Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #32: Only A Pawn In Their Game

Author's Note: This will almost certainly be the most controversial post of mine to date; I'm fully expecting criticism and vehement disagreement, and I'm psychically prepared for this (at least, I hope I am). In that sense, I'm doing things a little different - the criticism of the song proper will come first, followed by my usual charming (?) ramblings on what fancy the song has struck within me. Only this time, it's not exactly a fancy. Hopefully any criticism slung my way will be civil - it has been, so far, more or less - and I will make every effort to keep my responses civil as well. Life's too short.

(1)

Even today, it still comes across as unseemly to suggest that the white population of America, the majority of people living here (at least, for now) may have things as rough as any minority group out there. After all, anybody with half a brain and a basic curiosity can find poverty in the ranks of African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and so on. Our economy and social structures are built in a way where advancement from the very bottom is the exception to the rule, and most people that have nothing will almost certainly continue to have nothing, both from a financial and a social standpoint. Anglo-Saxons, from this standpoint, built this country and continue to run it in the way they so choose, and if you're not part of their group, you're an outsider. Chris Rock had an amusing punchline in this regard, speaking to the white members of his audience: "None of you here tonight would change places with me...and I'm rich!" Hilarious, of course, but a little telling; the follow-up is more to the point: "When you're white, the sky's the limit. When you're black, the limit's the sky."

This is a very simplified view of things, of course; that same curious person can dig up just as many examples of extreme poverty amongst white Americans, all across the country. Whites may have more chances to succeed in America, but those chances aren't always taken, and in some cases aren't even introduced. Think about Mississippi (where "Only A Pawn In Their Game" was introduced in public), a state whose antebellum wealth was almost entirely tied into slavery, and nearly 150 years later still hasn't entirely caught up; the state's per-capita income is the lowest of all 50. Public schooling is a joke there, industry is a weak presence, and many people struggle just to pay the rent. It is one of the few states where poor whites suffer as badly as poor blacks, and although it's an extreme example, Mississippi is hardly the only state where these conditions exist.

These conditions, if anything, were even worse 40 years ago, and Bob Dylan knew that. When Medgar Evers was shot in June 1963, his killing (and the resulting deadlocked trials of his KKK-member assassin) spoke volumes about the vast racial divide that existed in the 1960s and still exists today. Dylan could very easily have written a song simply about that, about centuries of slavery and of the collapse of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and the vicious segregation that took place all over America for 100 years. That he didn't is entirely to his credit (there's enough white guilt to go around without him adding to it); that he chose to write instead about the man that felled Evers and the society that brought him to do it is also to his credit. The song itself isn't so great, but that's hardly the point, now is it?

What strikes me, 40 years after the song's release and its performance at the March on Washington (where, I imagine, its social importance outweighed any clunkiness in the song structure), is how Dylan wrote the song in a way that could actually come across humorously, simply because the rhyming structure is so ungainly and repetitive. Dylan's ever-constant hammering of the rhymes and odd tempo (there are moments where his lines are overwhelming the chord changes) make the song sound less serious than it should be, and this is just about the most serious song on the whole album. Dylan, who apparently had forgotten the subtleties that marked his best work on Freewheelin', fires away with a number of broad generalities - so every Southern politician rose to power on the back of the black man? And every poor white man is trained like a dog to hate blacks? Doesn't speak too well about the intelligence or independent thought of poor white men in the South, now does it? Surely not every man or woman in Alabama or Louisiana was born with strings attached, waiting to be just another puppet?

It is certainly no stretch of the imagination to feel like the corridors of power in the South, especially as the civil rights movement began to grow and foment, had particular hatred towards black men, and had this hatred ever since Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox Court House (I imagine there was less hatred before then as there was a condescending acceptance - after all, these men are doing our jobs for us). It is also no stretch to suggest that the massive pressures of poverty and Southern society upon an uneducated head could poison his way of thinking. But we already knew that, even back then, and nobody needs a song that delivers that point with a lack of subtletly that can make a jaw drop (that fifth verse, in particular, doesn't so much lay it on thick as it slathers it on with a trowel). Few things in song are worse than obvious generalities presented as The Holy Truth, no matter how sincere the performer tries to be.

