“Brownsville Girl” (Bob Dylan): American Epic

If America in the late-20th century had an epic poem, it was “Brownsville Girl,” written by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepherd for Dylan’s much-otherwise-panned Knocked Out Loaded.  There’s something I find absolutely fascinating and right about “Brownsville Girl,” a testament to a society coming apart as it slouches towards a millennium. Like all epics, it’s expansive—clocking in just over eleven minutes, it touches on Hollywood, the American Southwest, lost love, rough-hewn justice, and the sad kind of escape that always circles you back to where you started. It’s a song that reflects that part of America that knew it was right when Rocky lost in the end, that knew it was right when Bad News Bears lost in the end, that knew the hope was all hype when working-class voters helped elect a movie not-quite-star savior in 1980. It’s a song that can carry the pain of the past without the whitewash of nostalgia, that can move through a mythical landscape while still staying grounded, that knows it does not know and yet keeps on keeping on.

“Brownsville Girl” opens with a two-stanza summary of an unidentified movie; the only clue we have is the name of a famous actor:

Well, there was this movie I seen one time

About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck

He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself

The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck

Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp

As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath

“Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square

I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death”

Immediately we see some of the themes of the song. The narrator positions himself as a spectator merely reporting what seems to be the denouement of the film, but he’s also interpreting it—the “man” who is a sympathetic victim in the first stanza is identified as a “gunfighter” in the second, which makes sense of “a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.” The townspeople are a mob that wants to “crush that kid down,” and the marshal, ideally a figure of disinterested justice, beats “that kid to a bloody pulp” until stopped by the dying gunfighter. A kid, ambitious if misguided, trying to rise above his circumstances, is crushed and beaten back down by legitimate society, and even his salvation (by the man he’s killed) is a curse—he’ll live out his years fearing the next “hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.”

Oddly enough, while we’re told the movie starred Gregory Peck, there’s no mention of which part he played. I’ve always assumed he had the role of the gunfighter, but it’s not clear. He could also have been the marshal or even the kid. Even more puzzling is that later in the song, the narrator seems to move from spectator to participant:

Something about that movie though, well I just can’t get it out of my head

But I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play

All I remember about it was Gregory Peck and the way people moved

And a lot of them seemed to be lookin’ my way

That ominous last line almost seems to suggest that the narrator himself was the hungry kid. Or, perhaps, just a spectator so hungry for meaning his memory of the movie has blended with his memory of life—he has a vague feeling that he didn’t merely watch the film, he was a part of it, which of course suggests an authorial comment on the way pop culture (and particularly movies) have become so enmeshed in the contemporary makeup that the walls separating real life from fantasy have dissolved.

This confusion is played out in the anecdote of a time he’s caught up in a manhunt, apparently confused for the criminal:

Well, they were looking for somebody with a pompadour

I was crossin’ the street when shots rang out

I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran

“We got him cornered in the churchyard,” I heard somebody shout

Well, you saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune.

Underneath it, it said, “A man with no alibi”

You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you

Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears

It was the best acting I saw anybody do

We return to many of the same themes we saw with the Gregory Peck film. The narrator is again mostly a spectator (“there were looking for somebody,” “I heard somebody shout,” “I saw you break down”), even critiquing the unnamed woman’s performance (“it was the best acting I saw anybody do”), though this time it’s in his actual life rather than on the screen.  The story has b-movie clichés of a Hollywood script (including the newspaper picture and caption), a mob and an unfair judicial system (she must lie to get him off—assuming of course that he’s innocent), and the narrator’s confusion (“I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran”) that probably ends up making him look guilty. That impulse to blend life and cinema goes both ways.

Movies and Gregory Peck make two more appearances in the song, the first of which he makes clear isn’t the same as the previous (“I don’t even know what it’s about / But I’ll see him in anything so I’ll stand in line”), and the last, just before the final chorus, which he has trouble remembering—he thinks he “sat through it twice”:

All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck,

he wore a gun and he was shot in the back

Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

I’m not sure if there’s a specific reason for focusing on Gregory Peck, but it does remind me of Tony Soprano’s obsession with Gary Cooper. The narrator moves through the American southwest (the song mentions the painted desert, San Antonio, the Alamo, Amarillo, the Texas panhandle, Corpus Christi), a living movie set for countless cowboy flicks, a landscape that should mean something but is empty and decrepit. He’s kept outside one of the region’s most charged symbols, the Alamo, and his social milieu is struggling, to say the least—Henry Porter “owns a wreckin’ lot outside of [Amarillo] about a mile,” Henry’s lady Ruby is hanging clothes out to dry (so they apparently don’t own a dryer), the Brownsville Girl drives a “busted down Ford” that they sleep in once they get to San Antionio (“we slept outside the Alamo”). Existence seems rootless, precarious, as Ruby attests:

Then she told us how times were tough and about how she was thinkin’ of

bummin’ a ride back to from where she started

But ya know, she changed the subject every time money came up

She said, “Welcome to the land of the living dead”

You could tell she was so broken hearted She said,

“Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt”

The wrecking lot, the swap meets, the broken autos—it’s a region where people are doing the best they can with what they have, but they don’t have much. They trade old rather than buy new, and obviously that’s an economics of diminishing returns. Their lives are marked mostly by loss, directed towards a personal apocalypse (“We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn / ’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies”) punctuated by the hard-earned wisdom that there is no escape, not really (“Ruby just smiled and said, ‘Ah, you know some babies never learn’”).  The narrator’s confusion is voiced multiple times—the first couple lines of the third stanza (“Well, I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in / And you know it blows right through me like a ball and chain”), after the mention of the painted desert (“I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet”), about Henry Porter, a character we never actually encounter despite the wealth of details we learn about him and his partner Ruby (“You know, it’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned / The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter”).  Men like Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper knew who they were and where they stood (or at least they played characters who did); contemporary men like Tony Soprano and the narrator walk on crumbling ground.

The “Brownsville Girl” of the title is his muse, but she is defined mostly by absence and longing. The verses are performed in a kind of typical Dylan performance-speak, talked lyrically rather than sung, but the chorus

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls

Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above

Brownsville girl, show me all around the world

Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

gets the full-on paean treatment, sung with backup singers belting out the lines with the conviction of an angelic chorister ensemble.  The subject is treated as a goddess figure (“you know there was somethin’ about you baby that I liked that was always too good for this world”), encompassing ocean (“pearls”) and sky (“moon”), given the power to break the narrator free from the confines of the American Southwest if she would only answer his prayer. She’s in control, though, coming and going as she pleases, summoning the narrator (“I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet / Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel”), disappearing (“Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back”), and then showing up out of the blue to rescue the narrator during his trial (shades of the Fairy Lover in Marie de France’s “Lanval”). She’s clear-eyed about human ethics (“You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent”), and she haunts the narrator

  • “The memory of you keeps callin’ after me like a rollin’ train”
  • ”I’m too over the edge and I ain’t in the mood anymore to remember the times / when I was your only man”
  • “I could feel a whole lot better / If you were just here by my side to show me how”

It’s less a song about love and loss, the kind of thing that’s the milk and bread of pop music, and more about an existential crisis, if I can talk in such terms. Almost like a Beckett play, the narrator has no agency in this song, no real freedom. He’s can run, but he can’t escape. He’s controlled by someone who remains offstage, despite his frequent invocations. Over the eleven-minute course of the song, we get progressively less details and more abstractions, blustering affirmations that may not mean much (“I don’t have any regrets. They can talk about me plenty when I’m gone”). The contrast of the lyrics to the landscape, then, becomes even more stark. In pop cultural memory, the American Southwest was the locus of freedom—it’s where men and women could go to escape the rigid confines of the dominant society, from Huck Finn to Easy Rider’s Wyatt and Billy. In this song, though, the Southwest has become a trap, a place of dependency and apprehension.

Grandiose even in its alienation, set in a decrepit, cinematic landscape, the swelling desperation of unanswered prayers—“Brownsville Girl” speaks to an American society that, by the late 20th century, had lost its confidence. As Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider says, “This used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.”  “Brownsville Girl” gives voice to a people who are less acting than acted upon, people looking for salvation in the movies or each other and coming up empty. Like a lot of great Reagan-era music, it dwells in the shadows of the cardboard cutouts of the patriotic yuppie who made up in aggression what he lacked in substance, and it brings to the fore the question of the extent to which American mythos has become unglued from American lives. Like the kid in the movie mentioned at the beginning of the song, you’re beaten even when you win, you’re cursed even when you’re saved. A long, complicated, messy song, it’s a retort to the easy, feel-good anthems loved by social conservatives; it’s the epic we probably deserve.

*Lyrics were copied from The Official Bob Dylan website: https://bobdylan.com/songs/brownsville-girl/

 

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