“I pity the poor immigrant”: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

This is a song that has attracted few commentaries, but those who have ventured into it have wandered deep, dark and different roads as they have endeavoured to make sense of the whole piece.

Speaking generally, there are two separate approaches that have been explored.  One focuses on the use of the word “immigrant” and what that means, and how the words flow on from that point, and the other focuses on the music.  I’ll try and take a quick look at each approach.

First the immigrant.

A literal immigrant who comes to another country and then is disappointed?  A person who simply changes ideology or converts to another religion?  A person who changes path and then wishes he hadn’t?  Something literal from Leviticus?

Or is Dylan doing another song of disdain?  Does the reference to “turn his back on me” really take us back to 4th Street?

Or indeed did he perhaps just think of the phrase “I pity the poor immigrant” and then try to do something with it – another atmospheric semi-abstract piece built around a phrase he liked and within which words that just followed?

Or could it even be a song of moving on – the dark side of Restless Farewell and The Parting Glass.

I’ll leave those questions hanging for a moment and move onto the music, before trying to pull it all together.

“Immigrant” itself seems to come from a Scottish Ballad “Tramps and Hawkers”- a typical ballad of idolising the life on the road, a concept that Dylan himself has often used as we’ve regularly noted here, often with melodies taken from Irish and Scottish ballads.  (So back again to The Parting Glass).

But – and this is the bit that seems to worry commentators – having written what seems to be a serious, religious commentary, and sung it in a serious manner, Dylan then turned it over in the Rolling Thunder Review and played a completely different, buoyant, lively, and yet fierce version.  Some dismiss this change as incomprehensible, a musical disaster and even disrespectful,  but others report it as a musical triumph.

I think there is a way to resolve all this – but it is just a theory.  It seems to fit the little that we know, but without a commentary from the songwriter himself, we really can’t say for sure.

The song, as a say, is lifted from a Scottish ballad with a totally different meaning from that which seems to make its way through “Immigrant”.

Nae thinking whar I’m comin frae nor thinking whar I’m gang

is the joyful conclusion.

So Dylan has taken a happy song and turned it into either something horribly mournful (But in the end is always left so alone) or something deadly serious, as any piece that quotes Leviticus is bound to be.

Leviticus, in case it’s not your cup of tea, means “The book of laws” and these are really serious Old Testament Laws incorporating some thoroughly nasty things to be done to women who are unfaithful and anyone who is gay.  “If a man also lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death: their blood shall be upon them,” gives you the flavour of this book of the Bible.  (My quote is from the King James version).

It seems a curious mix, to take this jaunty song as Tramps and Hawkers, and then bring in such subject matter.  But here’s another point.  Dylan is not the only composer to re-use old tradtionional songs in this way nor in fact to use this particular jaunty piece to talk about the darker sides of life.

Consider, if you will, the song Goodnight Irene by Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter).  This uses the same tune (with inevitably a few variations of course).

Irene good night, Irene good night,
Good night Irene, good night Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams.

Now that is the verse that everyone knows, and given the elegance of the melody it sounds like a beautiful love song.   But it is only if you listen to the rest of the song that you realise there is something else mighty nasty and frightening lurking underneath.

Last Saturday night I got married,
Me and my wife settled down,
Now me and my wife we are parted,
I think I’ll go out on the town.

OK, he’s going to drown his sorrows.  Perhaps not the brightest thing to do, but a commonplace response.  But then…

Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in town,
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown.

What?  Last we heard he was just going to have a few drinks too many in town.  Now he’s contemplating suicide?

I love Irene, God knows I do,
I’ll love her ’til the seas run dry,
But if Irene should turn me down,
I’d take morphine and die.

Just how dark do you want your blues (and later pop – try the Weavers version for size – although they left out some of the latter parts) to be?

I am not saying Dylan consciously went through all these thoughts, but we know he has a great knowledge of blues, pop and rock, not to mention the Old Testament of the Bible, and I think he took all these and mixed them up without consciously having an exact meaning for it all nor a knowledge of the exact direction he was taking.  It is a nice tune, and he would know the Lead Belly version, so, let’s see…

Which then explains how he could do what he did on the Rolling Thunder tour, because this song started as a jaunty outing and has a relationship to another horror story that because quite a delightful and well known song.

So on one level Dylan pities people who do bad things because then inevitably their world falls apart.   But the opening lines also pity those who forever believe the grass is always greener, and on finding that it isn’t feels betrayed and so retaliates against his new homeland that has let him down.

And indeed in the European Union at the moment, we are awash with an awareness of this.  As surely must be in the news across the world, millions are fleeing the civil war in Syria, and the advance of Islamic State, but some (I don’t know how many of course) are complaining about the way the Europeans are behaving.   I heard only yesterday of a group who ended up in Cyprus, but found themselves locked up in the British military base on the island.  This is not the life they imagined and they (or perhaps a few of them) are being vociferous in their denunciation of Britain over their treatment.

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs all round.  But back in the song Dylan is also contemplating a psychologically disturbed condition.

Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev’ry breath
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death

Nothing of course is his (the immigrant’s) fault – like the characters described on Crawl out your window and Rolling Stone it is always someone else who is to blame, and at no time is support offered.  But then, leaving aside the suffering and hurt and pain that immigrants can feel on finding the streets of Europe are not paved with whatever it was they were expecting, the immigrant can blame everyone and everything.

And that leads into a classic case of denial.  I didn’t do it, it’s not my fault.

The “immigrant” has strength and ability but misuses it.  He is looking for paradise, his promised land, to drop from the sky and land at his feet.   And in this regard is like Oliver Cromwell (whose nickname was Ironside) in the English civil war who truly believed that if the whole country could be made to follow a specific strict code of puritan behaviour, God would be happy and everything would be fine.

In short, Dylan is focussed on people who think that the answer to all the problems is simple.  “If only I moved to another country,” “If only she loved me,” “If only we had a child”, “If only I had a bit more money”…

And that’s the point.  One simple change is never the solution.  It is always more complex than that.

So in one regard the immigrant symbolises the “if only” people who fool themselves, because life is never that simple that it can be made perfect by doing one simple thing, by living the puritan life, by not wearing a coat made of two different cloths (as Leviticus tells us)…

Simple explanations of how to make the world perfect never work.  As Dylan says…

Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass

So the issue isn’t really about why Dylan chose to focus on an “immigrant” – it just fits the song he chose, and it works because there are examples of immigrants who feel let down by their new homeland, rather than thinking, “it is up to me to make the most of life”.

The notion that I do this, and I want everything to be perfect, is naive and simplistic and bound to fail.  And one can say this in an upbeat way as in Rolling Thunder or a sad plaintive way as in the original version.

As such the song is a rejection of the Leviticus approach to life which sets it down as a list of rules that absolutely must be followed, including killing people for breaking one of the rules.

It is in fact much more about the concept that all situations can be seen either as fine and a good basic ground on which to develop, or as bad and someone else’s fault.

I have read commentaries that turn this into a wholly religious song, and of course they might be right.  Thus it is argued that “from a religious perspective, we are all unwilling immigrants in the land of the living, exiled from paradise and placed into the broken and happily temporal world where we must struggle against the temptations to do evil and instead choose to do good. To the religious person, there are signs of truth everywhere. To the secular, reality is only reality without intimations of Godly designs or Heavenly destinations.”

To which I say, yes I get this, and I have met enough deeply religious people to know that to them there can be signs of God’s truth everywhere.   But that last bit – “to the secular, reality is only reality…” is a complete misrepresentation.  To a secular person like me who has studied science nothing could be further from the truth.  My task in life is to enjoy of much of it as I can, seek to understand as much of it as I can, and try to do good and not harm.  That’s rather different.

Leviticus 26:20 says, “Your strength shall be spent in vain: for your land shall not yield her increase”, mine is, “keep an open mind, keep a loving heart, keep exploring, do no harm.”

So when one of the commentators on the song from a religious point of view says, “The godless hate their lives, but, trapped in a choice between two forms of torture, fear death as well.”

And that takes us back to the old problem of people who believe that they have the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything, also tend to believe they know what I am thinking.  But when they tell me they are always so very, very wrong.

I don’t hate my life, I love my life.  I know I have been incredibly lucky in my life to have been born with a decent brain and enough talent to make my way in the world.  I enjoy that good fortune and try and share it a bit with others.  I know that I will die, and that I am over half way through my life – perhaps much more.  But it doesn’t scare me, because I will one day just go to sleep.  For ever.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Yes I hope my daughters remember me, and think well of me, but that’s it.

Really the song isn’t that complex.   If you are as bitter as the immigrant and adopt as simplistic a vision of life as the immigrant, then inevitably when you get one of the simple things that you believe will make your life perfect and it doesn’t, you get fairly fed up.

So I don’t see the immigrant making a free choice between good and evil and choosing evil.    I see him as a guide stuck in that simplistic vision of the world that says, if only I could do this or have that or get the other, everything would be perfect.

In the end I don’t think it is a particularly important song, and I keep coming back to the notion that Dylan perhaps found the phrase, and just played with it.

Just that.

All the songs on this site listed in alphabetical order

Dylan’s songs in chronological order


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to “I pity the poor immigrant”: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Jeff says:

    I like what you have written. In appreciating Dylan’s poetry, I find that, when singing of people/characters, he seems to be singing as much about himself, his errors, his aspirations. I agree that, here, he does appear to be singing about responsibility, right on up to responsibility in how we construe perception; and from there it matters not if your view is deeply secular or deeply universal.

  2. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/275/I-Pity-the-Poor-Immigrant (Additional Information)

  3. slantview says:

    Thought i could perhaps give a slightly different perspective. To me this song appears like Dylan was talking about American society, along the lines of Ballad of Ira Hayes, where the immigrant is not an abstract notion but a society that has emigrated and carries on, to its own unhappiness and discomfort. I have always found his songs to be more pointed than abstract although he does a good job of using religious symbolism. What do you think of this?

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Slant view – I really do like that idea. Thank you for taking the time to send it in. Appreciate it. Tony

  5. Michael Gerrity says:

    Thanks — this one had me baffled. From your explication I was reminded of a phrase I heard once at an AA meeting — the “geographic solution,” which of course is a fallacy. “I’ll go to … and everything will be good again.” I was going to send this song to someone in defense of immigrants, and then I listened to the words. Oddly enough, the other thing, which I did send, is from Leviticus, about strangers and the treatment thereof.

  6. Edward Wilson says:

    The line which reads

    Who passionately hates his life and likewise fears his death, or similar, worries me, as I believe a that I have read it in an earlier work. I think this might have been a poem, not by Dylan. Does anyone else know this?

  7. Archie says:

    Perhaps you are thinking of ‘ol man river’: “And sick of trying I’m tired of living,
    But scared of dying…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *