Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

When the Law Doesn't Work

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

When the Law Doesn't Work

Article excerpt

  I. Dylan's Traditional Songs
 II. The Finger-Pointing Songs
     A. The Ballad of Donald White
     B. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
     C. Hurricane
III. Bad Judge Ballads
     A. Percy's Song
     B. Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues (how I
        finally found some "true facts" and a source for a song)
Talk'n Fordham University Law School Bob Dylan and the Law
Conference Blues


I read in the paper that the former governor's son shot his ex-girlfriend. (1) She's dead. She had a restraining order, but the law didn't work. (2) Another story says that Rand Paul thinks mountain-top removal just needs some rebranding) "I don't think anybody's going to be missing a hill or two here or there," he says? That reminds me: did you know that the mountains on the back of the West Virginia quarter may be blown up? One was already being mined illegally when permission was granted for it to be destroyed. (5) Seems like there is a lot of law, but it's not working. On another page it says, "West Virginia Mine Methane Blast Worst in a Quarter Century"! (6) What happened to the law? (I hope to connect this up. Be patient.)

I'm not a "Dylanologist," or even a devotee. (7) I guess I was invited because I've written a lot of articles dealing with the "true facts" behind Southern murder ballads. You could say that these articles are in the "true crime" genre. (8) Since a tiny bit of my work has dealt with the "true facts" behind old ballads, I hoped to find some Dylan songs I could trace back to "true crime" to relate Dylan to the law in that way. Then, I tried to see what he had to say about the law in his songs. Here, I will look at Ballad of Hollis Brown, (9) Ballad of Donald White, (10) The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, (11) Hurricane, (12) and Percy's Song. (13) I am throwing in Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues (14) too, just for fun. I found a copy of the news story that supposedly inspired it.

Dylan was not concerned with "true facts" as such (as I will point out in my comments, some of his most powerful and effective songs dispensed with "true facts" to tell the story he wanted to tell). In fact, in his early days, after reading the paper or watching a television show, he was supposedly inspired to write some bleak, depressing songs that touched on the failure of the system, and the failure of the law. He started out being enamored of Woody Guthrie, so it is not surprising that he would have sung and written songs about a seemingly failed system and ruined lives. (15) We believe in the rule of law, but a lot of times the law does not work very well. When Bob Dylan set out for New York, there were a lot of failures of the law to sing about. There still are.

I grew up in the fifties and sixties, and I remember the "folk revival." "My friends and I spent many an afternoon" (16) trying to learn to play the banjo and guitar using the Pete Seeger books. We all thought Dylan was cool. I still remember the girl who tried to pass off the It Ain't Me Babe (17) lyrics to our aging English teacher as her original poetry. We ratted her out! Anyway, as we drifted into the late sixties, and I drifted off to Vietnam, I put away such things. (18) The electrified Dylan was not my cup of tea, or maybe I was in a foreign country when all that was going on. I did not know that Dylan had been born again until I started catching up for this conference, and I did not know about the album with the Santa song. (19) I will have nothing further to say about the album with the Santa song.

I guess I got back into the old music that Greil Marcus and others claim inspired Dylan when I married my wife, Virginia, who is from southwest Virginia. Her father was a coal miner, and she grew up in a "coal camp" called Clinchco, (20) in Virginia. She went to Berea College at the age of seventeen, with two dollars in her pocket. Her mother was dying of cancer, and her father, who only had one lung left because of the "black lung," was in a tuberculosis sanitarium. …

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