Ballad of Hollis Brown

 

Commentary

The Ballad of Hollis Brown is not a ballad at all. It’s actually a blues song, written in the standard AAB form, where the second line is a repetition of the first. On the other hand, the lyrics do tell a story, and unlike most blues songs, it’s not in the first person. So maybe it is a ballad. I can’t decide.

Hollis is adapted from the traditional Pretty Polly, itself a tale of murder and woe. Todd Harvey notes that Dylan also recorded Hollis during a session for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. A live version can be found on the Gaslight Tapes.

The shifting tense of the narrator’s voice is an interesting characteristic of this song and an important characteristic of Dylan’s writing style. In Hollis, the tense shifts from third person past tense (Hollis Brown he lived on the outside of town) to second person past (You looked for work and money) to third person present (There’s seven people dead On a South Dakota farm).

Perhaps the purpose of the change to the second person may be to personalize the song’s message to the listener so that he can relate his own struggles with Brown’s. Another possibility is that the singer is now directing the song to Hollis Brown himself. The ambiguous use of pronouns and verb tense are devices that Dylan returns to many times, most famously in Tangled Up in Blue, from Blood on the Tracks.

Note all the alliteration: seven breezes/a cold coyote calls/seven shotgun shells.

The eyes tugging instead of the expected ‘hands’ is a nice touch:

Your baby’s eyes look crazy
They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve

I especially like the “seven shots” verse.

Seven shots ring out
Like the ocean’s pounding roar

If you think about it, a crashing wave really does sometimes sound like a shotgun blast; maybe one that’s been recorded and played back at a slower speed.

The ending is also interesting. To me, it means the cycle of poverty and desperation is bound to repeat itself in the next generation, and it has for thousands of years.

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

 


 

Lyrics

Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children
And his cabin fallin’ down

You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
Your children are so hungry
That they don’t know how to smile

Your baby’s eyes look crazy
They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve
Your baby’s eyes look crazy
They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve
You walk the floor and wonder why
With every breath you breathe

The rats have got your flour
Bad blood it got your mare
The rats have got your flour
Bad blood it got your mare
If there’s anyone that knows
Is there anyone that cares?

You prayed to the Lord above
Oh please send you a friend
You prayed to the Lord above
Oh please send you a friend
Your empty pockets tell yuh
That you ain’t a-got no friend

Your babies are crying louder
It’s pounding on your brain
Your babies are crying louder
It’s pounding on your brain
Your wife’s screams are stabbin’ you
Like the dirty drivin’ rain

Your grass it is turning black
There’s no water in your well
Your grass is turning black
There’s no water in your well
You spent your last lone dollar
On seven shotgun shells

Way out in the wilderness
A cold coyote calls
Way out in the wilderness
A cold coyote calls
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
That’s hangin’ on the wall

Your brain is a-bleedin’
And your legs can’t seem to stand
Your brain is a-bleedin’
And your legs can’t seem to stand
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
That you’re holdin’ in your hand

There’s seven breezes a-blowin’
All around the cabin door
There’s seven breezes a-blowin’
All around the cabin door
Seven shots ring out
Like the ocean’s pounding roar

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

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