The Summer of '63
12:21 pm
Wed June 12, 2013

Bob Dylan's Tribute To Medgar Evers Took On The Big Picture

Originally published on Wed June 12, 2013 1:20 pm

On this day 50 years ago — June 12, 1963 — Bob Dylan's career was just taking off when he heard the news that civil rights activist Medgar Evers had been assassinated. Dylan responded with a song that he eventually performed at the March on Washington and the Newport Folk Festival.

As Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz says, "Only a Pawn in Their Game" leans hard on the idea that Evers' killer was not the only guilty party.

"The whole point is, the killer is guilty, yes, but he's not the person to blame," Wilentz tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "There's rather a much larger system that's out there, and that's what the song is really about."

Dylan's words also scrutinize the era's white elites, suggesting they enraged poor whites against blacks in order to divert them from their own social and economic position.

"It's a sort of standard left-wing take on what Southern segregation and racism was all about," Wilentz says. "It isn't simply a matter of hatred; it isn't simply a moral question. It's a political question and an economic question. The poor white man's at the caboose of the train, but it's the system — the rich, the powerful, everyone from the cops on up and down — they're the ones who are twisting this guy's head around with racism in order to keep him down."

In the wake of such a tragic event, the song was a unique undertaking — one that aimed to communicate and understand what was taking place in the killer's mind.

"It wasn't a song that played naturally into the moral geometry of the civil rights movement, you know, which was very much about the righteous civil rights workers — black and white — against an obdurate segregationist system," Wilentz says. "This dug a little deeper and made people think a little bit more. ... He's giving you the sound of what it's like to have your brain screaming because you're down, because you're poor."

When Dylan wrote the song, the American civil rights movement was well under way, and protest songs such as "We Shall Overcome" were essential to the spirit of the movement. However, as Wilentz says, most protest songs were uplifting and encouraged an "eyes on the prize" mentality.

"Dylan's writing a different kind of art," Wilentz says. "Not just in the sense of art because it's beautifully written, but because he actually had that ability to, as I say, enter into lots of different people's brains and souls and see them in collision."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As part of NPR's look back at the summer of 1963, we'll also be tuning into the music of that time: the songs, the singers and the emotions they conveyed about who we were and where we were going.

We begin today with a young Bob Dylan, who was just starting his career when he heard the news that Medgar Evers had been killed. Dylan responded with a song that he eventually performed at the March on Washington in August of 1963. It was called "Only a Pawn In Their Game."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) A bullet from the back of the 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.

CORNISH: Sean Wilentz is a historian and Dylan biographer at Princeton University and he joins me now to talk about the song. Welcome, Sean Wilentz.

SEAN WILENTZ: Great to be here, Audie.

CORNISH: So, Dylan is only about 23 when he writes this song. Walk us through the lyrics, the story that Dylan is trying to tell here.

WILENTZ: Well, from the beginning, actually, we're not so much with Medgar Evers, we're with the man who killed him. And the whole point is the killer is guilty, yes, but he's not the person to blame. There's rather a much larger system that's out there, and that's what the song is really about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME")

DYLAN: (Singing) 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.

WILENTZ: It's a sort of standard left-wing take on what Southern segregation and racism was all about, that it isn't simply a matter of hatred. It isn't simply a moral question. It's a political question, an economic question. He says, you know: The South politician preaches to the poor white man, you got more than the Blacks, don't complain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME")

DYLAN: (Singing) But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool

CORNISH: And how did people react to this song at the time?

WILENTZ: Well, it's interesting. I mean, it's not - it wasn't a song that played naturally into the moral dramaturgy of the civil rights movement, you know, which was very much about the righteous civil rights workers, black and white, against an obdurate segregationist system. This dug a little deeper and made people think a little bit more.

I mean, imagine, you know, writing a song in the immediate aftermath of Medgar Evers' assassination and giving an empathetic reading of the killer, at least an understanding what's going inside the killer's mind. And that's what he's doing. But he's doing it with a man that most people would like to do...

(LAUGHTER)

WILENTZ: ...very terrible things to 'cause they're so angry at him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME")

DYLAN: (Singing) 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.

CORNISH: Sean Wilentz, and writing at the time of the writing of this song, the Civil Rights Movement was well underway. There are lots of protest songs out there in different genres. What's significant about the Dylan's moment here?

WILENTZ: Well, I think Dylan is an artist in a way that nobody else was. I mean, music meant a lot to the movement - "We Shall Overcome," I mean Baronese Johnson(ph). It's a musical all over the place. But mostly it's about raising your spirits. It's keep your eyes on the prize, that kind of thing.

Dylan's writing a different kind of art, not just in the sense of art because it's beautifully written, but because he actually had that ability to enter into other people's - lots of different peoples' brains and souls and see them in collision.

CORNISH: Sean Wilentz, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILENTZ: It's been a real pleasure.

CORNISH: Sean Wilentz is a historian at Princeton University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.