Perhaps in the 1960s that lack of subtlety was needed; maybe that was the only way to really get the point across, to show us that it wasn't just a man that shot Medgar Evers, but a whole way of life, as though every white-on-black crime has to be that way because the centuries of inequality dictated it to be so. All I know is that I hear the song today, hear the clumsiness and the cliches, and I bemoan the fact that "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" was tossed to the wayside so Dylan could slot in another song that takes the Important Issues of the Day, fashions them into a club, and beats us about the head with them. I should note Dylan hasn't played the song live for 40 years - maybe he knew how hard he was swinging that club back then.

(2)

I get into occasional debates with my best friend Mark, as I'm sure you do with your best friends, about any number of topics. We've gone back and forth on sabermetrics in baseball, on Kubrick's best films, and on whether or not birch beer is simply another way of saying root beer (and it clearly isn't - they are two separate sodas). One issue we got into was which band is the greatest of all time. I took the side of The Beatles, which will shock absolutely no one, and he sided with The Clash (another oft-chosen group in that debate). This eventually led us into a debate about the 1960s, and he hit me with an opinion that stunned me at the time: "the 1960s blew it, plain and simple".

I couldn't quite follow his argument because I was legitimately shocked by his statement, but this is what I think his gist was: as much as any era before or since, the 1960s was a time where real change could be made, where real steps to erase inequality and conservatism and the problems that befall us as a society, creating something new and better for all of us. But, through a combination of tragedy, shortsightedness, and in-fighting, the Peace Generation let that opportunity slip through their fingers, leading to Nixon's two election victories and a further deepening of cultural divides that exists to this day. And that very baby boomer generation, stunned by the collapse of their hopes and dreams, turned bitter and eventually became what they swore they would never become. And THAT is why we have the "Parental Advisory - Explicit Content" sticker, eight years of Ronald Reagan, the curtain over Lady Justice, and those goddamn Viagra ads that glom off the Summer of Love to sell penis-enlarging pills.

Now, let it be known that, for the record, I do not entirely agree with this. After all, those tragedies that befell the change-makers of the 60s were not their fault; imagine losing men as important as MLK, Jr., RFK, JFK, and Malcolm X in the span of five years? Imagine being confronted by a "Silent Majority" that viewed you as filthy hippies, hate-spewing Negroes, and ungrateful long-haired college punks, blamed you for the ills that the country suffered, and wanted nothing more than a President who promised the status quo and the occasional bashing of said hippie heads? Imagine living in a time where everything was changing, from the clothing we wore to the music we played on our hi-fis to the movies we watched to the way the youth of America viewed, well, everything? And imagine seeing a pointless war in Vietnam, knowing you could be next on the chopping block, and realizing that the men in charge of your country, your life, didn't give two shits about you. And imagine that you grew up through all that, are still alive today, and see a world that didn't change, the same assholes in charge, and society changing in a way that even the accepting kids of the 60s would have trouble swallowing. That'd bother you quite a bit, wouldn't you think?

On the other hand...in a way, my friend was right. The 1960s, in many ways, outright failed. We didn't get Gene McCarthy or George McGovern in the White House. The civil rights movement, which gave so much to the black community, also helped drive an even deeper wedge in racial relationships, to the point that even 40 years later we still aren't ready for a black President (and we're not - it's getting more clear at this point). The era of free love has given us waves of Internet porn and a society too straitlaced to deal with sexuality head-on. Our political system remains damaged perhaps beyond repair, and our culture has not so much learned anything from those turbulent times as they've learned how to take those times and mold them into something that can be packaged and sold. Remember how I talked about how the mainstream tends to take something truly original, suck the life out of it, and spit it back out to the masses? The 1960s are the textbook case of this odious practice; think of those Time-Life compilations, or C-list celebrities glomming off 60s fashion trends, or the cottage industry that's sprung around Muhammad Ali, or the 4 billion books that tell us "the 60s were where it was at, maaaaaaaaan" or "hey, baby boomers! You're the generation that mattered! Peace and love!" It'd be incredibly disgusting, if it wasn't so predictable.

