Bob Dylan and the law
There was a time when much of the writing about Bob Dylan’s work consisted of the hagiographic musings of eccentric obsessives known as ‘Dylanologists’. In more recent years, however, analysis of Dylan’s body of work has become a more respectable pursuit, no doubt assisted by Dylan’s acquisition of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
“But to live outside the law you must be honest...”
Perhaps the most infamous ‘Dylanologists’ was Alan J. Weberman, who allegedly spent time in the 1970s rifling through Dylan’s household rubbish to find evidence to support his spurious theory that Dylan was a heroin addict. Though I cannot deny being a Dylan obsessive, I can at least assure you that I approach this subject, as one should come to equity, with clean hands. In more recent years, however, analysis of Dylan’s body of work has become a more respectable pursuit, no doubt assisted by Dylan’s acquisition of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Dylan’s songs have even piqued the interest of lawyers: in 2011, a symposium entitled “Bob Dylan and the Law” was held at Fordham Law School, which produced a rich variety of intriguing papers (eventually published in a special edition of the Fordham Urban Law Journal).
Journey through Dark Heat
I recently decided to take the well-worn path through Dylan’s back catalogue to form my own impressions of his treatment of law. I was unsurprised to find that Dylan’s songs have plenty to say about law. What did surprise me, however, was that notwithstanding Dylan’s reputation as a stylistic chameleon, his portrayal of law and the people who work in it, outside it, with it or against it has remained fairly consistent. Below is a (very brief and incomplete) account of the trends that emerged from my re-exploration of Dylan’s canon.
“All the criminals in their coats and their ties”
Dylan takes a cynical (realistic) view of law as an instrument, which is malleable in fallible and often malevolent human hands. The law is also portrayed as a mystifying mask, justifying the exercise of what is otherwise naked power by one group over another. Take, for instance, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964), a song in which Dylan decries the then recent injustice of a wealthy white man receiving a mere six-month prison sentence for the manslaughter of a black waitress in Maryland:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
This theme is also evident in Hurricane (1976), a song about the black boxer Ruben Carter, who had been convicted (wrongfully as it emerged later) of a triple murder at a time of high racial tensions in 1960s New Jersey. Carter’s fate is not in the hands of the law, but in those of mortal and hostile investigators and decision-makers:
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game
The idea of law and its application as game or theatre, and those involved in it as players or actors, is evident elsewhere. In Rosemary, Lily, and the Jack of Hearts (1975), a song which is cinematic in its scope, the hanging judge, who is revelling in a wild-west playhouse-cum-saloon, is too drunk to be useful when sought out by the backstage manager. Meanwhile, and not without significance, “the leading actor [hurries] by in the costume of a monk”. A murder is committed at the venue on the same night, and the contrast with the following morning’s scene could not be more marked; the hanging judge is now in solemn character:
The next day was hangin’ day, the sky was overcast and black
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn’t even blink
The hangin’ judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink
At the climax of the song, poor Rosemary’s friend Lily is left “[t]hinkin’ ’bout Rosemary and thinkin’ about the law”, as well she might.
“You won't never see an outlaw drive a family from their home” (Woody Guthrie)
The negative portrayal in Dylan’s songs of those with any connection to the law goes beyond the folk-music convention of lamenting the capricious judge (think a traditional standard like Seven Curses), although Dylan does carry on this tradition too, for instance in Joey (1976):
“What time is it?” said the judge to Joey when they met
“Five to ten,” said Joey. The judge says, “That’s exactly what you get”
Dylan extends his ire even to those who pontificate on the subject of law. We have Maggie’s ma in the song Maggie’s Farm (1965), whose dishonesty, lack of humility and disconnection with reality are evident:
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
She’s the brains behind pa
She’s sixty-eight, but she says she’s twenty-four
Continuing with the theme of law as delusion or irreality, we have Dylan address the hapless Mister Jones in Ballad of a Thin Man (1965) as follows:
You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
But then there is the stinging refrain:
Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
If those who work in or with the law, or who even discuss it or seek association with it, are to be vilified as dishonest and/or pitied for labouring under false consciousness, then those who live against it or outside it are lauded. Again, Dylan in this regard exceeds the traditional folk music romanticisation of the outlaw (think Pretty Boy Floyd). Famously, he tells us that “to live outside the law you must be honest” (Absolutely Sweet Marie (1966)). In She Belongs to Me (1965), a paean to a mystery woman, among his muse’s many qualities he admires the fact that:
She’s nobody’s child
The Law can’t touch her at all
Consistent with the foregoing trend, but more evident in other songs, is a sense that Dylan subscribes to Bentham’s view that “[e]very law is an evil, for every law is an infraction of liberty”. In Caribbean Wind (1980), Dylan voyages to “where the long arm of the law could not reach”. We learn in the same verse that this is a place where “men bathed in perfume and celebrated free speech”.
In closing, for law and its players, Dylan does not paint a pretty picture. So, with all this denigration of law and those attached to it, what is a lawyer to do? Never fear: Dylan the hard-nosed realist is fully aware of the lawyer’s utility in such a cruel world:
I might need a good lawyer, could be your funeral, my trial - Cry a While (2001)
* All lyrics taken from Bob Dylan, The Lyrics (1961-2012), (2016) Simon & Schuster
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