The Legal Side of Bob Dylan

The Stein Center and Bruce Green in The New York Times City Room blog, April 05, 2011

Media Source

With the lights dimmed and the audience sitting rapt, a man with an acoustic guitar took the stage and sounded the opening chords to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.”

But this was no concert; there would be no encores or bows. Mr. Dylan’s powerful lyrics were the focal point, but not so much the performance of them. Instead, this was an examination of how Mr. Dylan’s music has influenced the American judicial system.

A two-day conference titled “Bob Dylan and the Law” started Monday night with a panel discussion at Fordham Law School, featuring two law professors, a Dylan historian, a disc jockey and a guitar player.
 
Singer Pete Kennedy (left) with Corny O'Connell (center) and David Hajdu at Dylan and the Law. Photos by Janet Sassi.

Mr. Dylan is perhaps the most celebrated songwriter of the 20th century, in part because he tackled injustices in songs like “Hurricane,” about the boxer Rubin Carter, who was wrongfully convicted of three murders and served more than 18 years in prison, and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” about a servant bludgeoned to death by a socialite. But Mr. Dylan’s influence has been more pervasive, even reaching the Supreme Court.

In the past two years, Mr. Dylan’s lyrics have turned up twice in opinions by members of the nation’s highest court, said Alex B. Long, one of the panelists and a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law. In 2008, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. quoted Mr. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” lyric, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” in an opinion over a dispute between phone companies. In a 2010 case deciding that a California police department did not violate an officer’s privacy by auditing text messages sent on a city-issued pager, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty.”

“I think that everyone wants to say the music they listen to says something about who they are,” Professor Long said. “And that includes judges and lawyers.”

The enigmatic Mr. Dylan was not at Fordham Law School on Monday night, but more than 100 people turned out for the start of the conference, which was the only part open to the public. A few audience members had gray ponytails, several more were 20-somethings in jeans and baseball caps, but most were judges, professors and lawyers clad in suits.

The panel moderator, Corny O’Connell, a Fordham graduate and disc jockey on WFUV, said he wanted the discussion to be “freewheeling,” and indeed, this law seminar featured the unusual sight of listeners mouthing the words along with the speakers.

David Hajdu, a Columbia School of Journalism professor who wrote the book “Positively 4th Street,” a chronicle of Mr. Dylan’s early career as a Greenwich Village folksinger, said that from an early age, Mr. Dylan created a rebellious image.

“He constructed an outlaw persona as a challenge to the law of the land,” Professor Hajdu said. “Based on a connection with marginalized people, desperate people, African-American people, poor people who had a connection to a higher jurisdiction.”

 
Singer Pete Kennedy closed the evening with Dylan songs.
Pete Kennedy, guitarist for the band the Kennedys, said that because the songs “Hurricane” and “Percy’s Song” feature unjust prison sentences for the protagonists, and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” deals with an unjust sentence for the antagonist, it suggests that Mr. Dylan has a conservative streak cloaked in cynicism that runs contrary to his common portrayal as a figurehead of the idealistic liberal civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s.

“He’s sticking up for an ideal justice which he says doesn’t exist,” he said. “He’s wishing that the system worked and disappointed that it didn’t.”

In a voice that made Mr. Dylan’s rasp seem refined, Mr. Kennedy performed solo acoustic versions of those three songs, and the first verse of “John Wesley Harding.” That song, about an Old West outlaw who killed dozens of men, begins with the lyric, “John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor,” and showcases Mr. Dylan’s penchant for creating songs built around compelling narratives, if not necessarily strict adherence to the facts, Mr. Kennedy said.

Bruce A. Green, director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics, a sponsor of the conference, said that Mr. Dylan was the second songwriter to have his work’s influence on the judiciary examined at Fordham. The other was Bruce Springsteen. Samuel J. Levine, a professor at the Touro Law School, another conference sponsor, suggested Mr. Dylan for this conference and said that the next musician on the docket might be Neil Young.

But not all of Mr. Dylan’s work went unchallenged.

Abbe Smith, a professor of law at Georgetown, took “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to task for inaccuracies. For example, the real Hattie Carroll, who died in 1963, had 11 children, not 10, as Mr. Dylan sings, and her killer William Zantzinger (whose name Mr. Dylan misspelled as “Zanzinger”) was charged with manslaughter, not the song’s charge of first-degree murder, she said.

While she said that the song “Hurricane” would “make a great opening statement,” she also criticized Mr. Dylan for failing to include a single lyric in the 11-verse song about Mr. Carter’s criminal history before his wrongful imprisonment.

“I take a little bit of issue with Dylan with guilt and innocence — I don’t think they’re quite as black and white,” Professor Smith said. “He doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”