The song questions the attitudes of society – people generally, and in particular those in positions of authority. While it seems to be both a condemnation of callousness and selfishness, and critical of those who don’t take responsibility for their own well-being, it offsets human failings by recognising that those failings tend to go hand in hand with virtues. In addition it seems to suggest a means for achieving some sort of redemption.
The events depicted are from the standpoint of a narrator present in a courtroom in which a drifter has just been tried, and presumably sentenced, for an unspecified crime. Through its opening words the song straight away makes us feel sorry for the drifter. He is, from his own mouth, presented as weak and in need of help – ‘Oh help me in my weakness’. Whether he is really deserving of our pity is another matter, though. There are two reasons. First, one would have expected him to have said ‘Oh help me in my predicament’, not ‘in my weakness’. To ask to be helped out of a predicament is reasonable, but to ask to be helped out of one’s weakness is nonsensical. Weakness is a character trait, control of which cannot be exercised by others – at least, not in the way predicaments can. Accordingly, one suspects that the drifter is more devious than he at first appears. Secondly, it would appear that he hasn’t taken the trouble to find out what he’s accused of. This might well confirm any suspicion that he’s not really a deserving case for sympathy.
Nevertheless, that he is in fact weak seems true. It is suggested not only by his admitting it, but also by his having to be carried out of the court, and even by his being described as a drifter. The expression ‘drifter’ implies his life has no aim, and that he just allows himself be at the mercy of events. He’s weak in that he doesn’t assert himself.
In support of the drifter’s being devious, we might also conclude that his predicament is not as bad as he goes on to imply. He tells us that his ‘trip’ – perhaps meaning his life, but with a telling suggestion of his having ‘tripped up’ – hasn’t been pleasant. He seems to expect this to be taken figuratively, to mean it’s been unpleasant. However, he hasn’t actually stated his life has been unpleasant, or mentioned anything at all untoward having happened in it. It may be, then, that he’s trying to beguile us into feeling sorry for him. ‘And my time it isn’t long’ is likewise ambiguous. On the one hand he seems to be implying he’s not far from death – again to gain sympathy – and on the other exploiting the ambiguity as a way of not having to directly admit that the sentence handed down to him was actually lenient.
The second verse can be taken as presenting a similarly ambivalent picture of the judge. The judge’s casting aside his robe can be taken as representing an awareness that his role as a human being extends beyond his official position. Officially, he is required to mete out punishment, but as a human being he is required to be compassionate, and this is what we see in what appears to be a purposeful dismissal of his badge of office. He seems to recognise how pathetic the drifter is, and to be sorry for him. On the other hand, the further extent of his concern is limited to an emotional response – the tear coming to his eye, and to an admission (‘why must you even try?’) that he can’t see why the drifter should be required to accept society’s values. It’s here that we see a similarity between the judge and the drifter. Neither, it would seem, has troubled to find out something it is their responsibility to know, and in each case their lack of knowledge might be seen as the result of a character weakness. There seem to be three further weaknesses in the judge’s character. He appears to make no effort to inform the drifter about why he’s being punished. Neither does he admonish the jury for their inappropriate behaviour – as if, once out of his robe, his official duties are over. (It’s perhaps a comparable fault that he’d not been able to show compassion while wearing his robe.) And if the judgment of the attendant and the nurse in the final verse is to be trusted, he is at fault for presiding over an unsatisfactory trial.
While the picture we get of the judge is ambivalent, that of the jury is not. The ludicrous depiction of the jury’s crying ‘for more’ makes them seem like an audience trying to get more than its money’s worth after a final encore. And that, in turn, makes them seem to be treating the plight of the drifter as trivial. If ‘more’ refers to a longer sentence, then we might wonder what business it is of the jury to be demanding it. They seem no better than the rabble outside whose stirring, the narrator makes a point of telling us, can be heard from the door. And if the crowd are ‘stirring’ because the sentence is lenient, it might be they’d do better to emulate the humanity of the judge. As it is their restlessness would seem to stand for the social irresponsibility and blood thirst to be found in some parts of society.
It may be that the narrator is no more reliable than the drifter. He tells us that the crowd’s stirring could be heard from the door, and the implication is ‘even from the door’ – and therefore that they had become menacing. However, the one place one might expect to hear a crowd who are outside is from the door. That they could only be heard from the door does nothing to suggest they were getting unruly. And ‘stirring’ is not exactly baying for blood. Another possibility is that the narrator is trying to malign a well-behaved crowd, though it’s unclear what his motive would be. It seems more plausible that their behaviour would have matched that of the jury and that the stirring is the beginning of something more threatening. We can probably trust his account of the jury’s behaviour because it’s corroborated by how he says the attendant and the nurse responded. I think we can conclude that there’s no obvious reason for distrusting the narrator. That he mentions that the crowd can be heard from the door may be just to account for his knowledge about what’s going on outside when he’s inside.
The resolution of the drifter’s problem is instigated by the almost comical intervention of an ‘act of God’. Whether or not the thunderbolt is literally God’s doing is not established. What is clear, though, is that those present take it to be. However, their immediate response is not to mend their ways by determining to act more humanely in future, but – true to form – to look after themselves. They see themselves as in danger, so they pray. Or, perhaps, they see themselves as having angered God, and so they attempt to ingratiate themselves with him. Either way, we’re left feeling that a more appropriate response would have been to demonstrate a concern for the drifter which they had hitherto denied him.
The thunderbolt’s ultimate effect is that the drifter is able to escape. It’s left up to the listener, though, to decide whether he should be seen as a criminal escaping a deserved punishment or as a pathetic but now fortunate former victim of society. If the thunderbolt definitely came from God, the latter interpretation would seem warranted. If it was sheer chance, the former might. The narrator has presented the facts but it’s up to the listener to decide on their significance. Likewise we can either condemn the drifter outright as a devious manipulator of our sympathies, or we can modify our criticism by accepting that at last he has given us reason to respect him.
In favour of the latter is that, where previously he’d been pathetically inactive, he is now seen to be taking advantage of the situation on his own initiative. By deciding to escape he has shown he’s no longer a straw for every wind that blows. Accordingly, whether or not it’s actually the work of God, the God-like intervention has enabled him to redeem himself somewhat by acting in a decisive way – something which the judge in particular lacked the will to do. His decisiveness here can be seen as his overcoming his weakness of character. But, as before, it’s left up to the listener to decide whether the drifter has indeed exonerated himself.
Overall, then, the main characters – the drifter and the judge – are both presented as complex. Of course, although we appear to be being presented with a straightforward, unbiased account of the facts, we need to take precautions to ensure we’re not subtly being led by the narrator to conclude one way or the other. Nevertheless, the song gives the listener plenty to work on in the form of weighing up the virtues and failings of each character. The only way the song obviously leads us, it would seem, is in expecting us to condemn outright the behaviour of the jury and the mindless rabble.