Bob Dylan Countdown #112: “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”

Some people have no stomach for dark and depressing stories being told in movies, television, music, and the like. These are the people who want to escape from reality in these venues, and, therefore, they have no desire to see  or hear of pain and suffering. I totally get that point of view (even though I don’t subscribe to it myself,) and I know that, if you’re one of those people, you’re not going to like “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” much.

Once Dylan chose to tell this story of a fictional man who nonetheless represents thousands of actual men and women in similarly dire straits, he had no choice but to tell it in this manner. By that I mean the insistent guitar in minor keys, the lifeless tune, the cold, emotionless singing. Anything else would have been tantamount to lying.

“Ballad Of Hollis Brown” hits rock bottom pretty early on and keeps dropping. It has to. Any uplift would have been pure Hollywood had Dylan tried to inject it. After all, you’ve got  a man whose poverty drives to him eradicate himself and his entire family from the Earth. It’s not officially based on a true story, but had Bob looked around a little bit, I’m sure he could have found newspapers telling a similar tale.

Entering into this harrowing world is not for the meek or timid. By addressing the title character as “you,” Dylan dares the listener to imagine how he or she might deal with such awful circumstances. The final verse, which introduces seven new babies into this awful world just as Hollis Brown’s family of seven vanishes, is the harshest of all, because it implies that maybe the times aren’t a-changin’ after all.

“Ballad Of Hollis Brown” is a great song, a necessary song, but it’s not for everybody. For those of us who can deal with it, we’re grateful that Dylan’s skill ensures that we want to hear it just as much as we need to hear it.

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