George Jackson by Bob Dylan. The meaning and impact of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

George Jackson was written in 1971 – one of three songs written that year.   Wiki insists there were two but the Chronology pages on this site show three:

and I’m sticking with that.   Wiki just lists dates songs were released – what I am trying to do is focus on when Dylan actually wrote the songs.

As I am sure you know, but for completeness let me just say, George Jackson was a leader of the Black Panthers.  Right, that’s that bit done, but after that I have a lot of problems.  As I have said many times on this site, I’m an English guy, who has visited the US on a number of occasions, but would never in a million lifetimes suggest I know or understand what goes on in US history or the US psyche.

So the best I can do is note that the portrayal of George Jackson by Dylan in the song as being a man of love is not the one that comes across in many accounts.  Heylin’s account of the writing of the song and the portrayal of Jackson within it suggests that Dylan had been interested in the Soledad Brothers and had had conversations with Howard Alk who was making a film about the Panthers and others who were knowledgeable about the situation.

But, Heylin argues, there were multiple versions of what the Panthers were and how they operated.  Dylan’s version has Jackson as the innocent victim; Heylin and many others give details that suggest otherwise.  Several writers point out that the $70 robbery was not what Jackson was in prison for this time – that was in 1959 when he served a year for armed robbery of a gas (petrol) station. In January 1970 Jackson killed a prison guard.

Let me stress again, I don’t know about the Panthers, I am just contrasting the images put in the song, and Heylin’s report and what I’ve read in my encyclopaedia.

What we do know pretty much for sure was that the song was very quickly written, recorded and put out as a single, with a different version on each side.  (There is a suggestion that if a different B side had been put on the single, the radio stations might have taken the safe option and played that, instead of Jackson, so the two versions were run).

Interestingly (for me at least) the song did appear on iTunes for a while but was then withdrawn, and apparently Dylan has never performed the song in public.  But less this seems like a conspiracy to remove the song it does apparently appear on the Bob Dylan Complete Album Collection Vol 1.

What is particularly interesting to me is that Dylan should, at this period when he was writing few songs, and when the two songs that immediately preceded this song were about life as an artist contemplating the world, suddenly move back into the world of protest.

But this is not protest in the sense that Dylan did it before.   If you search for the last significant protest song Dylan wrote before this one you might reach the conclusion it was Desolation Row in 1965 – a masterpiece if ever there was one.  And in every respects a huge, huge song.  Huge in the ground it covers, the musical complexity, and just the sheer size of the composition.  Before that, maybe It’s Alright Ma and before that Chimes of Freedom.  All complex pieces of music with deep intricate lyrics.

Here everything is simple – four short lines and a longer chorus, followed by an instrumental section.

The “Every Dylan Song” website makes the point that when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot Dylan was “baking bread and teaching his children the ABCs or what have you. It’s just funny how these things work, I guess.”

And yes, I feel that way too.  And I’d agree with the writer of the site that this song doesn’t reach any poetic heights.  Indeed I’d go further and say it doesn’t try to reach any poetic heights.  Now of course there is no rule that says that songs should.  “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” isn’t exactly great poetry, but a lot of people still remember the Beatles.  I can listen to “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” and enjoy it, but that’s not the same.  Dylan is, most of the time, different from the rest.

To me, this song is really not quite right, somehow not quite Dylan.  If I think about Davey Moore, I understand that Dylan’s song is not wholly accurate as a reflection of what happened on that night.  But the way the song is constructed as a re-working of the Cock Robin nursery rhyme with its questioning, is interesting, intriguing and clever.  But this song is none of those.

Musically it is fairly ordinary – the verse has little melody to speak of, and is carried along with the chord changes, starting in G and ending on A minor, and the sequence is reflected in the chorus, again ending on A minor.  It’s an unusual and interesting sequence (G, D, C, Em, Am) but not that interesting as to make it the foundation of the whole piece.

Now that doesn’t matter, in my view, if the lyrics really give us something new and interesting.  But we get

I woke up this mornin’
There were tears in my bed
They killed a man I really loved
Shot him through the head

And I ask myself what this has to do with me?  OK I am a white Englishman, so not too much maybe, but the whole thing is not universalised, and nor is it interestingly personal.  Nor is it metaphorical, or intriguing or intricate.  It is not any of the things that Dylan normally does.

And when I now find that the next verse

Sent him off to prison
For a seventy-dollar robbery
Closed the door behind him
And they threw away the key

isn’t actually based on the reality, then he doesn’t really get to me.  There has to be something special somewhere in the song.  These are simple words with a simple tune and a simple message that others suggest is actually unfounded.

There is one interesting moment however, right at the end.

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards

Now that is very simplistic, and it has been said before, but it is still interesting.  If only Bob had started there, and worked outwards, and perhaps taken a lot more time, we might have had something more.  The controllers and the controlled.  How control works in this world on a social, on a psychological, on a political, and on a physical level.  Now there’s a big song in that.

All of the songs reviewed on this site.

Dylan’s songs in chronological order of writing.

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2 Responses to George Jackson by Bob Dylan. The meaning and impact of the music and the lyrics

  1. Nick says:

    Bob always did seem to stand on the side of those who were wrongly treated. Although George Jackson did kill a prison guard, it was in response to the deaths of three activists. Still, Bob’s portrayal is definitely biased.

    The Black Panthers were actually portrayed negatively by the media, yet offered free breakfast for tens of thousands of children and did much more good than bad. Check out the documentaries The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and The Black Power Mixtape if you want more information.

  2. Oixne says:

    I found your article interesting. You matter of factly state that George killed a prison guard, when what I’m finding is that there was not enough evidence to link him to that event. The only “evidence” that they went off of was that he was a known Panther and the prison guard apparently fell from the ledge in front of George’s cell. No witnesses ever came forward and he was not ever tried for this offense as he was killed shortly before the trial was to begin. I cannot quite understand how you convicted him of this act when he was never actually convicted in a court of law?
    Please rephrase your remarks to the point that he was alleged to have killed an officer. I’d allow that even though the two others that had been indicted had been acquitted due to lack of evidence in the case.

    source –

    Also, the $70 robbery is the official story, Bob Dylan even mentions it but you are quick to say that it was not the crime he went to prison for and do not say what the actual crime was. If you are going to discredit the historical record and Bob Dylan, I think you should supply a valid rebuttal argument, or at least an attempt.

    For those wanted to know more about George Jackson and his incredible story, you’ll find a wealth of information here ->

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