Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #160: George Jackson

And, without the slightest bit of warning, Bob Dylan had returned to the forum of protest songs. Cut just over two months after the death of the Soledad Brother in a prison shootout (and released a mere week after the song's recording, a rather amazing turnaround if you stop to think about it), one of the few songs from Dylan's first period in the wilderness was a throwback to his acoustic days, as though the stern young man of the Times cover had inhabited his body for a couple of weeks until he could get the song cranked out before heading back to from whence he came. There happens to be two versions of the song - a mellow full-band version with the guys he'd recorded his Greatest Hits Vol. II songs with, and a solo acoustic version, just Bob and his harmonica, like the good ol' days. It is the solo acoustic version that I'm linking to, simply because it makes the most sense; until "Hurricane", after all, that was just Bob's metier.


I feel such a weird sense of unreality when I hear "George Jackson" - not because it's a bad song or because it's too weird or anything like that, but more because it doesn't really feel like it should exist, if that makes sense. I'm not saying that the life of a family man would automatically erase the part of Bob's mind that cared about humanity (any more than I would say that his crazy years as a rock star would do so); it's just that...I mean, of all the times, after all that had happened, that the killing of a Black Panther in prison would be the tipping point for Bob to finally pick back up his "outrage" pen seems a bit odd. And I'm not downplaying the historical significance of George Jackson at all (my brother was rather deeply moved by Soledad Brother, and it's a fair guess that he was not the only one), just feeling a bit bemused about the whole thing. After all, when MLK and Robert Kennedy were gunned down, Bob was baking bread and teaching his children the ABCs or what have you. It's just funny how these things work, I guess.

As for the actual song itself...I mean, there's not really much I can say about it, to be honest. It's not the best protest song Bob ever wrote (in the loosest sense of the word, I'd say "Hard Rain" qualifies; if you're talking more straightforward, probably "Blowin' in the Wind", forgive the cliched answer), nor is it the worst (I'll leave that answer as an exercise for you, the reader). What makes it a step down from some of his truly great songs isn't the fact that he knocked the song out in such a short span of time - Lord knows he's written his fair share of songs in a short period of time. The reason, then, is more just the fact that the song doesn't really reach the same poetic heights of something like "Hard Rain", opting instead to be more straightforward in its disgust at Jackson's treatment and sudden death (to the point where we get Bob's first ever recorded profanity!). And that's not necessarily a bad thing - after all, it seems a lot to ask for Bob to try and reach those heights - so much as it's just a limiting thing you have to get used to. The Bob that wrote those amazing protest songs had been long gone, even by then. The new Bob, the one trying to piece together a brand new writing style, was never going to write "Hard Rain" again.

And, I think, that's entirely what Bob had in mind. "George Jackson" was never really meant to be anything other than exactly what it was - Bob speaking his mind about a major issue of the moment, committing something to tape that could be immediately processed, not giving a hoot about posterity or what future generations would think about the song from a creative standpoint. After all, songs like these aren't really meant to be creative masterpieces, but rallying points, ways for outrage to be properly channeled and given an actual voice. In that sense, "George Jackson" does very well succeed.

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10 comments:

Raincheck said...

I actually like the song, though lyrically it is preposterous, making George Jackson out to be something he wasn't and suggesting the authorities were afraid of his "love." It is sort of a dry run for the much more well developed Hurricane (and Rubin Carter was a much more innocent man).

Anonymous said...

I always liked that song and when I heard more about how they killed George Jackson, I was saddened. I mostly enjoyed Dylan's simple but powerful song delivered as he did in the old days, just voice, guitar and harmonica. PS: I never cared at all for the big band version.

Chris Gregory said...

But Tony... you miss the point!

The most important lines in the song are

SOMETIMES I THINK THIS WHOLE WORLD
IS ONE BIG PRISON YARD
SOME OF US ARE PRISONERS
THE REST OF US ARE GUARDS

'George Jackson' is not really a 'simple protest song' at all...

It's really a philosophical song about the impossibility of escaping society's constraints...

It's really not like his early protest songs at all...

In a way Dylan is placing himself in George's shoes. He's 'imprisoned' ... just like George.. and in a way, the song deals with inspiration,or the problems of having a lack of it, just like Watching The River Flow and When I Paint My Masterpiece...

Bob sings 'He wouldn't take shit from no-one/ He wouldn't bow down or kneel/ Authorities they hated him/Because he was JUST TOO REAL...

Remind you of anyone?

The subtext is surely that we're all imprisoned by the limits of our imagination...

Ah... how about a live version, Bob????


Chris Gregory

Anonymous said...

This blog is just silly.I read it now & then just to see how much one person can miss in explicit lyrics.This 'George Jackson' blog might take the cake.

Tony said...

Chris, I don't know what to tell you - those lyrics didn't really hit me the same way they hit you. Maybe it's my current frame of mind, who knows. I do get your point, though; I don't totally buy that he was singing about his creative travails as much as he was singing about the unfortunate Mr. Jackson, but I understand the subtext you're suggesting.

Anonymous #2, glad you do check in occasionally. One can only hope that when I get to "Hurricane" I don't disappoint.

Frank E said...

Frequency of live performance and release on compilations give some insight into Dylan´s attitude to his songs. This one doesn´t score well on either count.

Yet the content remains perplexingly blunt.

dylanfan said...

Yeah, I must agree that Chris' take is interesting but ultimately makes the song much more complex than I think it is.

Even a cursory look at the historical record suggests that George Jackson was pretty much a thug who appropriated revolutionary rhetoric as a figleaf for his criminal activity, as did Castro and any number of publicity-savvy sociopaths who exploited the public's desire for heroes. Perhaps Jackson was in a process of becoming more substantive, but his actual body of work is little more than cartoonish and very dated agitprop.

That desire for a vilified but pure-hearted rogue to come along to bring justice to the little people has led to a long tradition of folk heroes that dates back at least to Robin Hood and certainly includes latter-day figures like Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd, even though those historical figures bear little resemblance to the legends we hear described in Woody Guthrie songs.

In my view, the song fits alongside John Wesley Harding, Hurricane, and Joey as Dylan's contribution and tribute to the genre of "peoples' legends" as spread by Woody Guthrie and various other songwriters. As in the other songs, many of the facts are wrong or nonexistent, but the important thing is not the historical record but that the songs appeal to an enduring human fantasy. On that level, it's an artistic success and a solid homespun song in Dylan's very appealing early 70s style.

Drzonker said...

Thank you for returning...

Thanks to your blog, I had to go find this song, and I got Band of the Hand, while I was at it, two new 'old' Dylan songs I didn't have in a current format. Brillant!

Keep on keeping on.

write back soon said...

To be clear, George Jackson was a Black man who, at the age of eighteen, received a sentence of one(1) year to life for robbing a gas station of $70. He had no political orientation at the time of the incident, nor did he later claim to have possessed political motives for carrying out the robbery. His politicization came after having been in prison for several years. By that time, there was surely no outside "criminal activity" going on with the man.

David George Freeman said...

Thank you for posting this analysis. When you have read enough come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/208/George-Jackson and listen to all the great versions now.