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

Lynching Photo

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 Lynchings

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 and said that the night before his eighteen-year-old son and his 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 and asked the teens to identify the attackers. After six African-American men were arrested — including McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson — tensions rose in the community. Newspapers reported on the arrests and rumors spread around town.

Eventually, a mob of 6,000-10,000 stormed into the jail, meeting 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, with each serving 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.

Dylan Desolation Row 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,.  Memmbers of the mob lean in to be part of the photo. 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.

“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.  Below you may hear a live version from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert.”

“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.”


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 dictated by mob mentality and racial animosity that 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, where the lynching image mingles with other pictures that still haunt listeners.

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

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    Harriet Tubman and the $20 Bill


    After a period of speculation about who might replace Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, the U.S. Treasury listened to Americans. What they wanted was to keep the founding father and recent Broadway star on the ten-spot and instead dump Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. And the person they wanted to replace Andrew Jackson, a populist president who supported pro-slavery policies and is associated with mistreatment of Native Americans, was Harriet Tubman, a former slave who used her freedom to help other slaves escape, help the Union win the Civil War, and help other good causes such as women’s suffrage.

    Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross to parents who were held as slaves around March 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. She grew to adulthood as a slave, eventually in her late 20’s escaping from slavery on her own following a failed attempt with her brothers. Tubman then spent more than a decade helping other slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, often at great risk to herself. Frederick Douglass once wrote in a letter that he knew of nobody except John Brown who had put themselves at more personal risk in the fight against slavery than Harriet Tubman.

    When the Civil War broke out, Tubman gave her services to the Union, working in a variety of ways, including as a nurse and as a scout. Someone should make a super hero movie about her.

    For a short 7-minute bio of Harriet Tubman, check out the following video. Such a short video does not come close to capturing the extent of her life, but it is a decent overview.

    For a longer documentary about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, check out this History Channel documentary. Below is part one.

    And here is part two of Harriet Tubman & the Underground Railroad.

    The more you learn about Tubman, the more it makes sense to give her a national honor like putting her on the twenty-dollar bill. Looking back on her amazing life, though, it does raise one question. What took so long?

    Leave your twenty dollars in the comments. Photo via public domain.

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    Martin Luther King Jr. on “The Merv Griffin Show”

    MLK on Merv Griffin

    Those who remember The Merv Griffin Show, which ran on TV in various forms from 1962 to 1986, remember that Merv Griffin often had interesting conversations with guests from a number of fields, not just entertainment. In 1967, Griffin sat down with Martin Luther King Jr. to discuss the Civil Rights Movement.

    In the segment, King joins Griffin and actor-activist Harry Belafonte in some discussion of King’s life, family, and the state of the world in 1967. We often hear King giving emotional speeches, but it is interesting to hear King laughing and talking in a relaxed conversation. Check it out.

    Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

    Leave your two cents in the comments. Image via YouTube.

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    Martin Luther King Jr.: “The Other America”

    Martin Luther King Stanford

    On April 14, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Stanford University. During this time, which was about one year before King’s death, Dr. King’s movement addressed a range of issues, including race, Vietnam, poverty, and economic justice. This speech at Stanford would become known as “The Other America” speech, and King would continue to give various speeches on the theme for the next year.

    In the speech, King explained: “But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

    Yet, near the end of the speech, King still spoke of hope. “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right, “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne — Yet that scaffold sways the future.” With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

    A transcript of this speech is available here.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    NC Music Love Army Continues Music’s History of Protest

    Governor Pat McCrory

    I long have been a fan of Caitlin Cary‘s music that includes her days as part of Whiskeytown (with Ryan Adams) and her solo career. One of her latest projects finds her joining her musical talents with others to make a statement. In 2013, Cary and singer-songwriter Jon Lindsay co-founded NC Music Love Army. The group is a collective of musicians with a connection to North Carolina who wanted to make a statement about regressive politics in the state. The artists released an album of protest songs in 2013 called We Are Not For Sale: Songs of Protest.

    In 2014, as we approach election time, the group is releasing additional songs. Below, listen to Mary Johnson Rockers sing “Senator’s Lament,” a song about the land that sounds timeless while also being timely. After the song, you may listen to alternate versions on the player too.

    In “Dear Mr. McCrory,” Lindsay wrote a song directed at the governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory. On the song about voter suppression in the state and civil rights, Lindsay is joined by Cary and BJ Barham (of American Aquarium).

    In “Dear Mr. McCrory,” Lindsay asks a question we wonder about for many politicians, “When you were a young man did you wanna be / This person here before us today?” Check it out.

    You may download “Dear Mr. McCrory,” “Senator’s Lament,” and other songs through NC Music Love Army’s website. [October 29, 2014 Update: Check out the latest release through NC Music Love Army of “Train Coming” by Dasan Ahanu and Jrusalam.]

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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