Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #111: I Pity The Poor Immigrant

I'm wondering, having listened to "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" a few times again in preparation for writing this post, why exactly Dylan chose to use "immigrant" as the name/description of whomever he's singing about. The song's lyrics, some of the most downcast and depressing on the album, depicts a person who lives a terrible life, where he seems to both enjoy destroying everything he touches and hate himself for doing so. And yet Dylan chooses "immigrant" to describe this person, which seems strange because to most of us "immigrant" probably conjures sepia-toned images of sad-eyed Europeans in 1920's clothes standing on the bow of a steamer as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty come into view. I myself think of my parents, both of whom were born in Korea and made their way over here in their youth. So unless Dylan chose the word simply for having the proper syllables to fit the flow of the song, there's a seeming disconnect there.

I myself come from a family of immigrants - both my mother and father were born in South Korea and moved to the United States sometime in their teens, my dad settling in Hawaii and my mom in California. I've never really learned as to why either of them ended up in the United States; the assumption is that times were tough for both of them, and America was seen as the place to go for Koreans (as, indeed, the population of Koreans in this country has grown exponentially in the last few decades). In particular, Fairfax County (where I spent the bulk of my formulative years) has become a major destination for Koreans to go to. And without delving too deeply into my family history, I can say that both of my parents have had relative success in this country, as have many of my other family members. Now, lest you think I'm turning this post into my own version of Roots, I'm pointing all this out because I at least have a little experience in what has been referred to as the "American Dream"; for my mom's family of twelve (the parents, one boy, and NINE girls - hard not to feel a little sorry for my uncle there) to take that trip across the Pacific to come here, there had to be some hope for something better.

So, then, how does one get from the image of that family coming to America to find a better life to the immigrant of Dylan's song that's basically a combination of the worst traits of Shylock and Charles Foster Kane? Our popular culture (and, ever so often, our actual culture) has delved into the notion of perverting said American Dream, in which the idea of becoming a successful self-made person has become distorted to the point where "successful" means "get absurdly rich by destroying everything in your way, and occasionally a few things not in your way". The archetypical example of this, I would say, is Scarface, Brian De Palma's famously overwrought epic about a Cuban criminal sent to 1980s America as part of Fidel Castro's "our problem is now YOUR problem" policy who rises to power as a drug dealer and eventually pays for his hubris in a gunfight scene that defies any measure of rational belief. We all remember Tony Montana saying "say goodnight to the bad guy" and "say hello to my little friend", but it's sometimes easy to forget that the movie is basically an illustration of that infamous quote "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

Perhaps what Dylan envisioned, in writing this song, was that idea of corruption, of a person from humble means who finds themselves in a position of power, and using that power to do evil, only to find at the end of his life that it was all for nothing. If so, that would be proof enough that Dylan was reading the Bible, and that he had the words of the Lord in his mind while putting together this album. After all, we remember the Beatitudes that Jesus laid down, including the one about how the poor in spirit (i.e. the oppressed, or the humble) are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. And in "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" we get the flipside, a person who is anything but humble, who is anything but oppressed, and for whom there is great emotional wealth but a black hole where the spirit ought to be. And, if I'm going to take this idea to its logical conclusion, the immigrant could be any of us, people who have come to this Earth for a limited time, and who could find themselves turned into a vulgar beast if we don't remain humble, spiritual beings. I don't think you need to be a Christian to be cool with that idea.

One final note - I made mention way back about how disappointed I am by the 1976 version of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and one of the songs of the tour I've always felt unhappy with is their arrangement of "I Pity The Poor Immigrant". For somebody who has always had a keen ear when it comes to this sort of thing, it seems odd for Dylan & Co. to take a downbeat song like this one and try to pep it up, in the interest of having another upbeat tour in a setlist usually chock full of them. I'm sure some of you will disagree with me, but the idea of taking that kind of song and turning it into a knee-slapping good time just doesn't sit well with me.

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Rob said...

formative years.

Phil D said...

I think your take on the song is spot on - I have often thought of the Godfather while listening to it, not the romanticized view, but the underlying moral vacuity. By the way check out Micah 3:10 - I don't know if it's been picked up on but I think it's the source of "builds his town with blood".

João Pedro da Costa said...

Beautiful piece of writing. Listening to the song right now. Bet you're hearing to I'll Be Your Baby Tonight (or is it Down Along The Cove?). Peace.

tom said...

franky lee and the immagrant are like one and the same,lonesome hoboes out of thier element,stranded without love,out of range,a portait just hanging there unable to move,trying to get to heaven before the door closes,walkin 40 miles of bad road,bob dylan is a poet,a jewish mystic,perhaps a seer,certainly french kissing the muse.

BobbyDs got my back said...

It's about John Lennon and The Beatles

Tom Storch said...

I don't think Dylan is talking about an immigrant in the sense of someone who has left their native county to move to a new one. Staying where you are home is a reoccurring theme on this album (or at least in The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas pries where the moral is "one should never be where one does not belong), which could actually mean a number of different things as well as an emphasis on the importance of home (a literary conceit going back to The Odyssey).

What this song most makes me think of are Dylan's label problems at the time. He was frustrated with his management and Columbia but maybe this song expresses a fear he has of leaving the label that originally signed him and sees similar artists who have jumped for a big deal but came up empty.

Although there could be larger, religious implications too as expressed in this interesting blog piece on John Wesely Harding: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2009/08/when-dylan-spoke-for-god-by-lawrence-j-epstein.html

David George Freeman said...

Hello there, thank you for posting this interesting analysis of this song. When you have read enough come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/275/I-Pity-the-Poor-Immigrant and listen to every version of every song

Anonymous said...

Dylan is singing from the point of view of God. The "I" is God speaking. The "immigrants" are all humans who are sinful and "turn his back on me." The immigrant "whishes he could have stayed home" in the Garden, Paradise, Heaven," but was evicted by God for breaking the law. There are many images from Leviticus, the Old Testament "laws" where the punishment was your own blood. The immigrant's "Heavens like Ironsides" built from blood and battles. The immigrant, all humans, "build their towns with blood, war corruption, deceit. So, God pities the poor immigrants, all of us. That's the song.