Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Don’t Put a Price on My Soul: Bob Dylan, Justice and the Law

Early next month, a group of lawyers will gather at Fordham Law School for a symposium on Bob Dylan and the Law. There’s a certain irony to this confab since Dylan’s so deeply wary of all institutions, especially powerful ones that wield the law. In Dylan’s songs, the legal system does not meet out justice; instead, it becomes a corrupt, often blind instrument of oppression designed to prop up the powerful and the wealthy. At the same time, a conference on Dylan and the law makes sense since it is a recurring theme in his songs ad appropriate as with each passing day corporate interests seem to gain at the expense of the individual.

Dylan’s sense of jurisprudence rails against corruption, arbitrariness and the use of judicial powers to oppress and crush individuals. There’s the 1963 song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which eloquently tells the story of a kitchen maid killed by William Zanzinger “with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger/ At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.” The greatest crime comes not in the murder, but in the courtroom as the final verse makes clear:

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
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears

In another early song ripped from the headlines, Dylan sang of Emmett Till, a young black man from Chicago who was killed in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white girl. As in Hattie Carroll, the tragedy of the death only grows when the case reaches the courtroom. Interesting, the song understands the legal tensions of the day where the Federal government pressured the States to deliver justice:

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind

There is the popular “Hurricane” (“the trial was a pig-circus”) and the tale of corruption made all the more outrageous by the tenderness of the singing in “Seven Curses.” A girl’s father is arrested for stealing a horse and she rides straight away to plea for mercy from the judge. He dismisses the idea that money can save her father, instead demanding that she sleep with him. The father pleads with her daughter to spurn the judge, but the daughter’s love for her father exceeds her revulsion for the judge. She submits that night only to find the judge never kept his part of the bargain. “She saw that hangin’ branch a-bendin’/She saw her father’s body broken.” She then issues the seven curses on the judge that give the song its title.

We get corrupt judges in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (“The hangin’ judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined” and later, “He went to get the hangin’ judge, but the hangin’ judge was drunk”). In “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way,” we meet the biased judge ready to collapse:

The judge, he holds a grudge
He’s gonna call on you
But he’s badly built
And he walks on stilts
Watch out he don’t fall on you   

In “Jokerman,” Dylan sings of a perverse world where riflemen stalk “the sick and the lame” yet the courts offer no salvation, “False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin.”

As if the corruption wasn’t bad enough, Dylan finds a system that’s arbitrary and oblivious to the need for justice. In “Idiot Wind,” “Your corrupt ways finally made you blind.”  “Desolation Row” tells of the “blind commissioner.”  In “Hard Rain,“ the “executioner’s face is always well hidden.” In “Joey,” the sentencing becomes a joke:

“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”
 
In the surrealistic recasting of an old Charlie Patton song, “High Water” tells of a flood of biblical proportions carrying way people’s lives. In the midst of this destruction, we see justice in action where a man’s life has no meaning:

They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff,
“I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care”

Dylan sees a world where justice is perverted, individuals oppressed by a system that promises to protect them. So Rubin Carter cannot get a fair trial (“All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance”), the Emmett Till trial a joke and in “I Shall Be Released,” we meet a man

Who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed

In the obscure early 70’s ballad of “George Jackson,” the prisoner “wouldn’t take shit from no one/He wouldn’t bow down or kneel” and that, the song argues, led to his death.

            In the opening of “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Dylan sings of the imbalances in our society,

The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down
Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak
The place I love best is a sweet memory
It’s a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

Just like the wealthy make out at the expense of the Hattie Carroll’s of the world and the real criminals “are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise,” the workingman loses out to the needs of the corporation. The system served by the legal process is corrupt; “money doesn’t talk, it swears.” It’s the world where “business drink my wine” yet “none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”  It’s the world where “advertising signs they con/You into thinking you’re the one/That can do what’s never been done.” It’s the world where Hollis Brown sees his crops sees no hope and the Masters of War “hide behind desks” and grow fat on their profits while the likes of John Brown do their bidding and come home bandaged and damaged with only a few medals to show for his sacrifice. To John Brown’s horror, when he sees the enemy, “his face looked just like mine.” The solider is but fodder for the interest of the war machinery, a pawn in their game as much as the poor white man who shot Medgar Evars down.  It’s the businessmen from Taos who turn Billy the Kid’s best friend, Pat Garret against him.

