They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging: The Real Lynching in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”

On June 15, 1920, residents of Duluth, Minnesota lynched three African-American circus workers: Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson. An 8-year-old child named Abraham Zimmerman lived in Duluth at the time.  And he grew up to have a son named Robert, who would later become famous with the name Bob Dylan. So, the lynching that Zimmerman witnessed eventually played a role in what American Songwriter has called Dylan’s sixth greatest song of all time.

Abe Zimmerman taught his son about the lynching.  The lesson was similar to the way Woody Guthrie’s father told him about a lynching he had witnessed (that similarly inspired Guthrie to write an excellent song). Zimmerman’s story of the lynching in Minnesota and its aftermath eventually provided the imagery for the opening of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

The Crime and Arrests

In 1920, McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson worked with the John Robinson Circus as cooks or laborers. On the morning of June 15, James Sullivan called the police.  He told them that one night earlier his eighteen-year-old son and his son’s nineteen-year-old companion Irene Tusken had been held at gunpoint. Sullivan reported that his son told him that Tusken had been raped.

Reportedly, there was no physical evidence of the rape.  But the Duluth police rounded up around 150 circus workers.  Then, the police asked the teens to identify the attackers among the circus workers.

Six African-American men were arrested — including McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.  Then, tensions rose in the community. Newspapers reported on the arrests and rumors spread around town.

The Lynchings

Eventually, a mob of 6,000-10,000 stormed into the jail.  They met little or no resistance from the police. They broke into the cells where they could, and they took McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.

First, the mob beat and hanged Isaac McGhie from a lamp post, despite the objections of a priest. Then, they similarly beat and hanged Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton.

The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next day to protect the three remaining prisoners.  But they were too late to help McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.

Three men in the mob were convicted of rioting.  Each served less than 15 months in prison. Nobody was convicted of murder.

Seven of the remaining circus laborers were indicted for rape, and one man was convicted. Further, eventually it came out that Sullivan’s teen-aged son had made up the story of the rape that had set everything in motion.

As was the case with many lynchings of African-Americans during the early twentieth century, photos of the lynching were taken and sent as postcards. The photo features Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, both shirtless, hanging from the street light with Elias Clayton’s body on the sidewalk,.  Members of the mob lean in to be part of the photo. Part of the photo is at the top of this post, but you may see the entire photo postcard here (warning: graphic image).

Desolation Row

Bob Dylan was born only 21 years after the lynching, and so he may have seen the photo postcards that circulated in the area. Thus, he begins his epic song “Desolation Row” with a reference to these photographs.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging;
They’re painting the passports brown;
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors;
The circus is in town.

The song continues, perhaps with “the blind commissioner” being a reference to the failures of the police to protect the three men. Of course, it is generally impossible to interpret every line of a Dylan song.

Yet, it is clear that the lynching is the jumping off point as Dylan delves into a number of themes.  “Desolation Row” continues with references to the circus imagery that provided the setting for the Duluth lynching.

Here comes the blind commissioner,
They’ve got him in a trance;
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker,
The other is in his pants;
And the riot squad they’re restless,
They need somewhere to go;
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.

Recordings of “Desolation Row”

“Desolation Row” originally appeared on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. More recently, alternate versions from the original recording sessions were released on The Best Of The Cutting Edge 1965 – 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12.

Additionally, there are various live versions of the song.  One great live version appears on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert.” Below is another live version where Dylan changes up the music a bit, as he often does.

“Desolation Row” features some of Dylan’s greatest images, including the opening about the postcards of the hanging. In the book Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager describes the song as “science fiction noir where mythology and history’s heroes and heels lurk in the shadows of every alleyway.” He concludes that the song “is perhaps the the most nightmarish vision in Dylan’s canon.”

Legacy

It remains a mystery whether the three lynched men had committed any crime or whether the story was completely fabricated by the teen-aged boy. Race played a significant role in the lynching, and even today in typical criminal cases we know that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable.

The 1920 lynching, either way, was certainly a tragedy.  Mob mentality and racial animosity took the lives of the three men.

Historically, lynchings occurred most often in the South against African-American men.  But it was not unusual for lynchings to take place in the North. There were at least 219 people lynched in northern states from 1889 to 1918. Although times have changed, we still see echoes of these acts of racial violence in the news today.

The Duluth lynching, in particular, has haunted those connected to it in various ways. The great-grandson of one of the Duluth lynchers wrote a book several years ago called The Lyncher In Me.

And Dylan’s “Desolation Row” is another kind of postcard of the hanging.  In the song, the lynching image mingles with other pictures that continue to haunt old and new listeners.

Partial photo of lynching via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • The Story Behind the Album Cover: Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”
  • The Story Behind the Album Cover: Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”
  • A Visit to Bob Dylan’s Hometown
  • The Death of Emmett Till
  • Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son
  • “Roll Columbia” Captures Spirit of Woody Guthrie (Album Review)
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    General John Sedgwick and His Last Words

    Major Gen. John Sedgwick

     

    On May 9, 1864, General John Sedgwick became the highest ranking United States soldier to be killed in the U.S. Civil War when a sharpshooter killed him at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. But despite Sedgwick’s leadership and his bravery, he is most known for his last words.

    “They Couldn’t Hit An Elephant”

    As his own men took cover while Confederate sharpshooters from 1000 yards away fired at the Union soldiers, Sedgwick stood tall.  Trying to inspire his men, he asked, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few moments later, he was shot in the eye and killed.

