(Bob Dylan) (1963)

Photograph of Medgar Evers monument by kind permission of Scott Ealy.

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HISTORICAL BACKGROUND (on my Bob Dylan "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" sitee):

For a rather similar use of imagery, please check out excerpts from Lillian Smith's "Killers of the Dream" -- revised edition published in 1963 (coincidence?)


But we clung to the belief... that our white skin made us "better" than all other people. And this belief comforted us, for we felt worthless and weak when confronted with authorities who had cheapened nearly all we held dear, except our skin color. There, in the land of Epidermis, every one of us was a little king.

Lilian Smith, Killers of the Dream, "revised and enlarged," Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1963 (originally published in 1949), p. 76.

Distance and darkness and starvation and ignorance and malaria ate like vultures on our rural people not for a few Civil War years but for two centuries.

But worse things happened. We cannot forget that these rural people were not let alone. It would have been far better for them had they been ignored... But the politicians... needed the rural people and used them as ruthlessly as Negroes were used when they were needed. They needed to play voter against voter and all of them against "the Negro" -- and they needed the poor whites' approval of acts which the dominant group's more informed minds could not wholly approve. They needed poor whites to be their yes-men, moral henchmen quieting their leaders' uneasy consciences. Like David playing on his harp to Saul, the rural whites sang the lies the dominant group wanted to hear, but they were lies that not David but Saul had composed, though Saul never more than half believed them. It was only the poor-white Davids who learned to love these lies which they needed sorely to believe were true. To be "superior," to be the "best people on earth" with the best "system" of making a living because your sallow skin was white... made you forget that you were eaten up with malaria and hookworm; made you forget that you lived in a shanty and ate pot-likker and corn bread...

ibid., pp. 143-144.

It worked for a long time. Each "stood" by the other. When the poor white lynched a Negro, the rich white protected him in court; the preacher protected him in church; the policeman looked away, the sheriff was easily intimidated, the juries rarely convicted, and the newspapers were "reasonable."

ibid., p.169

I was three days in Greenwood this July lending some small support to the Negro voter-registration drive down there. Sang in a small Baptist church, at a large NAACP meeting, and out in an open field. The last was a songfest also attended by Theodore Bikel, Bob Dylan and several hundred of the most enthusiastic freedom fighters and singers one could imagine. All ages.

Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 1972, p. 247; originally published in Broadside Magazine, No. 30, Aug 1963.

NEW YORK TIMES, Jul 7, 1963
Northern Folk Singers help out at Negro Festival in Mississippi
Greenwood, Miss., 6 July:

Three Northern folk singers led by Pete Seeger brought a folk-song festival to the Deep South this evening.

They sang in the yard of a Negro farm home on the edge of a cotton patch three miles south of here. The song festival, or hootenanny, was sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which has been conducting a voter registration drive among Negroes in Mississippi delta towns for more than a year....

Joining Mr Seeger in leading the songfest, in which most of the audience joined at one time or another, were Theodore Bikel and Bobby Dillon [sic], who, like Mr. Seeger, are white. There was also a Negro trio, the Freedom Singers, from Albany, Ga.

All paid their own expenses for the trip and sang without a fee.
One of the more popular songs presented by a local singer was one dedicated to Medgar W. Evers, the Mississippi field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who was slain last month in Jackson, Mississippi. A Greenwood man, Byron de La Beckwith, has been indicted in the shooting.

The refrain of the song was that the man who shot Mr Evers didn't know what he was doing and should be forgiven: "He's only a pawn in their game...."

I was just sitting on a step, and he came up to me and said, "Bernice, I wrote a song..."

Robin Denselow, When the Music's Over: The Story of Political Pop, London, 1990, p. 38.

Lyrics as recorded by Bob Dylan, Columbia Studios, New York, NY, Aug 7, 1963;
performed at Greenwood, Mississippi, Jul 6, 1963;
March on Washington, Aug 28, 1963.
© 1963, 1964 Warner Bros. Inc
© Renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man,
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid,
And the marshals and cops get the same,
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool.
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats pound in his brain.
And he's taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide 'neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught.
They lowered him down as a king.
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He'll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game.

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