Lola Rose’s Blog: Justice Ballads

Civil_rights_parade_at_the_1964_RNC_2 Warren K. Leffler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(Image: Civil_rights_parade_at_the_1964_RNC_2 Warren K. Leffler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The significance of Justice in relation to the Ballad through the works of Bob Dylan, Abel Meeropol and Dudley Randall

The Ballad form is often used to narrate a story or historical event and is typically rooted (or purported to be rooted) in the culture of oral beliefs and in practices of recitation and live entertainment. In other words, it is used as a simple, objective approach to get across a message by focusing on the emphasis of a story being told rather than the emotions of the poet recounting it. Justice is defined as the ‘Maintenance of what is just or right by the exercise of authority or power’ (N,1, OED) The range of content expressed within such affairs is regularly consumed with social and political radicalism in its fight for justice which is why this essay will predominantly focus on how the connotations of the word justice relate to the ballad. Specifically, in the context of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’ and Dudley Randall’s ‘Ballad of Birmingham’, which were all arguably crucial in advocating for the Civil Rights Movement and Black liberation.

The use of the human voice through the form of musical communication allowed the 

ballad to become a favoured poetical device in its appeal towards the common man. Such use of simple dialect language meant that ballads could appeal to the broadest possible audience, as even those who were illiterate would easily be able to interpret the message being conveyed by the poet. Other forms of poetry are often far more obtuse and difficult to understand, as they have a hidden meaning that is left for the reader to fathom. As a result, many diverse minority groups have been left to feel excluded from participating in such conversation due to their lack of resources. When looking at the ballad’s relationship towards society, Rhian Williams explained how the general ballad tradition engaged with ‘ideas of right and wrong, especially in terms of social order’, which meant that its association with the lower class created a ‘disapproving or mocking attitude towards dissolute aristocracy and overlords’ (Williams 2013:29). This in an important aspect to note with regards to the ballads discussed below, as much of the justice that the poets pleaded for was directed towards the corrupt authorities and leaders in the Southern region of the United States who turned a blind eye towards the murders of innocent black lives during a period of racial maliciousness. This essay will look further into how ballads played a vital role in the movement for equality and social justice. 

‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (Dylan 1964:1500) was released in 1964, during a time when nations across the globe were in a state of general emergency and the Cold War was at its peak. It had only been a matter of two years since the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to turn the Cold War into a Nuclear War and uncertainty was in the air, as society was afraid of what might come next. Dylan purposely wrote this song during a period of rapid social change in America in order to bring attention to the Civil Rights Movement and to further persuade his audience to ‘admit that the waters | Around you have grown’ meaning they should join forces with the movement instead of continuing to live in fear of oppression. Although the song derived from Scottish and Irish ballads that predominantly focused on love and romance tales, this was a reaction to contemporary events which were viewed as creating one form or another of a crisis of justice. It was often recalled as an anthem for change and had one clear message: listen to the youth of America.

Dylan saw the youth as a progressive force, as young people were the future and held

great deal of economic power as they benefitted from the United States growth. This continuously growing force meant that the establishment knew it could no longer simply ignore the ‘battle outside’ that was ‘ragin’’, as society became tired of their demands being silenced. This movement resulted in a group of opinionated radical rebels demanding a change in the justice system, as the flawed values of the Southern state leaders had reached its climax. An awareness of racial segregation and discrimination had came to national prominence during the mid 1950s and it was evident that the existing system needed to change. This archetypal protest song was a cry for justice that pleaded for society to hold the government accountable for the unruly crimes they had the power of preventing. Michael Gray explained that ‘Dylan’s aim was to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public-to give that inchoate sentiment an anthem and give its clamour an outlet’ (Gray 2006:662). The reactionary attitudes that formed from ultranationalist leaders meant that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not stop authority from ignoring hate crime that discriminated towards those of a different race, religion and/or sex. It was inevitable that such change in legislation would be met with oppressive force, yet Dylan knew that his ballad had the potential to change the outdated political ideologies of the ‘senators’ and ‘congressmen’ values at that time through the use of the lyrical ballad. The entirety of the radical nature conveyed within this ballad allowed for the basis of social structures during a period of violent anti-blackness to become redefined and shaped into a new meaning.

