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. bob dylan 02.jpg 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 side
I’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.
* * *
nevilles 06.jpg Both of these covers of Bob Dylan songs are from the Neville Brothers’ fantastic 1989 album Yellow Moon. It’s a winner from the first song to the last. And don’t worry – there’s a lot of funking and grooving in there to compliment the ballads and laments. —Mtume ya Salaam                 Yes, Almighty Yes                 Sometimes the music gets to you in unexpected ways. Aaron knows a lot about eating the hard, stale biscuits of despair. Biting into hardships. Eating shit for survival’s sake. My man has done time on the farm. Anglola, Louisiana. A place where the sun daily fries your head as you bend to toil in the farmland fields. The moon causes you to hallucinate in the vast emptiness of your cell. And why were you even there in the first place? Will you ever get home? Aaron invests these two Dylan songs with a feeling that can only come from experience. This is not an intellectual interpretation. This is a sharing. A deep, soulful sharing. At the level of deeptitude that only the desperate ones and those with faith like a rock know. Hollis doesn’t make it. But with God on our side we do. And what is this God—yes, precisely “what,” not who? My God is the will of my people. Will to survive even as we fly over the precipice, the slave ship side, the run into the swamp escaping slavery, the shotgun shooting through the window at the nightriders circling the cabin, the steadfast in the face of police bullies wielding clubs and guns and siccing dogs. And, yes, withstanding the withering corruptions, sell-outs and disgraces of politicians supposedly of color. Ours—this music—is our almighty yes in the face of life circumstances that keep reiterating “no” to us, “no” for us. No. No. No. We are told in so, so many ways no. But what we got is music like this whose very sound is a yes. A solid yes. Yes, and almighty yes! —Kalamu ya Salaam  

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.

4 Responses to “NEVILLE BROTHERS / “With God On Our Side””

rique Says:
February 12th, 2008 at 3:25 am

I tapped into this site because I saw something about Judas, as well as having lived for some time in New Orleans. Anyway, I believe there’s a whole lot to the Judas story than meets the eye. If anyone’s interested, some of this information can be found at:

Ravenelvenlady Says:
February 12th, 2008 at 9:02 pm

I’ve been thinking about this song for a few weeks now. It’s an incredibly soothing, healing song due to the use of the gongs and reverberations. And the lyrics can’t be more timely. Thank you for posting it this week. I’ll track down the CD.

Kiini Ibura Says:
February 13th, 2008 at 10:54 am

I love this album. Mtume, like you said, it’s a winner from the first song to the last. I didn’t know that these two songs were Bob Dylan’s–I don’t know much about the man, but clearly he can write a good song.

This post reminds me of a recent interaction I had with Ua (my five-year-old daughter). I was doing her hair and thought it would be okay to have her watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition online to distract her from how long it would take for me to comb out the knots.

I thought of it as a show about building houses, I didn’t realize that the show can be highly educational about the life circumstances of struggling (usually white) Americans. The first episode we watched was about a 8-year-old girl with cancer. Ua had a lot of questions about cancer, what is it, what happened to her hair, etc. We got through that one okay.

Were I wise, I would have stopped there and finished the child’s hair the next day. It was late and I wanted to finish, so we decided to watch the next one. It was about a Marine who had finished his tour of duty and gone home to be with his wife and four children. He was asked later to go to Iraq–he didn’t have to, his service was complete, but he wanted to fight for freedom, support the Marines, and serve his country.

He led a team who rode around in tanks finding bombs. They were rushing to the aid of a group of Marines who were underfire when they set off a bomb. Tank overturned and some piece of metal severed his leg. He lost his leg, won a whole bunch of medals, went home, fought through depression, got physical therapy and a prosthesis, lost his wife, and became the full-time, solo parent of his four kids.

By the time the Extreme Makeover folks found him he was living in pretty bad conditions. His four children–ranging in age from nine to three (I think)–shared one room and a set of bunk beds. Patches of floor were missing throughout the house, doors falling off hinges. The floor was on different levels so there were areas of the house he couldn’t access. In his front yard his American flag and his Marine flag was flying high.

Ua cried through the majority of the show. She didn’t understand why the man lost his leg. Why did he go back to the war when he didn’t have to? Why did the mother leave? Who would take care of the kids if something happened to the father? Who would visit the father if he had to go back to the hospital? She cried and said her heart hurt. I kept saying let’s turn it off, but she said no and kept watching.

The reason the man gave for fighting was to fight for freedom. I didn’t know what to tell Ua about that. She was already traumatized about what the man had been through, to diminish the nobility of his cause seemed cruel. He truly believed in what he did and said he would go and fight again.

As the show reached its end, Ua said she could look at his leg without getting scared. I think we’re like that about war. Her reaction was a human reaction to the horrors of war and loss, but as we stare at it longer and longer our original reaction gets deadened.

I don’t know what to do about war and I don’t know what to tell my daughter about war. I know it’s not black and white. This post about “God on Our Side” reminded me about this war moment in my home and I guess the story just wanted to come out.

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