To Kill Ol’ Bill
(In a fight for Love and Glory)

by J. R. Stokes


In 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 a rarity:

"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."

I 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.

If 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 End’.

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 other things.

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 ballad itself.

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.’

Is it 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”.

Dylan 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 these
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”.

But 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.”

If 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”.

That 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”.

There 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.’

As the 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.”

And in 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?”

Well 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 here.

The lyrics to ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ can be found here.

The site for the movie North Country (from which the song came) can be found here.

The lyrics to ‘As Time Goes By’ can be found here.

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 here.

Other sites of interest:

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