomed / caught ’em-bottom) as well as the audacious ‘of the table-at the table-from the table’ sequence.

  5. Thanks very much for the interesting discussion of the rhyme! I had not noticed these details before.

    I really think that this is one of Bob Dylan’s masterpieces, and concur wholeheartedly with the third sentence of Nigel Ratcliffe’s comment.

    I’m not sure if it’s the done thing, but I thought I’d just link to my own (very simple, on a mobile phone) recording of this, in case one or two people are interested and enjoy it (since I changed the name, it might not be easy to find if one is looking for versions of it).

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