June 7, 2006

"They don't have the electric chair anymore."

"But if they did, they wouldn't name it," said Bob Dylan, after noting the names of a couple of defunct electric chairs, Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie. Wikipedia lists a few more electric chair names: Sizzlin' Sally, Old Smokey, Yellow Mama. These days, execution is by lethal injection, and I don't suppose they name the needles, either, do they? There's something wrong with naming the deadly device, isn't there? We're supposed to be serious and somber about manipulating the machinery of death. But it's the prisoners that get the nicknaming going, isn't it? They're the ones who need to laugh at death. Do we really think these folks will ease up on the morbid humor? Somewhere, someone is calling the lethal injection Little Pricky.

Anyway, the theme of this week's "Theme Time Radio with Bob Dylan" was prison, but Bob branched out to some prison-related things like chain gangs ("Back on the Chain Gang" by the Pretenders) and electric chairs (Bessie Smith doing "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair"). The last song -- I forget the title and artist -- was about a guy told he couldn't be executed until they'd brought him his last meal and if they didn't have the ingredients on had they'd go out and get them. The song is a list of items like dinosaur steak and crocodile tears. Most predictable song: "Folsom Prison Blues." He played that first, so you didn't have to think about when he would play it. Bob tells us Cash came up with the line "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" after deciding he wanted the worst reason to kill somebody -- and it didn't take long to think of that reason. The singer who impressed me the most: Wanda Jackson ("There's a Riot Going On"). What a voice!

What was Bob's attitude toward prison? I kept trying to discern it, but he was his usual enigmatic self. There was no preachiness about injustice. He was mostly matter of fact. People commit crimes, and then they go to prison, and it's bad. He didn't seem too sympathetic, nor was he channeling society's vindictiveness -- though at one point he seemed to approve of the chain gang. They're out there by the side of the road, and you can point them out and say don't let that happen to you. Mostly, as on all the shows, you can hear how much he loves all the singers.

17 comments:

Too Many Jims said...

My favorite "prison" song is "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" thoough I suspect it did not make Dylan's playlist.

Ron said...

Well, during WWII we put names (and sexy art!) on planes that were meant to blow up whole cities!

is that worse?

Drew W said...

On Self Portrait -- one of most Dylan-fans' least favorite Dylan records and one of this Dylan-fan's favorites, for more reasons than perversity alone -- he recorded a lovely cover of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant's "Take A Message To Mary," which was a top 40 hit for the Everly Brothers in 1959. Its somewhat traditional take on crime and punishment seems akin to Prof. Althouse's take on Dylan's perspective:

Take a message to Mary,
But don't tell her what I've done.
Please don't mention the stagecoach,
And the shot from a careless gun.
You better tell her that I had to change my plans
And cancel out the wedding day,
But please don't mention my lonely cell
Where I'm gonna pine away
Until my dying day.


Hmmm. No mention anywhere of poverty or parental abuse or unhealthy diet or body-image issues or the ultimate culpability of gun manufacturers.

Henry said...

That reminds me of "Life in Prison" from the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo:

The jury found the verdict first degree
They swore I planned her death to be
I prayed they'd sentence me to die
But they wanted me to live and i know why

So I'd do life in prison for the wrongs i've done
And I pray every night for death to come
My life will be a burden every day
If I could die, my pain might go away....

tiggeril said...

Huh. I'll have to admit my own prejudices here, because I thought that Dylan would be all "Free Mumia!"

Another reminder to not confuse the artist with most of his fans.

paulfrommpls said...

From Chronicles:

"One guy who kept reappearing in the news was Caryl Chessman, a notorious rapist whom they called the Red-Light Bandit. He was on death row in California after being tried and convicted of raping young women. He had a creative way of doing it - strapped a flashing red light to the top of his automobile and then pulled the girls over to the side of the road, ordering them out, hauling them into the woods, robbing and raping them. He'd been on death row for quite a while making appeal after appeal, but his last appeal had been final and he was scheduled to go into the gas chamber. Chessman had become a cause célèbre and luminaries had taken up his plight. Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Robert Frost, even Eleanor Roosevelt were calling for his life to be spared. An anti-death penalty group had asked Len (Chandler, a friend) to write a song about Chessman.