And the worst thing is that, for many (not all) people that grew up in that time, all the attention and marketing and nonsense has fostered the belief that, yes, the 1960s WERE the only time that mattered, and that we must all strive to return to an era where nothing was solved and where the generation that wanted change only wanted change, with the occasional idea of what to do next and how the generation after them would exist. Never mind that every decade was one of great historical importance, or that immeasurable strides have been made in cultural, technological, and intellectual ways in the last 40 years, or that maybe The Velvet Underground isn't quite as good as everybody thinks they are. Never mind that people thought Shirley Chisholm was a joke when she ran for office, while Barack Obama has been feted as a potential President for nearly 4 years. Never mind that the baby boomers, through their own short-sighted selfishness, have consigned us to decades of "red vs blue" elections, and to a never-ending war between those that still uphold the (valid) ideals of the 60s and those that despise what those smelly hippies stood for. Never mind that maybe all this would've happened anyway, and the baby boomer generation was just as much "right place, right time" as anything else.

There is a small part of that generation that hasn't left the Sixties, that constantly brings everything back to that time, and constantly reminds us that Things Aren't As Good As They Used To Be. I can't help, when I think of those people, thinking about the aging hipsters James Murphy (aka LCD Soundsystem) took to task in "Losing My Edge", one of the best songs of this decade. Murphy's lyrics are a hilarious shot at every cat who strives for legitimacy and the ability to say "I was there at the start, so don't tell ME about The Smiths, jerkoff", at those who wield their musical knowledge like Excalibur (I'm sad to say that I must include myself in this group), and those that turn up their noses at the sad lost souls that suggest that Pearl Jam and Aerosmith really aren't that bad. He ends the song by firing off a litany of artists and bands name-checked by hipsters the world over, both well-known (Eric B. & Rakim, Joy Division, Lou Reed) and more obscure (the Sonics, the Swans, Gil-Scott Heron). Murphy is obviously including himself in this crowd, but he does not spare himself and his pretentions, and the result's an incredible song that punctures many an overinflated balloon.

There's few things worse than an aging hipster, one that snorts at your Unknown Pleasures t-shirt and says "Listen, pal, not only did I wear an armband when Ian Curtis died, not only did I buy the Licht Und Blindheit single as an import when it came out, I didn't even listen to New Order for 4 years!" And there's nothing worse than somebody who crams the 60s down your throat, who can't wait to tell you that if we had another Jerry Rubin the world wouldn't be turning to shit, and who simply has to force another history lesson upon us every time something of import happens. As I've said, these people are a minority; many of the 60s generation have managed to move on, incorporating their experiences into their modern lives, and we are better for it. And there are the people that have turned the 60s into a horrible beast that feeds off of rose-colored nostalgia, people that sneer with glee at how they've perverted the strides that generation made into a punch line or a Fox News insult, and people whose bitterness consumes them and feel that, because they ended up having a shitty time, we ALL must have a shitty time. One wonders if the world that generation helped spawn was worth the trouble...even if we did get Bonnie and Clyde and The Gilded Palace of Sin out of it.

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16 comments:

Justin Shapiro said...

"maybe that was the only way to really get the point across, to show us that it wasn't just a man that shot Medgar Evers, but a whole way of life, as though every white-on-black crime has to be that way because the centuries of inequality dictated it to be so."

Maybe every American white-on-important-black-political-leader crime, at least? I getcher point, Tone, but at times it seems like you're protesting protest songs altogether.

Not really, 'cause you've been consistent and fair in your criticism throughout -- so far you've generally tended to go thumbs up for the "social conscience" songs with a deeper meaning and/or more lasting truth, and thumbs down for the ones that are narrow-focused issue-of-the-day'ers. But even by that criteria, I don't think this song has a 1964 expiration date. Class/race issues are obviously always going to be relevant, but politicians winning elections by manipulating their electorate into mobilizing via anti-minority rhetoric, be it racial or sexual, seems especially germane over the last four or so years.

