NEVILLE BROTHERS / “With God On Our Side”
In “Robber Barons and Rebels,” chapter eleven of Howard Zinn’s massive and sobering A People’s History Of The United States, Zinn describes the hard life suffered by farmers of the late 19th century.
Corn which had brought 45 cents a bushel in 1870 brought 10 cents a bushel in 1889. Harvesting wheat required a machine to bind the wheat before it became too dry, and this cost several hundred dollars, which the farmer had to buy on credit, knowing the $200 would be twice as hard to get in a few years. Then he had to pay a bushel of corn in freight costs for every bushel he shipped. He had to pay the high prices demanded by the grain elevators at the terminals. In the South the situation was worse than anywhere – 90 percent of the farmers lived on credit.Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” tells the story of one these farmers. Dylan describes the “broken down” cabin where Hollis Brown lives and the “ragged mile” he walks daily looking for work. Dylan describes Hollis’ five babies, “crazy eyed” with hunger. Using violent, angry language, Dylan talks about the sounds and feelings Hollis experiences. The cries of Hollis’ babies “pound” his brain while his wife’s screams “stab” him like rain. When Hollis spends his last dollar on seven shotgun shells, it’s easy to do the math and see what’s coming. Part of Dylan’s genius though is he usually finds a way to confound your expectations. “There’s seven people dead now on a South Dakota farm,” he writes, and given all the foreshadowing, that line is entirely unsurprising, though still effective. But then he adds, “Somewhere in the distance, there’s seven new people born.” Which changes the meaning of not just the line previous, but the entire song. This isn’t a ballad for Hollis Brown, one broken-down farmer. It’s a ballad for all of the Hollis Browns, for all of the broken-down farmers, even for the entire rural underclass. Seven people—one man, one woman and five children—are gone: their personal, individual suffering is over. Seven new sufferers take their place. Zinn’s book also tells stories of war – the Indian-American War, the Civil War, both World Wars, Vietnam, etc. But instead of telling his stories the usual way they’re told – as grand, heroic struggles for freedom and justice – Zinn tells his war stories from the inside out. Zinn doesn’t speak of generals and presidents, he speaks of privates and foot soldiers. He speaks of young men driven out of cities and towns and into the army not by patriotism, piety or bloodlust but by unemployment and hunger. Dylan has a record that speaks to that reality too. “My name, it means nothing,” begins a Dylan tune called “With God On Our Side,” “And my age, it means less.” Dylan’s narrator is faceless, nameless, even ageless because, when you know you’re going off to die, none of that matters. In brief, broad strokes, “With God On Our Side” sweeps through the history of America’s armed conflicts, beginning with the genocidal march westward (“the Calvaries charged and the Indians died”), touching briefly on the Spanish-American and Civil wars (“the names of the heroes, I was made to memorize”), the two World Wars (“I learned to accept it, accept it with pride”), the Vietnam War (“so many young men died, so many mothers cried”), and finally, the Cold War (“to hate them and fear them, to run and to hide”). After each of those lines, Dylan repeats his question, “Was God on our side?” Then comes the trademark Dylan twist. Here’s the second-to-last verse:
Through many dark hours I’ve been thinking about this That Jesus Christ was Betrayed by a kiss But I keep it for you You have to decide Whether Judas Iscariot Had God on his sideI’ll leave you to your own conclusions about that stanza. As for Dylan’s conclusions, he ultimately decides this: if God is really on our side, He won’t help us win the next war, He’ll stop it from occurring in the first place. Amen to that.
This entry was posted on Monday, February 11th, 2008 at 1:02 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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