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Massey Lecture Profiles Bob Dylan's Murder Ballad

By Tree A. Palmedo, Crimson Staff Writer

“Nearly 40 years ago Greil, California-born and Berkeley-trained, changed the landscape of American music criticism,” began Werner M. Sollors, professor of English and African-American studies, as he introduced the first of Greil Marcus’s contributions to the William E. Massey Lectures. “He described in surprising and vivid metaphors the rock and roll he heard,” Sollors said.

Now, after working as a rock critic and columnist for Rolling Stone in its early years, as well as writing for Salon, The New York Times, Artforum, Esquire, and The Village Voice and publishing several books, Marcus has brought criticism of popular music into the academy, teaching at Berkeley and the New School in New York and delivering lectures on music.

The talk he delivered Monday in the Sackler Auditorium was part of the William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures in American Studies, which have been an annual tradition since 1983, endowed by an anonymous donor in honor of the former president of A.T. Massey Coal Company to bring distinguished figures in the arts and letters to speak at Harvard.

Past lecturers have included Gish Jen, Richard Rorty, Toni Morrison and Gore Vidal. Marcus was chosen in part, Sollors said, because, “he boldly consider[s] popular culture equivalent to canonical literature in shaping a national discourse.” Monday’s lecture was the first in a series of three titled, “Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations,” and each night’s lecture focused on a particular song by a particular folk singer: first was Bob Dylan, followed by the lesser-known Geeshie Wiley and Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

Marcus, who sees folk songs as bedrock documents of American identity, focused the first lecture on Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and through examining the song’s history and its sound, Marcus spoke of how it has transcended its origins as a song and story invented by Dylan to become as classic as any old folk standard.

He began by vividly detailing an early performance of the song on a 1963 Westinghouse television special hosted by John Henry Faulk. In the midst of lively cartoons and performances celebrating the folk revival as a new American patriotism, Dylan’s performance of “Hollis Brown” was hauntingly minimalist, Marcus said. “As the cartoon landscape disappears into a black backdrop, you’re brought into the story: A failing farm, a starving family, and a father who kills them all.”

Marcus explained the history of the song’s conception, most broadly that it was based on the blues form of songs such as “Pretty Polly,” a traditional murder ballad. “The structure of ‘Pretty Polly’…is always the shape of the blues; that’s what the structure of ‘Hollis Brown’ is: Those first two verses and then a third verse knocking them dead,” he said.

“Hollis Brown” was recorded on Dylan’s 1964’s album “The Times They Are  a-Changin’.” It had taken Dylan several years of  working on the song before he was ready to record this powerful performance.

“When he first sang [“Hollis Brown”] in public there’s no sense of event, there’s no sense that something’s happening as you listen,” Marcus said. Dylan’s subsequent performances, Marcus said, were still too preachy. “He’s giving a speech,” Marcus said of an earlier recording of the song. “‘There is a farm problem! We need a new farm policy!’” he said, speaking in jest of Dylan’s uninviting delivery.

In the song’s final form, Marcus explained, Dylan brings the listener in and makes him or her complicit in the crime. “What is happening in the song is happening as you listen,” Marcus said. “[The farmer] is standing in front of you, and he’s holding out his hand.”

“With that, the song walked away from Bob Dylan and into the world as if it had always been there, which it had,” Marcus said.  According to Marcus, part of this timelessness is its relation to the theme of poverty, which could have made it a song of the 1930s or even a ballad from the depression of the 1890s. “‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ seems set in the past because American poverty is so easily turned into art,” Marcus said.

To Marcus, folk music blurs the line between originality and tradition, as all new music is deeply rooted in the folk canon and every singer puts a unique stamp on the classics. “In the American folk song, there’s a language that, as people speak the same phrases as everyone else, seduces or compels them to add their own shadings,” he said. “Any statement can appear at once as commonplace and individual, something that anyone might say, but now heard in a way that no one else would ever say it.”

To complement his detailed description of the song’s sound, Marcus finally played the recording of the song from “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The audience sat in silence as they listened to Dylan’s recorded voice sing, “Well there’s seven people dead / On a South Dakota farm / Somewheres in the distance / There’s seven new people born.”

—Staff writer Tree A. Palmedo can be reached at

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