"'How do you write a song about a pariah who rapes young women, what would be the angle?' he asked me me as if his imagination was actually on fire.

"'I don't know, Len, I guess you'd have to build it slowly... maybe start with the red lights.'

"Len never did write that song, but I think someone else did. One thing about Chandler was that he was fearless..."

SteveR said...

I don't imagine he played his song "Hurricane" about Rubin Carter. I recall his version of events was widely criticized.

I don't think they named the gallows either.

"The next day was hangin' day, the sky was overcast and black,
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back.
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn't even blink,
The hangin' judge was sober, he hadn't had a drink.
The only person on the scene missin' was the Jack of Hearts."

Ann Althouse said...

Many of Dylan's songs are about criminals, mostly fictional characters like "the thief." He does have that song about Hurricane Carter, which is very sympathetic to a wrongfully convicted man. There's also:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard.
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards.
Lord, Lord,
They cut George Jackson down.
Lord, Lord,
They laid him in the ground.


There's the ending of "Ballad in Plain D":

Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me,
"How good, how good does it feel to be free?"
And I answer them most mysteriously,
"Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?"


Also consider Drifter's Escape, where God intervenes and saves a man from being sent to prison.

For a song about how those who commit crimes ought to pay dearly, there's The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

paulfrommpls said...

Ann, I've read a few things leading me to thnk there is serious argument about the wrongful conviction of Hurricane Carter, unfortunately.

Hamsun56 said...

Stever: He seems to be excluding his songs from his show. I'm not complaining as it is interesting to hear him talk about the singers and songs that have moved him.

On the other hand, some of his songs would be a perfect thematic fit. "I shall be released" this week, and "One more cup of Coffee" last week. It'd also be fun to hear covers of his songs that he likes.

Ann Althouse said...

Stever: He never plays his own songs or even talks about them. He doesn't talk about himself much. Occasionally, he says that he knew or met one of the singers he's playing, and sometimes he makes a joke that is but isn't really about himself, like after saying some singer's wife helped him writes songs, he said "Wish I had a wife help me write songs." He's genuinely inside the DJ role and not letting on that he's the big rockstar genius of all time.

Hamsun56 said...

Ann: We could add "Joey" to the list of songs about criminals. Joey Gallo was sort of an odd hero for him to write a song about. I guess there was the romantic outlaw aspect, like the songs he wrote about Billy the Kid.

"Wanted Man" could have also been played. Johnny Cash sung it, but Dylan wrote it.

SteveR said...

Ann: I can understand he's wanting to have fun in that DJ role and that would preclude any self focus. Its just hard for me to get beyond his body of work, which of course the only reason I find him interesting. Maybe I'll try.

SteveR said...

Ann: I can understand he's wanting to have fun in that DJ role and that would preclude any self focus. Its just hard for me to get beyond his body of work, which of course the only reason I find him interesting. Maybe I'll try.

Dean Esmay said...

I would be willing to wager that it was prisoners who came up with nicknames like "Old Sparky."

I'd also be willing to bet money that there is a name for the lethal injection machine that we just don't hear. Probably "cocktail wagon" or something like that (it uses a mix of three drugs injected in a specific order).

There is a reason for the term "gallows humor." It appears to be a very human impulse.

Troy said...

Fat Man and Little Boy. And wasn't Big Bertha a howitzer that could rain hell from 20 miles away?

Needle names... Little Pricky? Can you imagine Scott Peterson's death date? Big prick. Meet Little Prick.

JazzBass said...

Yee-ha! Wanda Jackson! Now you're cooking with gas, Professor!!
Getting hip, i see.