Watch Bob Dylan Perform “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” His Damning Song About the Murder of Medgar Evers, at the 1963 March on Washington

Trau­ma is rep­e­ti­tion, and the Unit­ed States seems to inflict and suf­fer from the same deep wounds, repeat­ed­ly, unable to stop, like one of the ancient Bib­li­cal curs­es of which Bob Dylan was so fond. The Dylan of the ear­ly 1960s adopt­ed the voice of a prophet, in var­i­ous reg­is­ters, to tell sto­ries of judg­ment and gen­er­a­tional curs­es, sym­bol­ic and his­tor­i­cal, that have beset the coun­try from its begin­nings.

The vers­es of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” from 1963’s The Free­wheel­in’ Bob Dylan, enact this rep­e­ti­tion, both trau­mat­ic and hyp­not­ic. In its dual refrains—“how many times…?” and “the answer is blowin’ in the wind” (ephemer­al, impos­si­ble to grasp)—the song cycles between earnest Lamen­ta­tions and the acute, world-weary res­ig­na­tion of Eccle­si­astes. “This ambi­gu­i­ty is one rea­son for the song’s broad appeal,” as Peter Dreier writes at Dis­sent.

Just three months after its release, when Dylan per­formed at the March on Wash­ing­ton for Jobs and Free­dom on August 28, 1963, “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become a mas­sive civ­il rights anthem. But he had already ced­ed the song to Peter, Paul & Mary, who played their ver­sion that day. Dylan ignored his sopho­more album entire­ly to play songs from the upcom­ing The Times They Are a‑Changing—songs that stand out for their indict­ments of the U.S. in some very spe­cif­ic terms.

Dylan played three songs from the new album: “When the Ship Comes In” with Joan Baez, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “With God on Our Side.” (He also played the pop­u­lar folk song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”) In con­trast to his vague­ly allu­sive pop­u­lar anthems, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”—about the mur­der of Medgar Evers—isn’t coy about the cul­prits and their crimes. We might say the song offers an astute analy­sis of insti­tu­tion­al racism, white suprema­cy, and sto­chas­tic ter­ror­ism.

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 hoof­beats 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

These lyrics have far too much rel­e­vance to cur­rent events, and they’re indica­tive of the chang­ing tone of Dylan’s muse. His refrains drip with irony. The killer of Medgar Evers “can’t be blamed”—an eva­sion of respon­si­bil­i­ty that becomes a pow­er­ful force all its own.

Dylan revis­its the themes of gen­er­a­tional trau­ma and mur­der in “With God on Our Side” (hear him sing it with Baez at New­port, above). The song is a sharp satire of his his­tor­i­cal edu­ca­tion, with its inevitable rep­e­ti­tions of war and slaugh­ter. Here, Dylan presents the expo­nen­tial­ly gross, exis­ten­tial­ly dread­ful, con­se­quences of a nation­al abdi­ca­tion of blame for his­tor­i­cal vio­lence.

Oh my name it ain’t noth­in’
My age it means less
The coun­try I come from
Is called the Mid­west
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Oh, the his­to­ry books tell it
They tell it so well
The cav­al­ries charged
The Indi­ans fell
The cav­al­ries charged
The Indi­ans died
Oh, the coun­try was young
With God on its side

The Span­ish-Amer­i­can
War had its day
And the Civ­il War, too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I was made to mem­o­rize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side

The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The rea­son for fight­ing
I nev­er did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side

The Sec­ond World War
Came to an end
We for­gave the Ger­mans
And then we were friends
Though they mur­dered six mil­lion
In the ovens they fried
The Ger­mans now, too
Have God on their side

I’ve learned to hate the Rus­sians
All through my whole life
If anoth­er war comes
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all brave­ly
With God on my side

But now we got weapons
Of chem­i­cal dust
If fire them, we’re forced to
Then fire, them we must
One push of the but­ton
And a shot the world wide
And you nev­er ask ques­tions
When God’s on your side

Through many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscar­i­ot
Had God on his side.

