[Note: In 2006, Kurt Gegenhuber, in his interesting website The Celestial Monochord, wrote an essay on Bob Dylan's song, The Ballad of Hollis Brown. He kindly published my response, but I thought I'd include it here, since right now I'm too lazy to think of anything new to write. Be sure to read Kurt's other entries. For reference, the original lyrics are reprinted below.]
by Bob Dylan (copyright renewed 1991, Special Rider Music)
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town,
You looked for work and money and you walked a
Your babies' eyes look crazy there, a-tuggin' at
The rats have got your flour, bad blood it got your
You prayed to the Lord above, "Oh please send you a
Your babies are crying louder, it's pounding on
Your grass is turning black, there's no water in
Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls,
Your brain is a-bleedin' and your legs can't seem
There's seven breezes blowin' all around your cabin
There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
I grew up on a dairy farm where we had little cash, but we didn't need much, because my grandfather had already paid for the farm. The truly poor people in the neighborhood were those with mortgages, because cash flow is a serious farm problem. People who lived in the country but worked in town were in even worse shape, because a downturn in the farm economy amplifies small-town unemployment. The government had no safety net for small farmers, small-town merchants, or the rural poor -- until the late 1950s, they couldn't even get social security, assuming they lived until age 65. This left only two support avenues: family and church. But in a rural community, you couldn't ask for help from either: everyone knows you and your history, so, paradoxically, failing is an unforgivable sin. If you have any pride, you can't ask, and if you don't have any pride, they won't help. Also, the churches at that time were obsessed with sending missionaries to convert the world, and so couldn't be bothered with local poverty. Perhaps the strongest message society sent to the individual back then was that the basic definition of a man's worth (a woman's place was in the home) was his ability to provide for his family. If you failed at that, you failed the test of life. Some failed men pulled up stakes and took their families west for a new start. Others moved west without taking their families, although most did not follow Albin Johnson's example of killing them first. Others, such as my cousin (twice removed), killed only themselves, leaving the families to survive somehow. None of those options made the newspapers at all -- only the Hollis Brown solution could rate a sidebar on an inside page.
I regard Hollis Brown as one of Dylan's best early compositions. I wish more people would sing it, as it should enter the body of traditional ballads, along with its tune-mate Pretty Polly. I would argue, though, that the stories are completely different. Pretty Polly is a standard pregnancy ballad of a callous murder, but the story, although first person narration, never gets inside the murderer's brain. You're correct in identifying the use of empathy. Dylan's song expresses a sense of doom and desperation that's not like any other composition I've heard.
It might be interesting to compare an analogous song, The Murder of the Lawson Family, by the Carolina Buddies (Columbia 15537-D, recorded in March, 1930). The song is based on a true story: on Christmas Day, 1929, Charlie Lawson murdered his wife and 8 (not 6) children near Lawsonville (Stokes County), NC. The waltz tune is close to that used for Fatal Flower Garden in the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music.
1. It was on last Christmas evening,
2. His name was Charlie Lawson,
3. They say he killed his wife at first,
4. But the ragin' man could not be stopped,
5. And when the sad, sad news was heard,
6. "And now farewell, kind friends and home.
7. They did not carry him to jail,
8. They all were buried in a crowded grave.
This is almost the epitome of a conventional topical song with 19th century themes. Insanity is implied, but, in spite of imagined dialogue, the composer never gets close to understanding what happened. It even has a happy ending in heaven. When I sing this song, it doesn't disturb me.
I'm quite sure that, at the time he composed Hollis Brown, Dylan had not heard the Carolina Buddies song (tape dubs of it didn't circulate much until late in the 1960s), but, even if he had, there's no relation between the two.
In this song, Dylan's choice of subject matter, as well as his diction, owes a lot to Woody Guthrie, but the artistic stance is not due to Guthrie (I regard Dylan's Song to Woody as being, on one level, a declaration of independence). If Woody had written the song, he would have emphasized the class and economic conditions that led to Brown's plight, such as the rapacious bankers or the railroad tycoons. Dylan's version has no social or political commentary, but instead shows you alienation and depression from the inside. It's a second-person ballad that sounds like first person.
The last verse,
But as a listener, I can't be that indifferent, particularly given the coincidence of my birth with the Albin Johnson family deaths, with the implication that maybe I was one of the new people to take their places. You can imagine how impressed I was by Dylan's last verse.