Telling the Raw Truth: Digging Into a Ballad from Bob Dylan (you knew he had to be coming sometime)

And the third of a series on various elements of crafting engaging stories by way of looking at popular story-songs …

This time it’s “The Ballad of Emmitt Till” (aka “The Death of Emmitt Till”), a tune written and performed by Bob Dylan (under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt on this recording). If you want a songwriter who pulls no punches, look no further than Dylan, and in this case, he doesn’t sugarcoat the story itself or his take on it.

“The Ballad of Emmitt Till” (1972 recording)

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what
They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat
There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie
Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live

Like last time, I’m going to defer to Stephen King from On Writing, even though he’s talking about fiction, because the principle holds for any kind of storytelling: “What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all … as long as you tell the truth.”

Bells and whistles in stories are fine, whether it’s alliteration, symbolism, details, incredible settings, etc., but readers picking up a story want one thing: an engaging, well-told story that isn’t afraid to share what you’re seeing in your mind’s eye as you get it out of your heart and onto paper. Might as well end with another quote from On Writing by Stephen King: “It’s always about the story.”