    Sedgwick had been involved in the Civil War from its very beginning, starting out as a colonel. He and his men saw action in places such as the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Chancellorsville, and at the Battle of the Wilderness.

    Sedgwick’s death came a little less than a year before the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1965.  Also, he died exactly one year before the official end of the war by proclamation on May 9, 1865.

    Despite dying while questioning his soldiers, Sedgwick apparently was well-liked by his men, who called him “Uncle John.” Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. George G. Meade were greatly saddened at his death, as was his old friend on the other side of the war, Robert E. Lee.

    “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

    There are a number of songs about guns and/or being shot, either literally or figuratively. For example, there is Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” (“shot through the heart. . .”), Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special.”

    Other songs include The Clash’s “Tommy Gun,” Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” Beastie Boys’s “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” and Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” And there is David Lee Roth’s song that invokes the type of animal in Sedgwick’s last words, “Elephant Gun.”

    One of the few songs, though, that takes the point of view of the person being shot is Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan wrote the song for the 1973 movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

    In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, director Sam Peckinpah used the song about the last words of a wounded sheriff to accompany the death of Sheriff Colin Baker (played by Slim Pickens). Dylan’s song begins around the 2-minute mark in the following clip from the film.

    Unlike the sheriff in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” General Sedgwick had little time to contemplate the end of his life after he was shot in the head. Yet, his last words have had a lasting power.

    Storytellers used Sedgwick’s last words for a number of purposes.  Depending on how you look at his death, his last words illustrate courage, bravura, or stupidity.

    You have to give some kudos to the guy, though, and many have. There is a monument to Sedgwick at West Point. And among other tributes, there are cities named in Sedgwick’s memory in Arkansas, Colorado, and Kansas.  Colorado and Kansas also named counties after Sedgwick. Streets are named after him in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

    Meanwhile, nobody remembers the name of the man who killed him. Several Confederate soldiers claimed responsibility, though many believe Benjamin Medicus Powell fired the fatal shot using a long-range Whitworth sharpshooter rifle (with telescope) from England.

    What are your favorite last words? Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo via public domain.

  • Nixon, Robert E. Lee, and Susanne Sundfør Resign
  • Hierarchies of Hate and Healing? Thoughts on “Wind River” from Charlottesville
  • Dylan’s Late-Career Classics: Not Dark Yet
  • October 1992: They Were So Much Older Then
  • Bob Dylan Croons “I Could Have Told You”
  • A Famous Encounter and “Like a Rolling Pin”
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    Jeff Buckley’s Interactive Video for “Just Like a Woman”

    A new interactive video brings to life Jeff Buckley‘s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” The song appears on Buckley’s recent compilation You and I, an album of songs that the late singer recorded in 1993.

    The interactive video allows you to choose different story lines that result in different music too, reportedly featuring 73 story cells with more than 16,000 possible combinations.

    The interactive video was created by the design studios of Interlude and Blind. While you watch, click on various blocks to follow the “story,” and you periodically get chances to add instrumentation to the track too. Note that you may repeatedly click on the same blocks to see the different possibilities too.

    The new album from Jeff Buckley, who died in 1997, features eight cover songs and two originals. You And I was released March 11, 2016.

    What was your favorite part of the video’s story? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • RIP Richie Havens
  • Dylan’s Late-Career Classics: Not Dark Yet
  • October 1992: They Were So Much Older Then
  • Bob Dylan Croons “I Could Have Told You”
  • A Famous Encounter and “Like a Rolling Pin”
  • Ramblin’ Jack and “Don’t Think Twice”
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    New Documentary Celebrates the Life and Music of Mavis Staples

    A new documentary — Mavis! — explores the life and music of Mavis Staples of The Staples Singers. Jessica Edwards directed the film about the gospel and soul singer, who is also known for her civil rights work and her musical family.

    HBO picked up U.S. rights to the documentary after the movie’s world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. Mavis! includes performance footage as well as interviews of people like Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. Check out the trailer for Mavis!

    Mavis! debuts on HBO on February 29, 2016.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Dylan’s Late-Career Classics: Not Dark Yet
  • October 1992: They Were So Much Older Then
  • Bob Dylan Croons “I Could Have Told You”
  • A Famous Encounter and “Like a Rolling Pin”
  • Ramblin’ Jack and “Don’t Think Twice”
  • They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging: The Real Lynching in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    The Story Behind the Album Cover: Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”

    I have been enjoying listening to the new Bob Dylan release, The Cutting Edge 1965–1966: The Bootleg Series Vol.12 (2015). The new package in the Bootleg series — which is available as a 2-CD, 6-CD, or 18-CD set — features outtakes, rehearsal tracks, and alternate versions of songs from the sessions for Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde On Blonde (1966). So, while thinking about those classic albums, it is a good time to revisit the album cover for Blonde on Blonde.

    In this video, Bob Egan from PopSpots interviews Jerry Schatzberg, the photographer who took the classic photo of Dylan that appeared on the cover of Blonde on Blonde. Together, the two men travel the streets of New York City to tell the story of how the album cover photo came to be. Check it out.

    You may check out a similar video about the story behind the photograph on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • The Story Behind the Album Cover: Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”
  • They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging: The Real Lynching in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”
  • Bob Dylan and the Fine Line Between Love and Hate
  • Dylan’s Late-Career Classics: Not Dark Yet
  • October 1992: They Were So Much Older Then
  • Bob Dylan Croons “I Could Have Told You”
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)