Sunday, July 3, 2011

Seven Curses

Seven Curses is another powerful song from The Witmark Demos which I have been enjoying this ten days. The story is a variant on the classic tale of someone paying a price to release a loved one from the gallows. In this case it is a man's daughter striving to save her father.

The theme is an old one with variants as numerous as its interpreters. The legendary Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter, whose music influenced Dylan), recorded a version of the song in 1939. And Robert Plant sang his own version of the ballad in his own definitive way on Led Zepellin 3 in 1970.

For years one of my favorite Peter, Paul and Mary songs was Hangman, which begins,

Slack your rope hangman, slack it for a while, I believe I see my father comin', riding many a-mile; Father have you brought me hope, or have you paid my fee? Or have you come to see me hanging, from the gallows tree?

Each verse is goes like this, with various family members arriving one at a time. But in each instance the refrain follows.

I have not brought you hope, I have not paid your fee, yes I have come to see you hanging from the gallows tree.

This sequence plays out throughout the song till the last verse in which his true love comes and indeed delivers him from the gallows.

Dylan's version is sung with much more gravity using the mournful haunting sound that he carved for himself in those early New York days. The intonations differ significantly in character from the Peter, Paul and Mary version with their fluid harmonies. Dylan crafted the tone of bitter injustice which later became the vehicle for transmitting stories of bitter injustice as in the death of Medgar Evers (Only A Pawn In Their Game) and The Death Of Emmett Till.

Sadly, in a world broken like ours, not all ballads can have happy endings.

Seven Curses

Old Reilly stole a stallion
But they caught him and they brought him back
And they laid him down on the jailhouse ground
With an iron chain around his neck

Old Reilly’s daughter got a message
That her father was goin’ to hang
She rode by night and came by morning
With gold and silver in her hand

When the judge he saw Reilly’s daughter
His old eyes deepened in his head
Sayin’, “Gold will never free your father
The price, my dear, is you instead”

“Oh I’m as good as dead,” cried Reilly
“It’s only you that he does crave
And my skin will surely crawl if he touches you at all
Get on your horse and ride away”

“Oh father you will surely die
If I don’t take the chance to try
And pay the price and not take your advice
For that reason I will have to stay”

The gallows shadows shook the evening
In the night a hound dog bayed
In the night the grounds were groanin’
In the night the price was paid

The next mornin’ she had awoken
To know that the judge had never spoken
She saw that hangin’ branch a-bendin’
She saw her father’s body broken

These be seven curses on a judge so cruel:
That one doctor will not save him
That two healers will not heal him
That three eyes will not see him

That four ears will not hear him
That five walls will not hide him
That six diggers will not bury him
And that seven deaths shall never kill him

Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

1 comment:

Ross said...

Tom Russell does a great version of this ... think its on the album Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs.