Only a Pawn In Their Game

Only a Pawn In Their Game

Only a Pawn In Their Game

1963 status quo

The American summer of 1963 was typical in many ways. For some, that was fine. Schools closed. Summer vacation. Ice cream. Iced tea. Pools. Beaches. Tanning. Bikinis. Bulging muscles.

For others, typical was not fine. The status quo meant field work. Starvation. Mistreatment. Jim Crow terrorism. The denial of an education and the right to vote.

The struggle for civil rights continued and folk singer Bob Dylan often wrote songs about the downtrodden. His Times They Are a’Changin’ album had a plethora of such songs: “The Times They Are a’Changin’,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “With God on Our Side,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

Only a Pawn In Their Game

Dirty work

It would be difficult to pick the most powerful one among them, but it was in July 1963 that Dylan first sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Writing about the June 12, 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers might be an obvious contemporary theme, but pointing out that the assassin was doing the work of the White Establishment, that the White Establishment also kept poor whites  poor, and that the White Establishment used the poor whites to do its dirty work? Such a realization is why the song remains so powerful.

As Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz said in a 2013 NPR interview:  “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.”

To write any more about Dylan’s lyrics is superfluous. His own lyrics  say more than any essay:

Only a Pawn In Their Game

A bullet…

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 the 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 hoofbeats 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.
Today, 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
Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1996 by Special Rider Music

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