To Kill Ol’ Bill
(In a fight for Love and Glory)
by J. R. Stokes
my article for Freewheelin 236 (Take 38 of Freewheelin-on-line) to
which I gave the subtitle ‘Down In The Willow Garden’ I wrote about the
extraordinary version of ‘Tears of Rage’ that Dylan performed at The
Holmes Center in the town of Boone, North Carolina on the 7th April
2004. One of the things that made the performance extraordinary (at
least to me) was the inclusion of the following verse which, in times
when Dylan appeared to be sticking to his lyric sheets, was something of
"I’ve never been to Strawberry Fields
I’ve never been to Penny Lane
But I’ve been down in the Willow Garden
And I’ve ridden on the hell bound train.
And I want you to know
Just before you go
Where to find me in case you needed to.
It was early dawn, you were long gone
Before anybody knew."
wrote at length in my article about the references to those familiar
lines from Beatles’ songs but I also dwelt on the aspect of the ‘death’
of a relationship in ‘Tears Of Rage’ and how that aspect was underlined
by the reference, in the new verse, to the song ‘Down In The Willow
Garden’. This is what I said about that:
“The song ‘Down In The Willow Garden’ was written in the 1950’s by
Charlie Monroe and has been recorded by many artists, notably by Art
Garfunkel on the album ‘Angel Clare’ where Jerry Garcia played backing
guitar. It is a song about the violent death of a ‘dear little girl’.
The lyrics are as follows:
Down in the willow garden
Where me and my love did meet,
As we set there a courtin',
My love fell off to sleep.
I had a bottle of burgundy wine,
My love she did not know.
So I poisoned that dear little girl
On the banks below.
I drew a saber through her,
It was a bloody knife,
I threw her in the river,
Which was a dreadful sight.
My father oft had told me
That money would set me free
If I would murder that dear little girl
Whose name was Rose Connelly.
My father sits at his cabin door,
Wiping his tear dimmed eyes,
For his only son soon shall walk
To yonder scaffold high.
My race is run beneath the sun,
The scaffold now waits for me,
For I did murder that dear little girl
Whose name was Rose Connelly.
Dylan wanted to emphasize the aspect of death in ‘Tears of Rage’ then
the reference to ‘Down In The Willow Garden’ in the new verse of the
song is like taking a steam hammer to a robin’s egg. There is death by
poison, death by stabbing, death by drowning, and ultimately, for the
perpetrator, death by hanging. Death, death, death and more death. OK
Bob, we know what you are getting at!”
After I wrote that article I managed to get hold of a recording of ‘Down
In The Willow Garden’ by the wonderfully dark Australian
singer/songwriter Nick Cave. Cave of course is something of a Dylan fan
himself and indeed, staying with this aspect of ‘death’ in songs, a
track from Cave’s album ‘Murder Ballads’ is Dylan’s ‘Death Is Not The
Now anyone who has had the time and the patience to wade through any of
my past somewhat unboxed - some may say unhinged - observations
concerning the songs of Bob Dylan, will know that I treat his works as
paintings, sketches from life, drawings from the underground of his
imagination. I never mean to be particularly analytical, interpretative
or smart for I hold the view that no one has the definitive answer when
it comes to questions of art and, on the subject of Bob Dylan’s art, it
sure ain’t me babe who has the answers; and it’s probably not Bob Dylan,
either. Babe! What I do try and relate is the picture that a Dylan song
forms in my mind as I get the same feeling when listening to a Dylan
song to the shudder I experience when I stand in front of, for instance,
Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles D'Avignon’. My contention is that there is not much between these
two great artists, Dylan uses a pen and Picasso used a brush – amongst
I got into this frame by talking of murder a la ‘Down In the Willow
Garden’ and upon listening to ‘Tell Ol Bill’, the image that forms in my
mind is one of a murder, and indeed the whole thing could be a murder
I suppose the main image is drawn from that verse:
‘You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All my doubts and fears have gone at last
I've nothing more to tell you now.’
the image of a grave that Dylan is drawing here? In death, the cold
corpse cannot speak, yet balanced against that dread of eternal silence
is the delightful notion that, also in death, you no longer have doubts
or fears. The only life is above ground where you get “trampled on” as
people pass. And in a grave you become:
“stranded in this nameless place
Lyin' restless in a heavy bed”.
is a master at displaying a background atmosphere to his studies and he
paints an almost Gothic scene with:
“The ground is hard in times like
Stars are cold, the night is young.
The rocks are bleak, the trees are bare
Iron clouds go floatin' by
Snowflakes falling in my hair
Beneath the gray and stormy sky.
The evenin' sun is sinking low
The woods are dark, the town is too
They''ll drag you down, they run the show
Ain't no tellin' what they'll do”.
who, exactly are “they” who will “drag you down and run the show”.
Perhaps they are the sinister, almost hidden, dark ogres with torture,
treachery and murder on their minds. In desperation the narrator begs:
“Tell me straight out if you will
Why must you torture me within?
Why must you come down off your high hill?
Throw my fate to the clouds and wind.”
there was a plea for mercy, then it was in vain, for in his death
throes, Dylan describes what he sees and feels:
“The heavens have never seemed so near
All my body glows with flame.
The tempest struggles in the air
And to myself alone I sing
It could sink me then and there
I can hear the echoes ring”.
line ‘ the tempest struggles in the air’ is so very descriptive: the
‘tempest’ being life itself and the ‘struggle’ being the fight with the
howling beast that haunts the border line between life and death.
Ultimately, at the time of passing, it is only the echoes of sound that
ring; never the real thing.
So the entire image portrayed by the song the with it’s Gothic
background and it’s sinister characters seems completely dark and
foreboding. Not entirely. There is somewhere over the rainbow here as
Dylan adopts the Laws of Contraries carved in stone by William Blake.
The Law of Contraries holds that for every curse there must be a
blessing, for every tear there must be a smile and for every dark eye
there must be some blue sky. It is right that this is so: man was made
for joy AND woe. So Dylan adds a splash of colour to his somber tones as
he introduces a breath of fresh air to both the living and the dead
“Far away in a silent land…….
I walk by tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season's dawn awaits”.
is a further cameo image to be added to the picture, and this relates to
another murder. In the final scenes of that quintessential film
‘Casablanca’ Bogart’s Rick shoots the German General so that his one
time lover, Bergman’s Ilsa and her husband Victor Lazlo can fly away.
The film tells the heart breaking story of love that is found and then
lost. Heroic decisions are made for the sake of love but ultimately
there is a resignation to and an acceptance of the state of how things
turn out in these torrid affairs of the heart. The final verses to the
title song from the film ‘As Time Go By’ endeavours to unlock the door
to understanding of just what happens when love lives and then dies.
‘Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny
Well, it's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.’
song says, “Its still the same old story, a fight for love and glory. A
case of do and die”.
That then is what you have to tell Ol’ Bill when he comes home:
“That the hour has come to do or die.”
that hour comes the final state of resignation to and acceptance of how
things are going to turn out. Whether in life or in death, in love or in
hate. Whether you see blue skies, nothing but blue skies or whether
there are a million faces at your feet and all you see are dark eyes.
There is nothing more than this:
“All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?”
really, as time goes by, how could it?
Ps. I know that any article about a Dylan song cannot be complete
without reference being made to the music that accompanies the lyrics.
In the case of Tel Ol’ Bill the meandering country style backing with
drum beat seems to me just a frame which surrounds the picture. It has
to be there because it is song and a song simply has to be words and
music. In this instance however, the melody doesn’t really rise and fade
but merely draws you into the words. So, before being tortured to death
Ol’ Bill was clearly framed!
Signs on the windows
The following links will take you to further pages mentioned in this
article. Additional information is provided by reference to further
links mentioned below.
My article on ‘Tears of Rage’ from Freewheelin-on-line can be found
The lyrics to ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ can be found
The site for the movie North Country (from which the song came) can be
The lyrics to ‘As Time Goes By’ can be found
If you are interested in reading more about murder ballads then I
would heartily recommend the book ‘The Rose and the Briar – Death, Love
and Liberty in the American Ballad’ edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil
Marcus which has a chapter on the Dylan song ‘Lily, Rosemary and The
Jack of Hearts. This book can be purchased from Woodstock Publications
Other sites of interest:
If you wish to e-mail me about this article you can contact me at: