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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