We all hate criminals. The criminal is a low life who takes things that don’t belong to him. He does things that should not be done. The criminal should be locked up and the key thrown away.
Outlaws are another story. We love the outlaw, even though he often does the same things the criminal does.
So why do we love the outlaw and hate the criminal? It comes down to motivation. The criminal does what he does for selfish reasons. For the outlaw, his transgressions are a form of rebellion against an unjust society. Thus we applaud the outlaw but condemn the criminal.
The expensively dressed, upper-middle-class J. Edgar Hoover condemned the criminal activity of Pretty Boy Floyd. But the poor, depression-burdened Okie saw Floyd as the type of man he himself would emulate if he only had the balls. The difference between a horrific murderer and a folk hero can be a matter of perception.
Songwriters and other artists have praised outlaws for centuries. We all know the ancient story of Robin Hood. Not surprisingly, folk songwriters – themselves descendants of the downtrodden – have always been drawn to the outlaw. Woody Guthrie called them “outlaw songs”. He contributed to the genre with his Pretty Boy Floyd.
The outlaw song I want to discuss today, is Jim Jones, a traditional song that Dylan recorded for his As Good as I’ve Been to You album. I’ve been listening to that album a lot recently. I always dismissed it, thinking it much inferior to World Gone Wrong. I still do, but not as much as before.
Jim Jones is an Australian folk song, the author unknown. I would guess that is the only Australian folk song that Dylan has ever recorded. The outlaw who narrates the song has been found guilty of a crime in an English court and is sent to Australia’s Botany Bay prison to serve his time. During the trip, the boat is attacked by pirates. The narrator is disappointed that they are forced away, reasoning that being captured by the pirates would be better than what was is in store for him at Botany Bay. Towards the end, he says that he will seek revenge by joining Mark Donohue’s gang of Bushrangers (outlaws). The English will regret having sent Jim Jones to Botany Bay.
Mark Donohue was a real person. He was sent – like our narrator outlaw – from England to an Australian prison. He escaped and spent many years robbing the wealthy and eluding authorities. Donohue was immortalized in the Australian ballad Wild Colonial Boy, which probably accounts for the reference in Jim Jones.
Dylan’s recording of the song is one of the best moments on As Good As I’ve Been to You (Hard Times is still my favorite). Like many songs on the album, Dylan really shows off his acoustic guitar playing. And he sings the hell out of it.
Dylan has played the song live on numerous occasions and the world is better for it.
On the DVD Dylan Speaks, a video of a press conference held during his 1965 tour, Dylan says in response to a question about motorcycles, “Well, we all love motorcycles”. We also love outlaw songs. Jim Jones is a terrific example, and Dylan more than does it justice. Check it out.