It’s deeply unfair to judge an artist for something they never intended the world to hear. It would be like going through the garbage can of a writer, unearthing a crumbled piece of paper and telling the whole world it sucks. But that’s a situation Bob Dylan has faced since the late 1960s. “The bootleg records, those are outrageous,” he groused in 1985 to Cameron Crowe. “I mean, they have stuff you do in a phone booth. Like, nobody’s around. If you’re just sitting and strumming in a motel, you don’t think anyone’s there. It’s like the phone is tapped…Then you wonder why most artists feel so paranoid.”
All of that said, let’s take a listen to his 1983 outtake “Julius and Ethel.” Recorded during the Infidels sessions, it’s a sympathetic look at Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans who were put to death in 1953 for giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. “Now that they are gone, you know, the truth it can be told,” Dylan sings. “They were sacrificial lambs in the market place sold… They were never proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
This issue has been hotly debated for the past six decades, and there’s no conclusive answers. At the very least, most people accept that Julius was at least trying to pass along nuclear secrets. The exact truth will probably be never known. As far as the song, it’s far from Dylan’s best song, even by the standards of his 1980s work, and he was wise to leave it on the cutting room floor. (He also left the masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell” off Infidels, but that’s a whole other story.)
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Nobody would have ever heard “Julius and Ethel” had bootleggers not somehow gotten their hands on the Infidels sessions. It now joins the ranks of “Hurricane,” “Joey,” “George Jackson” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” as songs where Dylan wades into a well-documented historical situation and draw a conclusion guaranteed to upset a good many people.