Although the poem was successful in bringing awareness towards such social inequity, it

should be noted here that the metrical composition that lay behind this ballad held no real solution to ending discrimination. Instead, its aim, through its structure, was to give an everlasting message of hope to the American public that change would inevitably occur just as the songs form builds to a rousing climax. Poetry can by no means ever be a space in which the problems being discussed can be met with a fixed resolution in a matter of lines and words. Racial bigotry and right-wing values still play an extremely prominent role in the contemporary world and there is no real answer to when such social issues can be fixed. The universal lyrics of this ballad instead, created a process of shaping moral values and further caused a development of change in time rather than necessarily providing a complete solution to the crisis.

Another ballad that was a major catalyst towards the start of the Civil Rights Movement was written by Abel Meeropol in 1937, titled ’Strange Fruit’ (Meeropol 1937:1497-1498). It was chiefly recognisable through the version recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Unlike the form of protest songs, Strange Fruit leaned towards more of a metaphorical approach in its choice of harrowing subject matter. ‘Strange Fruit’ was a figurative comparison between that of lynched black Americans in the South and fruit hanging from ‘southern trees’. Lynching became disturbingly common after the abolition of slavery, as a result of the Reconstruction era. White racists in the South were outraged by the fact Black people were beginning to be granted freedoms, such as the right to vote, and so made every effort possible to disenfranchise and exclude them from society. This period of semi-colonial violence resulted in White supremacists murdering around 3,400 innocent Black Americans (Pilgrim, 2008) and will forever be remembered as an immense national tragedy. Meeropol wrote this ballad in order to bring attention to the inhumanity of racist violence at that time and in an attempt, post-bellum, to make meaningful the rights granted in the civil war. It was also an attempt to bring the violence to an end, so that justice could finally be given to those that were affected by the massacres. 

The poetic intent that lay being the connotations of the word ‘strange’ and comparing

the ‘scent of magnolia’ to that of ‘burning flesh’ was used to mock and potentially overthrow the dominant capitalised aesthetic values of culture during that time. The lawless murders of Black Americans that was carried out in the South had reached a point of crisis, as it was becoming increasingly normalised and the ignorance of the dominant White leaders were doing nothing in their power to hold the perpetrators to account. It became transparently obvious that there needed to be a call for change in attitudes and law, as humanity’s potential for violence was deemed to be caught in a perpetual cycle of oppression. This stark reminder of the continuous war on racial relations confronted those that were fair skinned in an attempt to bring attention to the anti-lynching movement that was growing during the late 19th century. As a result, this anthem for justice gained a significant amount of recognition across the globe, which further brought awareness to the protests that demanded an end to racially related attacks.

The way in which a ballad can push historical consciousness upon its readers is related

directly to the formal innovations that the Ballad was subjected to in its recent renaissance as a political weapon. Meeropol’s use of adopting the techniques of balladry and putting it to a new political end allowed for its simple form to provoke complex hidden meaning. Comparing the bodies of those who were lynched to that of an unnatural dehumanised object established how Black Americans were made to feel marginalised by the social systems they were trapped within. Billie Holiday’s cover was extremely successful in directly conveying the raw anger and frustration that Black Americans felt towards these grotesque and inhumane crimes that White people were not being held accountable for committing. Lyrical ballads allowed for the pronunciation of words to be stressed much more heavily than any other narrative poetic structure. Holiday was not just singing a song about justice but was also transforming the meaning of the distressing words like ‘bulging eyes’ and ‘twisted mouth’ to make the audience feel a much deeper level of emotion. This allowed for poems to not just map out a movement of revolution but instead bring the different systems of radical change into actual being in the inaction of political and social change by exposing a whole new layer of truth.

Wordsworth once put it that men who ‘do not wear fine clothes’ (Pepper 1989:371)

can still feel deeply. Directing this movement towards the common individual was intentionally done, as they were closer to the central truth of life and experienced a much greater understanding of internal suffering compared to those White aristocratic leaders. Great poetry that is directed towards a counter-cultural movement should not exclude those that do not possess such literary skills, as this is an exclusive power of the mind. There is no need to make poetry needlessly complicated if its point is to echo the emotion that real people felt and experienced. ‘Strange Fruit’, instead, provided the standard Black American with a sentiment. The meditation of language was significant in pushing against the structures of capitalism and racism in order to give recognition to the power and value of blackness that was continually ignored.

