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…”
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature surprised some, though unsurprising (and gratifying) to others. It would be like a Minnesotan being surprised to find snow on the ground in January. What most interested me was the little explanation that the Nobel committee has affixed to the title: “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
For those who have been listening to Dylan most of a lifetime this really is one of the recurring features of his work, taking what exists, ingesting it and making it his own.
In my article Was Bob Dylan the Gutenberg of Rock and Roll? the late John Bushey, host of KUMD’s Highway 61 Revisited stated “I think you have to look to the early 60’s and the time that Dylan happened to come along. He began writing these incredible lyrics and songs pertaining to the changing times; civil rights, social issues, and songs with a political slant. His unique lyrical style influenced many musicians and attracted a much larger following to many of these causes… This can never be taken from Bob Dylan. His poetic, multi-dimensional ability with words helped bring about a new form of music.”
Note the harmony between this last statement and the Nobel Prize declaration: “for having created new poetic expressions…”
What was significant is how deeply Dylan’s roots penetrated that American song tradition. As Tony Attwood points out in his essay Seven Curses: Dylan’s feelings of legal betrayal, “He (Dylan) 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.”
Newspaper stories are here today and gone tomorrow. But think of how many stories have lived beyond their time because of the songs, e.g., The Star Spangled Banner. The story of Hattie Carroll, the shameful shooting of Medger Evers (“Only A Pawn In Their Game”), the tragic and brutal murder of Emmett Till all continue to live on as a new generation of fans discovers Bob Dylan’s own roots.
The American folk tradition is actually a multinational folk tradition, though. Irish immigrants, German immigrants, Scottish immigrants (my kin), Scandinavian immigrants, Eastern European immigrants — they all came with stories, with music, with traditions. It’s only in the 20th century that we began recording these.
“Seven Curses” is Dylan’s variation on the traditional ballad in which someone is going to hang and the efforts of a loved one to save them. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a version of the story in which the singer asks the hangman to hold off a minute because someone is coming to save him. It turns out that sister, brother, mother and father all coming forth not to rescue but rather to watch the hanging. In the last verse the lover shows up in the nick of time.
Lead Belly was one of the first to record this traditional story with many iterations following until Led Zeppelin did their powerful version, “Gallows Pole,” on Led Zeppelin III. What Dylan does here is give the song a twist, in keeping with the viewpoint that “justice is a game.”
There are some who might take issue with Dylan’s treatment of justice issues. In songs like “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “Hurricane,” good and bad are blurred. Because those who have the power are corrupt, folk singers must take sides with the disenfranchised, violated and downtrodden.
In “Seven Curses” the characters are three in number: the father, the judge and the daughter who seeks to save him. The father, who has seen too much of life, admonishes his daughter to get out of that place and leave him to his fate. She, being young and naive, believes no price is too much to pay if there’s any way at all to save her father. It’s blistering and painful to imagine, and packs a disabling punch.
The deed was done in the night, concealed by the darkness. The reason our Founding Fathers insisted on a free press was so light could be shed on these kinds of horrors and injustice punished.
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
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
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”
“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”
“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”
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
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
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
Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music
Originally published at https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com.