Form in Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown”
Evan Paul Eugenio Korte
This year’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Bob Dylan, has had one of the most fascinating and unpredictable careers in music history. After writing such era-defining songs such as “The Times They Are a-Changing,” he rejected the idea that he was America’s “Spokesman of a Generation” (Petrus and Cohen 283). During the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he went electric, and infuriated some of his heroes such as Pete Seeger in the process. He shocked the world during the 1980’s by becoming a born-again Christian. In the last few years, he has been seen in a commercial for Victoria’s Secret and his voice has been heard in car commercials reciting lines such as: “Is there anything more American than America?” His last three albums have been albums of standards originally made popular by Frank Sinatra. He has defied other people’s expectations of him for so long it’s surprising that people still continue to expect anything of him at all. Most importantly, this subversion of expectations exists not only in the way that he has presented himself to the public throughout his career, but in his body of work itself. It even exists with regards to form. His song “Ballad of Hollis Brown” is a perfect example. While it adheres to many characteristics of the ballad form (including the tabloid nature of the subject matter and the vernacular language of the lyrics), it breaks away from the ballad form in many more ways, perhaps most importantly, by using second person present narration, all to let us know that we are the cause of Hollis’ pain and suffering, and by extension, the pain and suffering of the rural American farmer.
This song tells the story of a farmer named Hollis Brown who lives in rural South Dakota. He cannot grow crops because his horse died and, his land is infertile and his mule is lame. He goes walking miles to find work only to discover that there is no work to be had. His baby is crying and screaming hysterically due to hunger, and his wife and four other children stare at him pleadingly, for they’re just as desperate for food. The pressure ultimately becomes too much for him to bear, and he kills his whole family and himself by the end of the song.
There is much that “Hollis Brown” shares with traditional ballads in both form and theme. According to editors Eavan Boland and Mark Strand, the ballad has several essential characteristics. Firstly, they claim that “The ballad keeps an audience awake. Its subject matter is tabloid: death, murder, suicide, disgrace, mystery” (74-75). Secondly, they assert that the form places great emphasis on how well the audience can hear the balladeer’s voice (76). It is a voice that they insist must always be human and direct (76). And finally, they argue that the ballad’s lyrics are simple and the images it uses are stunning, and “more than any other poetic form, except the dramatic monologue, the ballad insists on ordinary, day-to-day speech and vernacular and includes it in its verses” (76).
“Hollis Brown” is most assuredly not boring, and its subject matter is quite shocking. It deals with themes of poverty, shame, surrender, murder, suicide and death as bluntly as possible. Musically, the only instrument that plays is Dylan’s guitar. Its purpose seems to be to serve Dylan’s voice, and it comes in clearly and plainly, delivered in a plain-sounding twang that makes his words sound all the more truthful and riveting. Lyrically, the words are as direct as his voice, and there is no shortage of vivid imagery here, including “Your babies are crying louder now it’s pounding on your brain/ Your wife’s screams are stabbing you like the dirty driving rain” (31-32) and “There’s seven breezes a-blowin’ all around the cabin door/ Seven shots ring out like the ocean’s pounding roar” (35-36). In the just cited lyric, when Dylan changes the lyric to “a-blowin’” when he could have just written it as “blowing” is one of several instances where Dylan insists on using the vernacular.
The song is also closely linked to the traditional ballad in that it shares a melody with the traditional ballad “Pretty Polly.” The similarities don’t end there, however. “Pretty Polly” is also a murder ballad, and its subject matter is quite lurid. It’s about a man who plans to kill “Pretty Polly” by luring her out deep into the wilderness and stabbing her, before burying her in a grave that he has spent all night digging. Both Hollis Brown and Polly’s lover cannot deal with the guilt of the heinous crimes that they’ve committed. Hollis decides to kill himself after murdering his whole family, whereas Polly’s lover goes to the local prison to confess his sins. There are a few similarities that exist below the surface of the two songs as well. In her analysis of “Pretty Polly,” the singer Rennie Sparks describes Polly and her lover’s journey into the woods in this way: “Their path twists in circles as if they’re descending the rings of hell” (The Rose & the Briar 36). The lyrics of “Hollis Brown” convey a hellish cycle too, in both the desperate nature of the reality of Hollis’ situation and the emotional turmoil that this reality is inflicting upon both him and his family. The ravenous look in his baby’s eyes, his pounding and bleeding brain, the stabs that his wife’s screams inflict upon him, his barren land, all of these factors create a waking horror, a real-world nightmare, an unrelenting hell from which there is but one escape. Hollis feels that he must endure this struggle all alone as well; he cries to the Lord to answer his prayers every night by sending him someone to help, but he gets nothing for all of his prayers. He feels as if God and the rest of the world have turned their backs on him.
