“John Brown” (1963)


Robert Shelton calls “John Brown” an attack on “the concept of war heroes.”  In it, perhaps Dylan does what most, if not all, effective anti-war literature does (Wilford Owen and Tim O’Brien come immediately to my mind, as does William Faulker’s Soldier’s Pay, and Peter Seeger’s cover of Baird’s song “Mrs. McGrath”)–it makes us feel what it’s like to be inside the shoes of a victim, specifically someone who returns as maimed and disfigured mentally from disillusionment as he/she is physically.

The stanza that houses the key empathy inspiring “shoe” rhyme is:

“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground, you were home . . . acting proud
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”

Yes, it’s what been done in those shoes (you’d know what a drag it was to be me?)–seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt while standing in those shoes by, as Owen says in “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” “children ardent for some desperate glory,” that makes the war hero’s return home the time for those tears.

Here’s a Bob’s memorable live performance of it on in Germany, 1998.

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