Fordham Law School and the Fordham Radio Station, WFUV (a personal favorite) will host a two-day conference entitled Bob Dylan and the Law on April 4 and 5. While some may chuckle, any Dylan fan will instantly see the connection. You may think of Dylan singing about injustice (“Hattie Carroll” to “Hurricane”), but his songs reveal a coherent legal philosophy that ought to appeal to any personal injury attorney (and Chief Justices too, as this Times article shows). As a Dylan fan, his music has both inspired me and helped shape my view of a system that I fight against in the name of my clients. (See the article “Don’t Put a Price on My Soul: Bob Dylan, Justice and the Law” at “Nightly Song” for a more in-depth analysis of Dylan’s songs and this topic.)
Dylan sings about injustice ranging from the death of Emmett Till (a Chicago teenager killed in Mississippi because he supposedly flirted with a white girl) to Hattie Carroll (the kitchen maid killed by the wealthy and connected William Zanzinger) to Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter (the boxer who lost his freedom to corruption and racism). In each of these cases, the original crime was worsened by the betrayal of the judicial system. Dylan brings to life the burning sense of injustice wrought in these cases and often can make human and vital what first appears as a newspaper story buried far from the front page. When I was young, hearing songs like that made me want to stand up and fight, to weigh against such obvious injustice and they played no small part in my ultimate decision to become an attorney.
Yet Dylan does more than simply spin stories about the persecuted. He writes with a nuanced sense of injustice in a system that often oppresses and punishes individuals. As a personal injury attorney, much of what Dylan sings resonates with my personal mission. I stand by clients who are often ignored or dismissed by a judicial system that too often tilts towards the establishment, the powerful and those with money. (As Dylan put it, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”) The tragedy in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” comes not simply in the murder, but in a trial that protects the wealthy and connected at the expense of the victim of the crime and lets the murderer go free. I stand with individuals who seek justice and compensation from large, impersonal corporations and insurance companies that will use their massive resources to deny a client fair payment for an injury or damages. It is my job as an attorney to balance the scales, to fight so my client’s rights are treated as equally valid as the powerful.
In the anthemic “I Shall Be Released,” we meet a man:
Who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
As an attorney, it is my job to make sure that man’s voice is heard. It is my job to help him stand up against an establishment that otherwise pays no attention. I think of a case where the insurance company tried to claim that the accident never happened, that the man’s injuries were fake, as if the insurance company could change reality. It took a vehement fight in court to make the jury see with their own eyes the injustice that the insurance company tried to assert.
In “Percy’s Song, the narrator’s friend receives an unjust sentence for a fatal car accident and the narrator begs the judge for an explanation. The judge refuses to answer and throws the questioner out of the office. It is a moving ballad of friendship and loss. As an attorney, I ask the same questions and do not leave until I get an answer. I think of the woman whose mother died because a nursing home failed to insert a breathing tube properly and then covered up the fact that they failed to monitor the patient’s condition. The nursing home dismissed her complaints and no one wanted to take her case seriously until we prevailed. I think of the young man arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and held in jail for no reason. The police and courts didn’t care until we made a case and extracted justice for him.
In song after song, Dylan writes of a judicial system that protects the powerful and wrongdoers because of their connections. In “The Death of Emmett Till,” we learn “this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.” In “Hurricane,” the song about Rubin Carter, Dylan declares, “All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance/The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance.” I think of the case I had where an off-duty police officer mistakenly shot an innocent woman and the gun and bullet disappeared and the police denied her claims. We ultimately brought out the truth at trial and earned that woman justice.
Dylan sings of a judicial system that is often arbitrary, so in the song “Joey,” the judge makes a joke out of a sentencing hearing:
“What time is it?” said the judge to Joey when they met
“Five to ten,” said Joey. The judge says, “That’s exactly what you get”
In the song “Highwater,” a judge treats a man’s life with callous indifference,
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff,
“I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care”
As an attorney, it is my job to make the courts see my clients as people and to understand their injuries and the harm they have suffered at the hands of another. I think of a case where a young girl watched as the police falsely arrested her father and beat him. When she complained of the psychological damage this incident caused her, no one wanted to hear. As her attorney, it was my job to hold the police accountable for the real damage this young woman suffered. In a recent trial, a bus knocked down an elderly immigrant woman and the system seemed not to care, as if her life did not matter. As her attorney, it was my job to hold the bus company accountable for their actions and deliver justice to her.
In my practice, I often think of the Dylan song “Dear Landlord,” where the singer only asks the landlord – a figure representing all the establishment – to recognize him, to see his worth. It ends with the lines, “If you don’t underestimate me/I won’t underestimate you.” I think of a case I had where a man sought help from his doctor to lose weight. The doctor dispensed some pills (inappropriately) and then ignored the patient, failing to provide even basic testing. The man ultimately developed a lung condition that could have killed him. The doctor blamed the patient until we forced the doctor to take responsibility for his actions and to reimburse the man he almost killed.
Dylan sings of a society that is increasingly impersonal and uncaring. He sings of individuals who struggle to get by. His line, “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” does not speak to outlaws, but any individual who stands apart from the machinery of society. I see my job as giving voice to those individuals, as representing their honesty. If the insurance companies, the government, the powerful and the corporations would overwhelm the individual, it is the lawyer’s job to make them listen to my clients’ cases, to recognize the humanity of my clients and to deliver justice for my clients.
I am not the only attorney who finds kinship with Bob Dylan’s sense of justice and take on the law. In 2006, Alex Long of the Oklahoma City University Law School published a paper, “[Insert Song Lyrics Here]: The Uses and Misuses of Popular Music Lyrics in Legal Writing,” that found that many legal opinions cite music lyrics and that Bob Dylan’s lyrics appear more frequently than any other songwriter. The New York Times followed up with an article looking at Justice Robert’s use of Dylan lyrics in his judicial writings.
In 2002, the New Yorker wrote a brief article on New York Law School professor Michael Perlin, who took to using Dylan lyrics in the titles of his legal essays. You can find many blogs about Dylan and the law, including an article at Talk Left, a list of favorite Dylan civil rights songs at Bruce’s Journal, and this article How Dylan Shapes the Law.
I would welcome any thoughts that you might have on this subject. You can call me at 1-800-660-1466 or email me. You can also visit my website or read more on my blog, New York Law Thoughts.
Carol L. Schlitt
New York Personal Injury Attorney