“Hollis Brown” deviates from the expectations of the traditional ballad a great deal, however. The historian Mac Edward Leach believes that all ballads shared the same set of characteristics: plenty of action, a casual setting, and an implicit theme (Coffin 164).
To begin with, Leach believes that ballads emphasize action above all else (Coffin 164). “Pretty Polly” seems to follow Leach’s formula, for it has a great deal of action. If the action begins when Polly’s boyfriend tells her he wants to take her somewhere. He leads her on an incredibly long journey that entails walking through forests and climbing mountains. He then tells her that he’s spent most of the night digging her grave and he stabs her to death, ignoring her pleas. He then goes to the jail house and confesses his crimes. Action is so important in “Pretty Polly” because of how much it emphasizes the tale it is telling. In contrast, when the lyrics of Hollis are analyzed once more, it becomes clear that there is little to no action that takes place throughout the entire song. We get a recap of what has happened in Hollis’ life to lead him to such a dark place, but a summary of the action would probably go something like this: a farmer is at his wits’ end. He walks far and wide to look for work, but there is no work to be found. His family is driving him mad because they’re so hungry, so he decides that the only solution to this situation is to kill them and himself. While this may seem like a good deal of concrete action upon first glance, I do not think that they are the most important aspect of the song. They are features in the life of a wounded, broken man. They are factors in the ruination of a man and his family, but they should all be considered equally. While the story itself is of course very important in “Brown,” Dylan has bigger fish to fry, among them the thematic implications on us as a society for letting something like this happen to a man in such desperate need. In summation, “Polly” adheres more to the Leachian definition of a ballad due to the importance it places on action, while “Brown” does not prioritize action nearly as much because of other, arguably more pressing concerns that Dylan has.
Another characteristic of Leach’s definition of the ballad is how the ballad goes about conveying the action: “The ballad practices rigid economy in relating the action; incidents antecedent to the climax are often omitted, as are explanatory and motivating details…the ballad often concentrates on the resolution leaving the listener to supply details and antecedent material” (Coffin 164). In this regard, “Pretty Polly” follows the rules that Leach lays out once more. The song leaves us wondering why Polly’s lover killed her and what she did to deserve her fate in his eyes. In contrast, when considering this element of Leach’s formula, we find that “Hollis Brown” does not fit the criteria yet again, for he provides a few possible motivations for Hollis’ actions. There are many incidents that are relayed, (in great detail) that occurred prior to the climax, such as Hollis searching far and wide for work before giving up because he couldn’t find any, or the fact that he currently has no food, money, or whatever, and that all of his crops and his only horse are dead. What is unique about all of these details is that they can be considered both things that occurred before the climax and motivating reasons for why the climax occurred. Dylan provides many other motivating factors in “Hollis Brown” as well. The awful truth that his children have known no happiness their whole lives because they’ve been so hungry, or the way that the look in his baby’s eyes gets to him, or the fact that every time he hears his wife screaming it’s as if he is being stabbed. All of these psychological torments, plus the fact that he doesn’t see any of this getting better anytime soon, are motivating factors to think about when considering why he did what he did. Dylan is again trying to make us empathize with Hollis. If this story were based on a true event, our immediate reaction would be to view Hollis as inhuman: as a monster. If we are forced to look at everything he was going through, what other choice did he have? How could he have dealt with it differently?
Leach then goes onto to say that he believes “setting is casual” (Coffin 164). “Pretty Polly” continues to obey the Leachian rules. In “Polly,” the only time that setting is really described is the fact that they go over mountains and valleys, and when the lover goes to jail of his own volition. In contrast, in “Brown,” setting is anything but casual. Setting is everything, both externally (regarding Hollis’ physical world) and internally/psychologically (regarding his mental world). Dylan uses similes throughout to paint a picture of just how bleak everything is. When his wife is screaming, it’s stabs him like “the dirty drivin’ rain” (36). The seven shotgun shots sound “like the ocean’s pounding roar” (60). All of these details set the scene almost palpably. Setting is crucial to Dylan here because he lets us see just how bleak Hollis’ environment is. Even though the setting is specifically South Dakota, it could apply to any American farmer who is unable to provide for his family. He paints such a bleak picture because he wants us to be in Hollis’ world with him, a motif he returns to throughout the song in various ways.
