Monday, January 16, 2017

Only A Pawn In Their Game -- Dylan's Contributions to the Civil Rights Movement Still Speak Today

"'Only A Pawn In Their Game' is one of Dylan's truly great songs, and what puts it over the top... is its unmatched tone." 
~ John Hinchey, Like A Complete Unknown

I recently heard an interview with Joan Baez in which she spoke candidly about her initial disappointment when Bob stopped writing protest songs and went electric. It wasn't till later than it dawned on her that he had not abandoned the movement and left them with nothing. Rather, he left this great catalog of songs that could be carried on for years to come. This was his gift to the movement. And what is astonishing is how so many of these songs -- songs like "Hard Rain" and "Blowin' in the Wind" -- continue to remain relevant today.

In August 1963 leaders of the Civil Rights Movement organized a march on Washington. The purpose of the march was gain passage of meaningful legislation with regard to civil rights.
The issues of the day included the elimination of racial segregation in public schools; protection for demonstrators against police brutality; a major public-works program to provide jobs; the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring; a $2 an hour minimum wage; and self-government for the District of Columbia, which had a black majority.*

A quarter million people showed up at the gathering, about a quarter of them white. Among the speakers and performers there were numerous notables including Marian Anderson; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Josh White. Charlton Heston—representing a contingent of artists, including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier—read a speech by James Baldwin.*

"Only a Pawn in their Game" is the opening cut on side two of The Times They Are A-Changin' vinyl. It's a powerful indictment of an America that still fails to live up to its dream. Though the album had been released at the beginning of 1964 the song itself was performed at the Civil Rights rally/march on August 28, 1963.

Dylan had performed Only A Pawn three other times before this performance here, the first time at Silas Magee's Farm in Greenwood, MS on July 6 and then eleven days later at the home of Dave Whitaker in Minneapolis. The third time was at the Newport Folk Festival in late July.


It was on this day in 1963 that Dr. Martin Luther King gave one of the most powerful and memorable speeches in American history culminating in the words, "And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'"

Here, then, are the lyrics for Only A Pawn. The song's power comes from the directness of its language. For years the metaphor of pawns initially escaped me. I understood that pawns are the lowest value on a chess board, and I always got that. The pawns are moved here and there by the hand that moves them. What I'd not considered was how in the game of chess the pieces are black and white. Chess is a strategy game involving white pieces and black pieces.

Dylan's roots at this time: the classic folk tradition. His aim: to wear the mantle of Woody Guthrie for a new generation, drawing attention to the outcast, the forgotten, the downtrodden, the misfit, the alienated and disenfranchised. When Dylan was recording The Times They Are A-Changin' songs like Surfin' USA (Beach Boys) and He's So Fine (Chiffons) were topping the charts.  How different this harsh realism.

Only A Pawn In Their Game

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 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.

The day 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.

Recorded June 1963
Copyright Bob Dylan


* Source: Infoplease -- Civil Rights March on Washington, All about the March on Washington, August 28, 1963 by Shmuel Ross (EdNote: This article is worth reading in its entirety)

**If the song doesn't make you weep, then you may need to listen to it again. Here's another live version. I agree with the comment "as soon as he begins strumming that guitar every hair on my arms raises and the goosebumps are just like WOOOSH!"

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