Our LCM Classic this week is the tragic "Ballad of Hollis Brown" a blues song written by Bob Dylan, released in 1964 on his third album The Times They Are A-Changin'. The song tells the story of a South Dakota farmer who, overwhelmed by the desperation of poverty, kills his wife, children and then himself.
The recording of the song that was included on 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' was made on August 7, 1963. The song had been recorded during sessions for Dylan's previous album, The 'Freewheelin' Bob Dylan', in November 1962, but remained an outtake. On this earlier version, Dylan played the harmonica and just strummed the chords, rather than picking the strings. (The live versions between 1962 and 1964 were also played that way, but without the harmonica.) According to Michael Gray, the guitar work and melodic structuring in "Hollis Brown" are taken from the Appalachians, "where such forms and modes had evolved, in comparative isolation, over a period of almost two hundred years."
Lyrically, this song consists of 11 verses which bring the listener to a bleak and destitute South Dakota farm, where a poor farmer (Hollis Brown), his wife and five children, already living in abject poverty, are subjected to even more hardships. In despair, the man kills his wife and children and himself with a shotgun. Critic David Horowitz has said of this song:
Technically speaking, "Hollis Brown" is a 'tour de force'. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown's plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other.... Indeed, the blues perspective itself, uncompromising, isolated and sardonic, is superbly suited to express the squalid reality of contemporary America. And what a powerful expression it can be, once it has been liberated (as it has in Dylan's hands) from its egocentric bondage! A striking example of the tough, ironic insight one associates with the blues (and also of the power of understatement which Bob Dylan has learnt from Guthrie) is to be found in the final lines of Hollis Brown:
"There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm, There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm, Somewhere in the distance there's seven new people born".