Dylan does not seek power, merely fairness, an equality. In “Dear Landlord”, he pleads, “don’t put a price on my soul.” In the end, all he asks is:

If you don’t underestimate me
I won’t underestimate you

No wonder Dylan champions outlaws, from his take on Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” to John Wesley Harding to Billy the Kid to Joey Gallo. The outlaws are the individual who buck the system, who follow an honest code, thus the urging, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” John Wesley Harding “was never known to hurt an honest man” and “no charge held against him could they prove.” However, he was a “friend to the poor” and “opened man a door.” Pretty Boy Floyd had “every crime in Oklahoma added to his name.” Yet he as the one leaving a thousand dollar bill under a poor farmer’s plate and delivering the whole carload of groceries for the families on relief.

            What’s a man to do? In the early song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the young Dylan goes out into the world and makes a record of the horrors and atrocities he sees. He readies to set out again, an apocalyptic version of Whitman, ready to sing his song:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin

The search sung about in “Hard Rain” is the same search described in when Dylan sings of Dignity:

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

In the more recent song, “Red River Shore,” the aging rover looks back on his life and declares, “I’ve tried not to ever hurt anybody/And stay out of a life of crime.”

Maybe we can roam the fringes like Pretty Boy Floyd or John Wesley Harding, trying to make things right. Maybe we can be the artist singing of injustice, shining a light on the horrors we pretend not to see. Or maybe it’s enough to not hurt anybody and avoid a life of crime.

And if there’s justice, maybe it requires us to be free of the system that is supposed to deliver justice. Think of the vision from the “Drifter’s Escape,”

Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while ev’rybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

 

If you cannot make it up to Fordham for the symposium on Dylan and the law, you can find more connections on the web. In 2006, Alex Long of the Oklahoma City University Law School published a paper, “[Insert Song Lyrics Here]: The Uses and Misuses of Popular Music Lyrics in Legal Writing,” that found that many legal opinions cite music lyrics and that Bob Dylan’s lyrics appear more frequently than any other songwriter. The New York Times followed up with an article looking at Justice Robert’s use of Dylan lyrics in his judicial writings. In 2002, the New Yorker wrote a brief article on New York Law School professor Michael Perlin, who took to using Dylan lyrics in the titles of his legal essays. You can find many blogs about Dylan and the law, including an article at Talk Left, a list of favorite Dylan civil rights songs at Bruce’s Journal, and this article How Dylan Shapes the Law. And one attorney, Carol Schlitt, wrote an article on how Dylan’s jurisprudence influences her practice of the law.

 

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9 Responses to “Don’t Put a Price on My Soul: Bob Dylan, Justice and the Law”

  1. […] helped shape my view of a system that I fight against in the name of my clients. (See the article “Dylan and the Law: “Don’t Put a Price on My Soul” at “Nightly Song” for a more in-depth analysis of Dylan’s songs and this […]

  2. You forgot to mention: “…and hold your judgment for yourself lest you wind up on his road.”

  3. Don’t forget “Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face
    And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”

  4. How do you leave out Seven Curses?

    • Seven Curses is there….”and the tale of corruption made all the more outrageous by the tenderness of the singing in “Seven Curses.” A girl’s father is arrested for stealing a horse and she rides straight away to plea for mercy from the judge. He dismisses the idea that money can save her father, instead demanding that she sleep with him. The father pleads with her daughter to spurn the judge, but the daughter’s love for her father exceeds her revulsion for the judge. She submits that night only to find the judge never kept his part of the bargain. “She saw that hangin’ branch a-bendin’/She saw her father’s body broken.” She then issues the seven curses on the judge that give the song its title.”

  5. Don’t Put a Price on My Soul: Bob Dylan, Justice and the Law | Nightly Song oxahcop

  6. […] helped shape my view of a system that I fight against in the name of my clients. (See the article “Don’t Put a Price on My Soul: Bob Dylan, Justice and the Law” at “Nightly Song” for a more in-depth analysis of Dylan’s songs and this […]


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