I don't think the song deals in absolutes quite as much as you do, either; it's not condemning every Southern politician or poor white man any more than Hattie Carroll is saying that every judge in the country is corrupt. You could even say that Medgar Evers is more metaphor than man in the song.

I guess I'm more playing devil's advocate, as I think the song is just alright -- I do like all the long-A vowel sounds; all kids do -- and height-of-the-protest-movement Bob Dylan is not near the top of my list of favorite Bob Dylans either.

But what I wonder, then, is whether you think Hurricane fails in the same way you say that Only A Pawn In Their Game does? It's hard to think of a broader generality than "all the criminals in their coats in their ties are free to drink martinis," or less subtle than "ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game." (Not to make you address that song twelve years ahead of schedule, so please don't feel obligated to do any kind of elaborate breakdown.)

Tony said...

I getcher point, Tone, but at times it seems like you're protesting protest songs altogether.

Maybe they're starting to run me down, I dunno. Upon second read, the sarcasm was probably laid on a bit thick as well there. I do realize that Evers has a symbolic presence in the song as well as a literal one, if that means anything.

My thought re: Hurricane is that the lyrics that work (i.e. that entire first verse, which earned every music critic's favorite adjective, "cinematic") and the remarkable musicianship make it a more effective song, even though it does have its share of clunker lines. Is it unfair comparing a full-band song musically to an acoustic-only tune? Absolutely; still, the instrumentation has to be addressed in any song comparison, since music (like knowing) is half the battle.

Pete Shanks said...

I have to disagree with you on this one. The tension between individual responsibility and collective responsibility is one that needed to be stressed, then and indeed now. Dylan's notorious statement that on some level he could identify with Lee Harvey Oswald (see http://www.corliss-lamont.org/dylan.htm) is part of the same complicated thought. It was tempting to say that the murder of Evers and others was down to "bad apples" but it was important to note that the system was complicit. I love "Only a Pawn" for taking a bottom-up approach to what is usually a top-down political analysis -- and I sure wish I'd heard it at the Washington March.

(Note: Barack Obama recently got misunderstood for a similar sentiment.)

Keep up the interesting work!

Thad Williamson said...

You should really read the analysis of this song in Mike Marqsuee's book "Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art." I think it's bizarre you characterize "Only a Pawn in Their Game" as overly simplistic finger-pointing song when in fact it's a subtle power analysis that points the finger not at poor white uneducated southerners but at the system that divided working class blacks and whites in order to perpetuate elite rule. Look at the well-to-do, "respectable" elites, not simply the ones who pull the trigger, Dylan is saying. It's much the same message as "Hattie Carroll."

I'm not denying that Dylan wrote other protesty songs that were simplistic--like say "Playboys and Playgirls."

But not this one, which ranks with "John Brown" as one of Dylan's most insightful and sophisticated efforts at social criticism that not only aims to point the finger but also tries to challenge and deepen the analysis of his audience.

Thad Williamson said...

p.s. I should add that though I disagree, I can't deny this is a thoughtful post. But to address one of your questions, was it necessary in 1963 to simplify things a bit to make a point, the answer is, yes.

Though I don't think the simplifications Dylan is engaging in are as off-base or problematic as you indicate.

Anonymous said...

it's my guess that bob dylan is not going to come out and say "i dis-own this song"...but i do think it noteworthy that, to the best of my knowledge, dylan has not sung this song (nor ballad of donald white), not a single time in the past 44 years....and in my opinion, it's because both songs take the same stance, namely, this "bad guy" isn't really to blame, it's "bad society" which created him....well, i think circa 1965 dylan drastically changed this viewpoint and took more stock in the "to-at-least-some-extent-we-are-responsible-for-our-own-actions" position...and so i'd guess he will never peform these songs again...zimfreud

Tony said...

