Ballad of Hollis Brown

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"Ballad of Hollis Brown"
Song by Bob Dylan from the album The Times They Are a-Changin'
Released January 13, 1964
Recorded August 7, 1963
Genre Folk blues
Length 5:06
Label Columbia
Writer(s) Bob Dylan
Producer(s) Tom Wilson
The Times They Are a-Changin' track listing

"Ballad of Hollis Brown" is a blues song written by Bob Dylan, released in 1964 on his third album The Times They Are A-Changin'. The song tells the story of a South Dakota farmer who, overwhelmed by the desperation of poverty, kills his wife, children and then himself.

Musical style[edit]


Musically, this song is a simple blues. The album version is played by Dylan alone on an acoustic guitar in the flatpicking style. The guitar is in 'double-dropped D tuning': Both the 1st and 6th strings, which normally play two Es separated by two octaves, are tuned down a whole step, down to D. Also, Dylan uses a capo on the 1st fret. Therefore, while his fingers are positioned as if he were playing in the key of D minor, the song actually comes out in Eb minor.

The recording of the song that was included on The Times They Are A-Changin' was made on August 7, 1963. The song had been recorded during sessions for Dylan's previous album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in November 1962, but remained an outtake. On this earlier version Dylan played the harmonica and just strummed the chords, rather than picking the strings. (The live versions between 1962 and 1964 were also played that way, but without the harmonica.) According to Michael Gray, the guitar work and melodic structuring in "Hollis Brown" are taken from the Appalachians, "where such forms and modes had evolved, in comparative isolation, over a period of almost two hundred years." Hollis Brown is based, chords, tune and verse-structure, on the ballad "Pretty Polly", a song Dylan performed at the Gaslight Club prior to recording "Ballad of Hollis Brown".

The song is a little over five minutes long.


Lyrically, this song consists of 11 verses which bring the listener to a bleak and destitute South Dakota farm, where a poor farmer (Hollis Brown), his wife and five children, already living in abject poverty, are subjected to even more hardships. In despair, the man kills his wife and children and himself with a shotgun. Critic David Horowitz has said of this song[citation needed]:

Technically speaking, "Hollis Brown" is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown's plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other.... Indeed, the blues perspective itself, uncompromising, isolated and sardonic, is superbly suited to express the squalid reality of contemporary America. And what a powerful expression it can be, once it has been liberated (as it has in Dylan's hands) from its egocentric bondage! A striking example of the tough, ironic insight one associates with the blues (and also of the power of understatement which Dylan has learnt from Guthrie) is to be found in the final lines of Hollis Brown:
There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
Somewhere in the distance there's seven new people born.

Live performances[edit]

Dylan played "Hollis Brown" live in 1962-64, once in 1965, during the "comeback" Bob Dylan and The Band 1974 Tour, and at Live Aid in 1985. It has also made many an appearance on the Never Ending Tour, up to and including his tour of Europe in spring 2007.

A May 1963 live recording appears on Bob Dylan in Concert – Brandeis University 1963.

Notable recordings by other artists[edit]

A large number of musicians and groups have covered "Ballad of Hollis Brown," including:


  • Matt Cowe and Arthur Dick. Acoustic Masters for Guitar. Wise Publications, 2004.
  • Bob Dylan's official website. Retrieved 14 March 2006.
  • Michael Gray. Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. Continuum, 2000.
  • David Horowitz. "Bob Dylan: genius or commodity?" Peace News, 11/11/64.
  • Oliver Trager. Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Billboard Books, 2004.