Among the 100 or so great songs written by Bob Dylan, the mystical, Rimbaud-like Desolation Row is among his very best. Coming at the end of his wild, genre-busting album, Highway 61 Revisited, its 10 verses spread over 11 acoustic minutes are beautifully sung by the 24-year old Dylan. The lyrics are full of imagery and literary allusions so startling and dense I have yet to tire of them, even after 50 years (yikes!) and a hundred or more listenings. Each verse is a gem, a story in itself. On the rare occasion when Bob performs Desolation Row in concert, I feel proverbial shivers up and down me olde spine.
The long ballad opens with the haunting lines: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlour is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.” During the many years I used to puzzle over Dylan’s lyrics and what they could possibly mean, I came to accept that the words in Desolation Row painted nightmarish pictures, but nothing more.
As I eventually learned, however, the first and fourth lines of the song’s opening verse are based on a real event that remains shocking even today. It took place in the Lake Superior port city of Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born and lived until his family moved to Hibbing in 1947.
On June 15, 1920, far from the deep south, where lynchings were commonplace, an ugly mob stormed the local jailhouse and rousted out three terrified black men, who were in Duluth as part of a travelling circus. Accused of raping a white girl, they were given a hasty “street trial”, beaten and strung up from a lamppost at the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East.
As if that weren’t bad enough, a photo was taken of the lynchers, posing proudly by their murderous handiwork. The photo was soon made into a postcard that circulated around Duluth for years. Dylan’s uncle remembered seeing such a postcard, when he was a youngster, and young Bob obviously heard him mention it. Hence: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…..The circus is in town.”
You can read the whole terrible story here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1920_Duluth_lynchings
One wintry weekend last November, my brother and I travelled south down Highway 61 in search of Dylan’s roots. Our first stop was the scene of the lynchings in Duluth. There is now an evocative memorial to the three dead men, put up by the city in 2003, across the street from the actual site. Presiding over a small plaza, it cast a sombre yet powerful spell on us both, despite the bitter cold and dusting of snow. I doubt if I will ever hear Desolation Row again, without thinking of those poor victims: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.
Then, we went to the modest, nicely-painted duplex where, for the first six years of Bob’s life, the Zimmerman’s resided on the second floor (right). The house is a mere five and a half blocks from the spot where Duluth had its night of infamy.
And finally, here’s Dylan singing his great song. Live, in concert. Sit back and get lost, man. Not often you get Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35gheud5xBo