‘Ballad of Birmingham’ by Dudley Randall (Randall 1967:1501) spotlighted the ever-present threat of racism and violence Black people faced in America. It played a vital role in overthrowing the White supremacist capitalist attitudes that the city of Birmingham was constructed on by directing its anger towards contemporary concerns. This established hierarchal way in which the city was founded resulted in Martin Luther King commenting on it as ‘the most segregated city in the United States’ (Smiley 2008:402). Unlike the other two ballads discussed above, this poem dealt with a very specific racial attack that occurred in 1963, when four young girls died as a result of White supremacist terrorism in the form of a bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Randall wanted to demonstrate to White audiences the inhumanity and injustice caused by the ever-present issue of racism that was then so prevalent in America. Racial prejudice meant that no place was safe to those of colour as long as authoritative figures continued to ignore the everlasting issue of racism in the state. It strived towards reordering the systems of law and order that regulated and diminished the virtue of Black life so that justice could finally be sought.

The poem’s subjectivity emphasised the pathos of the girl’s original desire to go on a

protest march, but this was a requested that was refused by her mother for fear that it wasn’t ‘good for a little child’. The girl was instead sent to church, where she then died as result of the bombing. Even the prospect of a ‘sacred’ church could not offer sanctuary to those that were racially under attack. This spotlighted the ever-present fear that White, privileged Americans would never be able to understand, as they continued to remain at a higher social advantage. The radically propelled force that this poem was successful in achieving forged a new pathway that allowed for contemporary writers to direct traditional routes focused on the issue of racism to be directed towards present events occurring within that time. Such space advocated reaching a new level of political and social reform during a period of Black Power. The Black Power Movement grew to prominence during the 1960s as a result of an increase in White supremacist offences. This movement inspired Black people to no longer depend on White institutions in order to succeed, as they now gained a voice. Therefore, this ballad not only created justice for the victims of the attack but also gave liberation to any Black American that experienced oppression during the 1960s by advocating such movements. Randall was revolutionary in his words by giving the previously unheard a new perspective of their rights and power in order to seek justice.

Thus, it can be concluded that Dylan, Meeropol and Randall redefined the basis of social justice structures, as they were the driving force behind protest songs that pushed against violent white tyranny. The poetic subjectiveness that these lyrical ballads provided created an alternative space for thought and imagination in order to seek a new revolutionary world that went against the prevailing social norm. Providing a space for such thought meant that this hope became a reality, as its radical nature forced the public to stand up to authoritarian figures. This utopian liberation of force largely reshaped the way in which society viewed the current political system that regulated and diminished Black life and thereby brought into movement a protest for its abolition. Black people have continually been made to feel silenced from speaking out against authority and this meant they could not intervene in standing up for egalitarianism. Ballads, therefore, gave the unspoken, marginalised minority a voice to defend its rights and redefine the way in which that group was mistreated by others throughout history. This creation of new systems of meaning brought into action a demand for social and political change that other poetic devices would have been unlikely to have matched. Thus, the protest form of the ballad has been and will continue to remain to be a crucial component in the advocation of justice.

January, 2022

Bibliography

Dylan, Bob ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ The Norton Anthology of Poetry, e.d Margaret Ferguson, Tim Kendall and Mary Jo Salter (London W.W Norton & Company Ltd, 2018) p.1500

Gray, Michael, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (London, Continuum

International Publishing Group, 2006)

Meerpol, Abel ‘Strange Fruit’ The Norton Anthology of Poetry, e.d

Margaret Ferguson, Tim Kendall and Mary Jo Salter (London W.W Norton & Company Ltd, 2018) pp.1497-1498

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, (Oxford, Oxford University

Press) https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/102198? (accessed 21st November, 2021)

Pilgrim, David, ‘‘Strange Fruit’ – 2008 – Question of the month’, Ferris

State University website, https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2008/february.htm, (accessed 22nd November, 2021)

Pepper, W. Thomas. ‘The Ideology of Wordsworth’s ‘Michael: A

Pastoral poem.’’ Criticism, 31.4, Wayne State University Press (1989), p.371

Randall, Dudley ‘Ballad of Birmingham’ The Norton Anthology of

Poetry, e.d Margaret Ferguson, Tim Kendall and Mary Jo Salter (London W.W Norton & Company Ltd, 2018) p.1501

Smiley, L. Sarah, ‘“The Most Segregated City in America”: City

Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980’, Urban Geography 29:4, (2008), 402

Williams, Rhian, The Poetry Toolkit (London, Bloomsbury Publishing,

2013)

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