Leach goes onto state that theme is often implicit (Coffin 164). This is true not only of “Hollis Brown,” but of nearly all of Dylan’s body of work. While Dylan will never come out and say what the themes are to any of his songs, the audience is left with at least some material from which to take guesses. All of the details that illustrate the dire poverty that the Brown’s are in cannot go unnoticed. The fact that Dylan alludes multiple times to Hollis seeking help from both God and humanity and having nothing to show for it is a detail worth noting as well. Perhaps the central theme of “Hollis Brown,” (if there is one) is that the people most deserving of our help are the ones that we tend to ignore the most? That if a benevolent God really does exist, how could He let suffering like the kind endured by the Brown’s happen under His watch? Perhaps these guesses are far too general and simplistic, but at least Dylan leaves us thinking and wondering. The same cannot be said for “Pretty Polly,” however. Interestingly enough, there were elements of the legendary and mythical in previous, older versions of “Pretty Polly.” In one version, Polly’s killer is a sailor. After he kills her and buries her, her ghost comes to his ship and “tears him to pieces” (The Rose & the Briar 39). In another version, the Polly character asks the murderer to turn around so that she can take off her clothes before he kills her, not knowing that she has superhuman strength, which she then uses to throw him into the ocean (The Rose & the Briar 40). All of these seem to be variations on the same theme: jealous men who murder their lovers will always get their comeuppance in some way. In this aspect of Leach’s definition, “Hollis” adheres to the traditional ballad tradition, while “Polly” strays from it, due to the explicit nature of its theme, for even in the current version of the song, her lover’s guilt weighs down on him and he ends up turning himself in. In “Hollis”, there is no justice to be meted out from beyond the grave. There is just a broken world, and one that will not change any time soon.
A final way in which “Hollis Brown” breaks away from what constitutes a traditional ballad is by its use of second person narration. Over half of the song’s 11 verses are in the second person present tense. According to the political activist David Horowitz, a ballad is usually told in such a way that the audience is held at a distance from the events the ballad describes (Gray 125). This is true in ballads such as “Pretty Polly” or “The Ballad of Patrick Spens,” where we can take in tales of murder and shipwreck and war without feeling too invested in the action. In “Hollis Brown,” however, we are thrust right into the center of the action. We have no choice but to care about the fate of Hollis Brown, to be put in the shoes of a man forced to slaughter his family because he thought it was the only way to alleviate their suffering.
In summation, Dylan eschewed many of these traditional ballad rules because he was going for something more ambitious with “Hollis Brown.” Like the masterful chronicler on the human condition that he is, he wants to change our perspective on an often overlooked section of the American populace, and he wants to let us know that Hollis’ fate is our fault and could have just as easily been the fate of any one of us. If “Hollis” were like “Pretty Polly” in terms of its emphasis on action over setting and theme, we would be left with a completely different song: one that tells us a lurid and shocking tale, but one that also lets us off the hook in terms of our culpability in it. Dylan wants Hollis’ plight and our apathetic, heartless role in it to stay with us long after the song is over. After all, the songs ends with the observation that seven new people are born off in the distance, as if to say the world keeps spinning, and we’ll all find another destitute family to turn our backs on. In this particular case, he had to do away with certain central tenets of the medium in order to convey the message as profoundly as he could. I believe he pulls this off masterfully. After all, certain rules are meant to be broken, and not many people have broken as many conventions and traditions as Bob Dylan.
Coffin, Tristam P. The British Traditional Ballad in North America. The American Folklore Society, 1963.
Petrus, Stephen and Cohen, Ronald P. Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival. Oxford UP, 2015.
Sparks, Rennie. “Pretty Polly.” The Rose & The Briar, edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus, W.W. Norton, 2005, pp. 35-50.
Strand, Mark and Eavan Boland, editors. The Making of a Poem. W.W. Norton, 2000.