Thanks to all the commenters for keeping things civil and not just saying "you're wrong, you uneducated twit". I appreciate it.

I agree that Dylan's way of approaching the song is more intelligent than simply blaming the man who pulls the trigger or ties the noose. Maybe, and I should have addressed this in the post proper, I'm just looking at the song with the benefit of hindsight and public education, and I'm not seeing anything in the lyrics that blows my mind or tells me something I didn't already know. That is entirely my fault; there are probably a host of people that don't see it that way. Maybe there were people that saw it my way back then, who knows. I can't deny that Dylan has his heart in the right place.

I still stand by my assertion that Dylan is a bit less subtle than he needs to be, although Thad may have it right in that he had to be for those times. And, Thad, you're really expecting me to READ something someone else wrote? Perish the thought! :D

zimfreud, Dylan hasn't performed this song live since 1964. There are others that have, though, so the song still remains in the public consciousness.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this song is simplistic in either it's structure or it's message. Dylan very deftly builds the food-chain of hate that is racism. And it addresses what both causes and perpetuates hate.

I think these are powerful and timeless considerations.

As to the structure, it may not seem overly much in retrospect, but for 1964 is was amazingly literary.

heynow said...

You write,
“The song itself isn't so great, but that's hardly the point, now is it?”
I disagree, it’s ALWAYS the point, and the song itself is indeed great.

“there are moments where his lines are overwhelming the chord changes”
Dylan’s delivery is mindful of the folk/talking blues tradition, while hinting at the brilliance of stretching meter Dylan would put on full display in the next few years.

“so every Southern politician rose to power on the back of the black man? And every poor white man is trained like a dog to hate blacks?”
If you’re going to write about a song, at least get the lyrics right. It’s “A Southern politician” NOT every. It’s “to THE poor white man” singular NOT every poor white man. This misrepresentation you made is no small matter, Dylan *could* have used “every” instead of “a” and “the”, that he didn’t is a large testament to the greatness of the song.

Lastly and most egregious:
“Perhaps in the 1960s that lack of subtlety was needed; maybe that was the only way to really get the point across, to show us that it wasn't just a man that shot Medgar Evers, but a whole way of life, as though every white-on-black crime has to be that way because the centuries of inequality dictated it to be so.”
I don’t how else to say this but, first, the assassination of Evers was not just another white on black crime, it’s not just another crime period. Second, even if one were to accept your proposition that every white on black crime is not a result of centuries of inequality, Evers’ assassination unquestionable was. For you to be so ignorantly obtuse on these two points, in my view, disqualifies you to read the phone book, much less any further interpretations of Dylan songs.

Tony said...

I disagree, it’s ALWAYS the point, and the song itself is indeed great.

You don't think a song has to be great to also be important, from any standpoint? "Rockit" is no great shakes, but it's got scratching on it. Any number of protest songs can have their heart in the right place and not be that good.

Dylan’s delivery is mindful of the folk/talking blues tradition, while hinting at the brilliance of stretching meter Dylan would put on full display in the next few years.

No denial here.

If you’re going to write about a song, at least get the lyrics right. It’s “A Southern politician” NOT every. It’s “to THE poor white man” singular NOT every poor white man. This misrepresentation you made is no small matter, Dylan *could* have used “every” instead of “a” and “the”, that he didn’t is a large testament to the greatness of the song.

I wasn't quoting the lyrics directly, just extrapolating from the actual lyrics. Give me *some* credit, please! And he didn't use "every", yes, so I suppose it's my own personal interpretation that leads me to think that he might be suggesting "every" when he says "a".

I don’t how else to say this but, first, the assassination of Evers was not just another white on black crime, it’s not just another crime period. Second, even if one were to accept your proposition that every white on black crime is not a result of centuries of inequality, Evers’ assassination unquestionable was.

I suggested earlier in the comments that my statement was perhaps a touch more sarcastic than it needed to be, and apologized as such. Perhaps I should've edited my post and softened that sentence, but that wouldn't be editorially prudent, would it? Your point is valid, and I think mine was, as well (if rather harsh).

For you to be so ignorantly obtuse on these two points, in my view, disqualifies you to read the phone book, much less any further interpretations of Dylan songs.

Thanks for reading!

heynow said...

-I disagree, it’s ALWAYS the point, and the song itself is indeed great.-

You don't think a song has to be great to also be important, from any standpoint? "Rockit" is no great shakes, but it's got scratching on it. Any number of protest songs can have their heart in the right place and not be that good.

i think we're somewhat aruging the same point here. A song can be great without being important, 'wooly bully','my melody', 'Buy U a drank', are all great(ok, drank is pushin it) without being important. But, an important song isn't necessarily great (which i think was your orginal point)to which i responded a song's greatness is always the central point but that i differed with you, in that, Only a Pawn in Thier game, is a great song as well as important one.

-For you to be so ignorantly obtuse on these two points, in my view, disqualifies you to read the phone book, much less any further interpretations of Dylan songs.-

Thanks for reading!

you're welcome. the phone book crack was a tadly rash. i've enjoyed your posts and look forward to the continued journey thru the dylan chronology. i do think your post on 'Only a pawn' and the responses to it illustrate (though on a minsucle level compared to that in 1964) the fraughtfulness these topical/protest/angrytunes presented for dylan and his audience, as well the intensity of response(again on a mini level as to the orignal timeframe) that early era dylan engendered. Your post and responses are also useful,i think, in understanding better the sh*tstorm that ensued at newport 65, due in no small part by how fever a pitch both that fraughtfullness and intensity had reached.

regards
-heynow

Tony said...

i think we're somewhat aruging the same point here. A song can be great without being important, 'wooly bully','my melody', 'Buy U a drank', are all great(ok, drank is pushin it) without being important. But, an important song isn't necessarily great (which i think was your orginal point)to which i responded a song's greatness is always the central point but that i differed with you, in that, Only a Pawn in Thier game, is a great song as well as important one.

That is fair enough. Glad to see we're on the same page. And "Buy You A Drank" is a great song in that it makes me laugh whenever I hear it.

i do think your post on 'Only a pawn' and the responses to it illustrate (though on a minsucle level compared to that in 1964) the fraughtfulness these topical/protest/angrytunes presented for dylan and his audience, as well the intensity of response(again on a mini level as to the orignal timeframe) that early era dylan engendered.

No disagreement here. Folk Era Dylan did know how to push buttons and set imaginations aflame, didn't he? I do think it's prudent to remember that we're talking about the very best that the folk movement had to offer - both in musical and message-related terms. I'll never forget the infamous quote about Joan Baez when some old lady said she'd never sell out like Dylan did: "Joan Baez? What's she got to sell out?"

Your post and responses are also useful,i think, in understanding better the sh*tstorm that ensued at newport 65, due in no small part by how fever a pitch both that fraughtfullness and intensity had reached.

So it wasn't just the electric guitars then? :D It does say a lot about the times Bob lived in when plugging in a Telecaster and not singing about The Issues Of The Day caused an uproar the likes of which had never been seen in musical history. What a lucky man he was!

I wanted to thank you for commenting, and for the apology, which I happily accept. Hopefully you'll stick around the comments section - I don't mind discussion or criticism at all.

tomfastic4 said...

Bro I think you should recognize the Musical Attributes of this song and not just the lyrical. The Freestyling strumming that dylan uses is very effective. I mean the way he intensifies the strumming along with the building intensity of the lyrics should not be overlooked.

James said...

Birch Beer resembles Ginger Ale far more then Root Beer. That is all.

Semen Rendi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moose said...

Lots of disagreement here from folks which you expected. I don't think the specific nature of the topic makes it any less topical today. I am reading this two weeks after the furgeson mo shooting, and though I don't want to spark a debate our take sides, this song's subject matter still holds as topical. It's hurricane Any les of a song today because Carter is out? I certainly don't think so. Race is as strong an issue today and this song's light on folks being manipulated by politicians and media is true now more than ever.