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The Drifter’s Escape

October 17, 2016

Oh, help me in my weakness
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away
My trip hasn’t been a pleasant one
And my time it isn’t long
And I still do not know
What it was that I’ve done wrong

Well, the judge, he cast his robe aside
A tear came to his eye
You fail to understand, he said
Why must you even try
Outside, the crowd was stirring
You could hear it from the door
Inside, the judge was stepping down
While the jury cried for more

Oh, stop…
Oh, stop that cursed jury
Cried the attendant and the nurse
The trial was bad enough
But this is ten times worse
Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while everybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

–Bob Dylan, 1967

COMMENTARY: Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature this week “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” While the question of whether he should have won in literature is debatable (I think it’s a great idea), I don’t think there’s any denying Dylan’s lyrics are poetry, and, as poetry, shaped much of American music and culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. Surreal, Whitmanesque, bohemian, socially conscious, angular and ironic, they’re as much of a part of the landscape of the language as anything Frost or Dickinson wrote.

Of course, one of the difficult things about evaluating song lyrics as poetry is that melody always stands above the words as an invisible but unavoidable “third presence” intervening between page and reader. The words of a number of Dylan’s songs, however, work as well in silence as they do on the stage. This is one of them: the clarity of the diction, the parable-esque story, and the haunting ending, make this almost a myth or a novel 24 short lines.   

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