by John Henry
Dylan’s roots in the traditions of folk music have ensured that murder ballads feature regularly in his repertoire. Ballads are songs that tell a story and murder ballads are songs where the story is about a murder. Early examples are “The Ballad of Donald White”, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”, “Who Killed Davey Moore?” “The Death of Emmett Till”, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”.
The obvious thing about these examples, however, is that they are all songs of social conscience, written by Dylan when he was seen as a “protest singer”. Each is concerned with the plights of “the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse”. The aim of the songs is not simply to tell the story of a murder (or multiple murders in “Hollis Brown”), but to point to the exploitation and unjust treatment of the subjects of the songs (whether they are murderers like Donald White and Hollis Brown, or victims like Davey Moore, Emmett Till, and Hattie Carroll).
So, these are definitely not the kind of “murder ballads” celebrated, for example, by Nick Cave on his album of that title. They are not at all like the traditional murder ballads that Dylan was also singing at this time—songs like “Omie Wise”, “The Two Sisters”, and “Railroad Bill”. These are songs where, typically, the victim is murdered by his or her former lover, or by a rival for love. There is no social conscience in these songs, sometimes the murderer shows remorse, but for the most part, murder is considered to be just another aspect of life… and love.
If we leave out Dylan’s murder ballads written as protests against injustice—which also means leaving out “Hurricane” and “Joey” (which presents Joey as another victim of injustice, and anyway was written by Jacques Levy, Dylan has claimed)—we might suppose that there are only two traditional-style murder ballads written by Dylan: “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” on Blood on the Tracks, and “Tin Angel” from Tempest. After all, there is no murder mentioned in the song of “John Wesley Harding” (even though John Wesley Hardin was a prolific killer).
Although the official Dylan website lists “Little Sadie” (and “In Search of Little Sadie”), from Self Portrait, as being written by Dylan, the song actually dates from 1922 or earlier. Even “Tin Angel” is highly derivative, heavily borrowing material from two traditional songs, “Gypsy Davey” and “Matty Groves”.
Given that Dylan has tried his hand at writing songs in just about every other traditional form, it seems strange that he never turned his hand to trying out an old-school murder ballad before Blood on the Tracks. It is evident that he has always been impressed by their power, because Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong include a number of traditional murder ballads (“Frankie and Albert”, “Love Henry”, “Delia”, and “Stack A Lee”). We might expect, therefore, more than just “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”, and the derivative “Tin Angel”. Significantly, Nick Cave chose a Dylan song to round off his album of Murder Ballads (1996), but it is the only song on the album that isn’t a murder ballad (“Death is Not the End”). If Nick Cave had wanted to include a Dylan-penned traditional-style murder ballad, he might have believed that the only one he could choose (in 1996) was “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.”
As a matter of fact, though, there was another one he could have chosen. If Nick Cave overlooked it, he is by no means the only person to have failed to recognise that Dylan had presented us with a traditional-style murder ballad, although one that is wonderfully inventive, long before Blood on the Tracks. Part of the reason for its being overlooked is that it is one of those highly subtle murder ballads, where the murder is hardly acknowledged in the song. It is easy to miss, for example, that the traditional “In the Pines”, or “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, is a murder ballad. Among the repeated verses asking his girl where she slept last night, and her repeated claims that she slept in the pine wood, is a single verse:
Her husband was a hard working man. Just a mile and a half from here, His head was found in a driving wheel, But his body never was found.
Another wonderfully subtle murder ballad is the achingly beautiful “She Moves Through the Fair”. In the first of three verses, we learn that the girl’s family disapprove of her intention to marry the narrator of the song. In the second verse the singer tells us how beautiful his girl is. Then, in the third verse, we learn that his love is dead, and comes to him as a ghost. We have to piece together for ourselves the fact that his girl was the victim of a so-called “honour killing”, killed by her family to avoid bringing dishonour on them for marrying the wrong class of man. Evidently, for such parents, there is no dishonour in killing one’s daughter. Although “She Moves Through the Fair” is originally Irish and well over a century old, these kinds of “honour killings” continue to take place in many parts of the world.
Interestingly, there is a possible link between this song and an early murder ballad sung by Dylan. In the now lost BBC television drama, “Madhouse on Castle Street” (1963), a young Dylan performed a few songs including one written by the playwright, the poet Evan Jones (1927–2012), called “The Ballad of the Gliding Swan”. The opening lines make it a murder ballad:
Tenderly William kissed his wife, Then he opened her head with a butcher knife. And the swan on the river goes gliding by, The swan on the river goes gliding by.
It’s possible that Jones (or Dylan, if, as rumoured, he changed some of the lyrics—see Tony Attwood’s “‘The Ballad of the Gliding Swan’: Bob Dylan’s lost song, found”) was thinking of the infinitely more subtle, “She Moves through the Fair”:
Then she made her way homeward With one star awake, As the swan in the evening Moves over the lake.
Another superb example of the understated murder ballad is Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”, where it is only through hints that we can surmise that the singer had an illegitimate child by Billy Joe MacAllister, and together they disposed of their baby, before Billy Joe went on to commit suicide (by throwing himself off the bridge too).
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today. Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way, He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge, And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Nick Cave recognised the power of subtlety in his “Where the Wild Roses Grow”. In this duet between the lovers, the murderer tells us simply that:
On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow, And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief. And I kissed her goodbye, said, "All beauty must die", And I lent down and planted a rose 'tween her teeth.
We have to assume that he has in fact murdered her at this point, because in the previous verse, his lover has already told us:
On the third day he took me to the river. He showed me the roses and we kissed; And the last thing I heard was a muttered word, As he knelt above me with a rock in his fist.
For her it was their third day together, but he knew it was their last.
Dylan’s unnoticed murder ballad is equally subtle, and its subtlety is one of the reasons why it has not been recognised as a murder ballad. I say “one of the reasons” because another reason is surely the fact that whenever the song is discussed the discussion always focuses upon the song’s relation to John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”. Yes, Dylan’s long overlooked murder ballad is Blonde on Blonde’s “Fourth Time Around.”
The song opens straight away with the singer and his woman in a vicious recriminating argument—so vicious in fact that she “breaks” his eyes. While they are exchanging words, she seems to be the one in control: “What else you got left?” she asks sarcastically. She chides him for merely taking from their relationship, and not giving anything back (“But she said, ‘Don’t forget/Everybody must give something back/For something they get.’”), and when he tries to act innocent, or uncomprehending, of this charge, she scornfully says, “Don’t get cute!” Eventually, she throws him out (“She threw me outside”). It’s at this point the jilted lover turns the tables. He gets back in to her place on a pretext, and after another exchange of words where she shows she will no longer comply with his wishes (“No dear”), he kills her. Of course, our narrator doesn’t admit this to us, rather he tells us, without any explanation, of her sudden change:
She screamed till her face got so red. Then she fell on the floor. And I covered her up and then Thought I'd go look through her drawer.
I told you it was subtle. The singer avoids saying that he has murdered her, but it is clear that he is covering her dead body here. Even the selfish lover portrayed in the song wouldn’t cover up a merely ill woman and immediately go off to see what he could take from her flat. But here we learn that he takes some time (“When I was through” does not suggest that he just had a quick look), and takes all he can (“I filled up my shoe”), before leaving with her still on the floor. So, it is clear that he has either strangled, or possibly beaten to death, the woman who has tried to get rid of him.
In case we are in any doubt of that, Dylan continues to portray the narrator of the song as an example of inconsiderate toxic masculinity—a man with an unexamined sense of entitlement. Immediately taking his ill-gotten gains to another lover, the only positive thing he has to say about her is “You didn’t waste time”. Clearly, the narrator means, you didn’t waste my time, as he believes the murdered lover did.
But, in case she wants to come on strong, he immediately pushes her back. “I never asked for your crutch”, he callously says, “Now don’t ask for mine”. This is a highly complex image, resonating in a number of ways, especially as it is the song’s closing point. We learned earlier in this song that this accommodating lover needs a wheelchair, but maybe she can sometimes walk with a crutch. So, a straightforward way of reading this is that the singer is saying don’t expect me to help support you—you’ve got your crutch and I’ve got mine (and I’m not sharing mine with you). But, given the sexual tension in the song, it is easy to imagine that the singer is actually rejecting intimacy: “I never asked for your crotch, Now don’t ask for mine.” Either way, we are listening to the words of a mean-minded specimen of humanity.
So much for the internal logic of the song’s lyrics. But another way of reading these closing lines, of course, is as a dig at John Lennon. “Norwegian Wood”, on the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, is generally regarded as one of those songs written by Lennon when he was trying to emulate Dylan. It is well known that “Fourth time Around” was Dylan’s way of showing Lennon that he had a long long way to go. I believe this clinches the interpretation presented here—that “Fourth Time Around” is a murder ballad.
“Norwegian Wood” tells of a misogynistic “joke” against a woman who wasted the time of the song’s male narrator—clearly, another man with a strong sense of personal entitlement. As in Dylan’s song, the woman seems at first to be in control. The narrator tells us he was “biding my time”, but when the woman says “It’s time for bed”, she immediately scotches any ideas the narrator might have about sex: “She told me she worked/In the morning and started to laugh.” The singer is left with no choice but “to sleep in the bath”. Lennon deftly shows us that the woman is in control: the singer does not gallantly choose to sleep in the bath, but “crawled off to sleep in the bath.”
As in Dylan’s song, the narrator soon gets the opportunity to turn the tables. When he wakes in the morning, the woman, as she said the night before, has had to go to work, leaving him alone in the flat. So, as revenge for wasting his time, and not inviting him into her bed, he sets fire to her room, which is lined with Norwegian wood panelling (but otherwise seems trendily minimalist in its furnishing—“there wasn’t a chair”).
Lennon’s narrator is almost as nasty a piece of work as Dylan’s. Maybe not quite almost; Dylan’s outdoes Lennon’s by murdering the woman who wastes his time. Dylan’s song does not just outdo Lennon’s by being richer and more complex, but it also outdoes it in portraying an even more extreme misogynistic response to a woman who tries to control her own life.
There’s one more important point to note about the comparison between “Norwegian Wood” and “Fourth Time Around”. Given that “Norwegian Wood” was talked about at the time of its release as an attempt by Lennon to imitate Dylan’s style, it is easy to see why Dylan might have been offended so much that he felt obliged to write his riposte. It is not just that “Norwegian Wood” is such a trivial pop song—let’s face it, it is much closer to earlier (and, for that matter, later) Beatles’ songs than it is to anything in Dylan’s output. “Norwegian Wood” conforms to the pop song format, after all, running at 2:05 minutes.
Certainly, it is a wonderful, and rightly, much loved song, but it is a Beatles’ song and doesn’t really seem much like a Dylan song. If this had been the only problem with Lennon’s song, Dylan might simply have concluded that this wasn’t very much like his work, and might have moved on without bothering to respond. But the real problem with Lennon’s song is that it is quietly, but nonetheless maliciously, immoral.
There is no hint in “Norwegian Wood” that the narrator has done anything wrong. On the contrary, as he sets fire to the girl’s room, the singer declares “Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?” It burns well, and in the context of the song, that’s what makes it good; but the phrase “Isn’t it good” inevitably conveys the narrator’s sense of smug satisfaction at setting fire to the woman’s home.
Of course, back in 1965, Lennon was able to deliver this as a jokey piece—albeit a misogynistic joke. Nobody at the time would have considered it as a song with a moral message, or rather a song without a moral message—nobody, except perhaps an affronted Dylan. As a song-writer, Dylan has never failed to take a moral stance in his songs, even in his humorous songs. “Fourth Time Around” does not share the same uncaring immorality as “Norwegian Wood”. Certainly, it is true that Dylan does not explicitly moralise in the course of the song—although the woman’s “Everybody must give something back/For something they get” hints at retribution.
There are no comments in the song about the rights or wrongs of what is happening. There is no authorial voice here, as there is, for example, in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (“But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears/Take the rag away from your face/Now ain’t the time for your tears”), or in “Hurricane” (“How can the life of such a man/Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?”), commenting from “outside” the action of the song on the morality of the events described.
In “Fourth Time Around” Dylan paints a picture of a brutal and deeply unpleasant man, a casual murderer who is obviously selfish and self-justifying, but he does not overtly say his actions are bad or wrong. But Dylan does not need to moralise in any explicit way, because he has set “Fourth Time Around” firmly in the tradition of murder ballads. As a murder ballad, “Fourth Time Around” carries the implicit moralizing of the whole tradition with it.
Murder ballads were never written to glorify, much less promote, murder. Indeed, many of them include explicit moralising in the course of the song. But even those that do not explicitly moralise owe their popularity and longevity in folk traditions to their ability to remind us that murder is always wrong, especially when performed by those who pretend to be, or want to be, our lovers. By escalating the crime of his narrator from setting fire to a would-be lover’s room, to murdering that lover, Dylan automatically introduces a moral stance into his song that is completely lacking in Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”—it is the unspoken moral stance of the tradition of murder ballads.
Dylan has always had an unparalleled knowledge of all the forms of popular song, and how to use those traditions in innovative ways in his own song-writing. Seeking to out-do Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, Dylan effectively turned the villain in Lennon’s song from an arsonist into a murderer, and in so doing made a brilliant contribution to the tradition of murder ballads.
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