So now as I’m leav­in’
I’m weary as Hell
The con­fu­sion I’m feel­in’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

Dylan’s race/class analy­sis in “Only a Pawn in the Game” and his suc­cinct People’s His­to­ry of Chris­t­ian Nation­al­ism in “With God on Our Side” stand out as inter­est­ing choic­es for the March for sev­er­al rea­sons. For one thing, it’s as though he had writ­ten these songs express­ly to take the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and reli­gious mech­a­nisms and mytholo­gies of racism apart. This was rad­i­cal speech in an event that was policed by its orga­niz­ers to tone down inflam­ma­to­ry rhetoric for the cam­eras.

23-year-old John Lewis, for exam­ple, was forced to tem­per his speech, in which he meant to say, “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dix­ie, the way Sher­man did. We shall pur­sue our own scorched earth pol­i­cy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — non­vi­o­lent­ly. the rev­o­lu­tion is at hand, and we must free our­selves of the chains of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic slav­ery.” As a pop­u­lar white artist, rather than a poten­tial­ly sedi­tious Black orga­niz­er, Dylan had far more license and could “use his priv­i­lege,” as they say, to describe the sys­tems of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic oppres­sion Lewis had want­ed to name.

Dylan’s per­for­mance was one of a hand­ful of mem­o­rable musi­cal appear­ances. Most of the singers made a far big­ger impres­sion, like Mahalia Jack­son, Mar­i­an Ander­son, and Baez her­self, whose “We Shall Over­come” cre­at­ed a leg­endary moment of har­mo­ny. No one sang along to Dylan’s new songs—they wouldn’t have known the words. But Dylan was nev­er care­less. He chose these words for the moment, hop­ing to have some impact in the only way he could.

The 1963 March’s pur­pose has been over­shad­owed by a few pas­sages in Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.‘s pow­er­ful “I Have a Dream” speech, co-opt­ed by every­one and reduced to meme-able quotes. But the protest “remains one of the most suc­cess­ful mobi­liza­tions ever cre­at­ed by the Amer­i­can Left,” his­to­ri­an William P. Jones writes. “Orga­nized by a coali­tion of trade union­ists, civ­il rights activists, and feminists–most of them African Amer­i­can and near­ly all of them social­ists.”

Dylan sang sto­ries of how the coun­try got to where it was, through a his­to­ry of vio­lence still play­ing out before the marchers’ eyes. What­ev­er polit­i­cal ten­sions there were among the var­i­ous orga­niz­ers and speak­ers did not dis­tract them from push­ing through the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act and the Fair Employ­ment Prac­tices clause ban­ning dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of race, reli­gion, nation­al ori­gin, or sex—protections that have been broad­ened since that time, and also chal­lenged, threat­ened, and stripped away.

Fifty-sev­en years lat­er, as the RNC con­ven­tion ends and anoth­er March on Wash­ing­ton hap­pens, we might reflect on Dylan’s small but pre­scient con­tri­bu­tions in 1963, in which he apt­ly char­ac­ter­ized the trau­mat­ic rep­e­ti­tions we’re still con­vul­sive­ly expe­ri­enc­ing over half a cen­tu­ry lat­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Moment When Bob Dylan Went Elec­tric: Watch Him Play “Maggie’s Farm” at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val in 1965

A Mas­sive 55-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Bob Dylan Songs: Stream 763 Tracks

James Bald­win Talks About Racism in Amer­i­ca & Civ­il Rights Activism on The Dick Cavett Show (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Nicole says:

    Final­ly! Thank you for shing­ing an over­due light on this song. As we watch Trump wratch up his White nation­al­ist rhetoric it is vital that we under­stand it for what it is. These so called “foot sol­diers” are pawns in a larg­er polit­i­cal game. Trump wants to stay in pow­er and he will use what­ev­er means to do so includ­ing start­ing a race war. Those folks don´t even know that they are vic­tims, that is the real shame. Here is a link to a piece I wrote talk­ing about that among oth­er things,

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