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Dylan’s political songwriting is still relevant

It happens about once a year. I’ve again been drawn deep into a heavy Bob Dylan addiction, a state where the great man is nearly all I can bring myself to listen to for a month or two.

The last time I did so, it was his late 60s output I obsessed over. This time it is his early political period that I am most appreciating. The way he goes about his story telling and his ability to tease out broader contextual meaning from certain events to paint a larger picture of society and its systems is remarkable and as relevant today as ever.

What brought me back into the Dylan fold on this occasion was watching a fantastic series about the American Civil Rights Movement called Eyes on the Prize. Made in the late 80s, the series bears a strong resemblance to the work of Ken Burns, both in length and quality and for highlighting the music of the era (it is named after one of the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement after all).

A section of the documentary focuses on the great Medgar Evers, a Mississippi lawyer and one of the many heroes of the Civil Rights Movement who was gunned down outside his home on 12 June, 1963.

This immediately brought to mind ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’, which Dylan performed at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The event was made famous by Martin Luther King Jnr’s immortal ‘I Have a Dream’ oration and by the huge number of people who attended (around 250,000). This performance was a mere two months after Evers had been killed.

The song opens with Dylan’s emotive account of the murder and then works towards his ultimate point:

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

Dylan was here able to use Evers’ death to diagnose a broad political and economic issue. Rather than focusing on the individual responsible for Evers’ murder, attention should be directed towards the white power structure in the South that breeds the kind of hatred and resentment that leads to murder and continued inequality and racism.

The dismissive tone he invokes as the Southern politician berating his white constituents, telling them not to complain about their own poverty-stricken circumstances because “You’re better than them, you’ve been born with white skin,” highlights that it is poor whites as well as blacks who are being hurt by the system.

Racism is merely a divisive tool used by the powerful. Mississippi was at the time, and indeed still is, the poorest state in the US and the poor white population there continue to vote against their own interests because of the sustained dog-whistling of politicians around social issues.

‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ is probably Dylan’s best political song. Apparently written whilst returning to New York from Washington DC after the March on Washington (and in the following days), the song tells the story of Hattie Carroll, a kitchenmaid in Baltimore who was murdered by a young tobacco farm owner in 1963.

First and foremost, this is a murder ballad. William Zantzinger is named as the killer in the first line of the song, a classic murder ballad trope. The song goes on to describe in great detail the individuals involved, the fatal attack and its aftermath. More than presenting as a simple tale of murder, the song ends up being another vehicle through which Dylan is able to identify and attack a racist and unjust system.

It serves as an indictment of race relations in America, of white privilege and inherited wealth, and of the poisonous state of the US justice system, a system that would allow Zantzinger to serve only six months for his heinous and unprovoked attack. It also points the finger at those upper most in society who may profess outrage at such a shocking incident, yet do nothing to confront the systemic and deep rooted problems that lead to such things happening.

Given recent racially motivated violence in the US (by the law no less) and the failure of the justice system to adequately deal with the situation, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ remains highly relevant. Fifty years on, it is still utterly captivating.

‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ is lesser known than those songs presented above, owing to the fact that it was not officially released until many years after he had stopped performing it (appearing first on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 in 1991 and again in Volume 6 of the series). It is nevertheless another early Dylan gem, worthy of note and praise.

The song focuses on the death of Davey Moore, a champion boxer who lost his life three days after a featherweight title fight in March of 1963 at the age of 29. Rather than focusing on Moore himself, Dylan takes aim at the various cogs involved in the operation of the boxing machine in trying to figure out who (anyone?) is responsible for Moore’s demise, each verse taking a different point of view upon which to analyse the tragic outcome.

It is first the referee (“I could’ve stopped it in the eight, but the crowd would have booed I’m sure”), then the crowd (“We just meant to see him sweat, there ain’t nothing wrong in that”), then the manager (“It’s too bad for his wife and kids, but if he was sick he should have said”) , then the gambler (“I didn’t commit no ugly sin, anyway I put money on him to win”), then the boxing writer (“Boxing ain’t to blame, there’s just as much danger in a football game”), then Moore’s opponent (“I hit him, yes, it’s true, but that’s what I’m paid to do”). All parties involved come to the conclusion that “It wasn’t me who made him fall, no you can’t blame me at all.”

It is a sharp attack on the notion of limited liability and blame-shifting, issues that are still highly prescient today. One could easily rewrite this song and have as its subject the Global Financial Crisis. The ways that each financial institution and government entity involved sought to defer wrongdoing to parties other than themselves is similar to the tale told in ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’. Surely someone/s or some entity/s must be responsible? Is justice possible in these complex systems that we human beings have created?

It is a slight shame that Dylan abandoned writing political songs so quickly into his career. However, the work that does exist sits comfortably as some of the finest political art of the 20th century. It will continue to endure for a long time to come, such is the continued relevance of the messages contained within.


Article originally published, June 9 2015.

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