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19 May 2021

Bob Dylan at 80: Even in love songs, Dylan’s polemical streak shines through

The court may not have convicted William Zantzinger, who “killed poor Hattie Carroll, with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger”, but in his ballad Dylan certainly does. 

By Stephen Bush

Political polemic is an essential part of Dylan’s oeuvre. Part of his genius is the way he marshals his lyrics and his tunes to give force to his argument. The court may not have convicted William Zantzinger, who “killed poor Hattie Carroll, with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger”, but in his ballad “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, Dylan certainly does. Over the course of the song, he paints a picture of an aristocratic thug “who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’”. Zantzinger’s lawyers may successfully have argued that 51-year-old Carroll’s death from a brain haemorrhage was due to stress – not the cane that “sailed through the air and came down through the room/Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle” – and yet the mastery of Dylan means Zantzinger will live forever as a murderer who got off with a “six-month suspended sentence”.

Some of Dylan’s polemic managed to achieve justice, and not just after the fact. “If you’ve got any political pull at all, maybe you can help us get this man out of jail, back on to the streets,” he drawls on the Rolling Thunder Revue live version of “Hurricane”, before setting out the case for boxer Rubin Carter, “the man the authorities came to blame/For something that he never done”. His wrongful conviction for murder was overturned in 1985. Dylan’s skill is telling the story from the start – the “pistol shots ring out in the barroom night” – to the sordid finish: “The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance.”

Polemic is there in “Workingman’s Blues #2” (2006), whose doleful refrains – “they say low wages are a reality/If we want to compete abroad”, “the buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down” – remain startlingly relevant. It’s there in his most well-known protest songs, “Masters of War”, “Oxford Town”, “The Times they Are a-Changin’”. But it can be found in more surprising places too: “Sara” puts the case to his then wife for one more chance. (They reconciled, but it didn’t last.) It’s even there in his Christian phase, when Dylan turned his hand to preaching. What is his warning that “Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody” but polemic by another name?

This article appears in our “Who is Bob Dylan?” series 

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This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy