“I Pity The Poor Immigrant”; the most amazing Dylan cover EVER.

by Jochen Markhorst

She is 67 by then, has not been on stage for decades and even longer not in a studio, when hipster Jarvis Cocker (from Pulp) pushes her back into the spotlights. In 2007, for his Lost Ladies Of Folk night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Bonnie Dobson performs, of course, her pièce de résistance, the indestructible beauty “Morning Dew” from 1961, unbelievably the first song the then barely 21-year-old Canadian has written. Its exceptional power is recognized almost immediately, and Bonnie’s ship comes in; she is included in the folk scene, plays zig-zag through America in the coffee houses, making $125 per week – not bad for such a young girl.

In June ’62 she is, according to Time Magazine, one of the top female folk artists (together with Baez and Judy Collins), in the – by today’s standards – rather sexist article ‘The Folk-Girls’, in which Time Magazine is complimentary, but also analyzes:

“It is not absolutely essential to have hair hanging to the waist—but it helps. Other aids: no lipstick, flat shoes, a guitar.”

… a guitar apparently being just a little less important than makeup and footwear.

By that time, early 1962, Dobson is already settled in Greenwich Village, where she witnesses the first steps of Simon and Garfunkel (then “Tom & Jerry”), where she shares the stage with Big Joe Williams and Dave Van Ronk , and where she sees Judy Collins and Fred Neil performing her “Morning Dew”. And where she meets Bob Dylan.

“I knew Dylan when he was really funny,” she teases in almost every interview, he was absolutely dazzling, she sometimes adds, still swooning. In one interview (Etcetera, April 2016) she tells a little more. She recalls how she and Dylan were once invited for dinner at Gil Turner’s:

“Dylan was always at the typewriter and I think that night he was writing Boots of Spanish Leather because Suze [Rotolo, famously pictured on Freewheelin’] had gone off to Italy and I’d just broken up with the guy I was seeing, so I was also pretty miserable. Not a lot was said that night!”

Between the lines Dobson does insinuate having had some sort of relationship with Dylan, but she does not reveal more than this.

Dylan, in any case, is impressed by Bonnie on the artistic level, that much is certain. He attends her performance in Gerde’s Folk City, her live album At Folk City is on the turntable and he recognizes her talent in interviews: “I took this from Bonnie Dobson’s tune, “Peter Amberley”, I think the name of it is.”

That album leaves more traces, by the way. “Once My True Love” echoes in “Girl From The North Country”, “Love Henry” Dylan will record three decades later for World Gone Wrong.

With his acknowledged indebtedness to “Dobson’s tune”, the nineteenth-century folk ballad “Peter Amberley”, young Dylan refers to “The Ballad Of Donald White”, for which he uses the melody of “Peter Amberley”, and will re-use again a few years later, now for “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”.

The song, which he apparently got to know in the version of Dobson, is in itself another good example of the re-use of existing melodies, as Bonnie tells in the introductory talk on At Folk City (1962):

“This is a most beautiful song, from Canada, from the East Coast. This is sung by a young man named Peter Amberly, who went to work up in the lumbering woods, in New Brunswick. And the melody might be familiar to many of you: it’s the Scottish melody Come All Ye Tramps and Hawkers.”

In addition to the melody, the lyrics also seem to have inspired Dylan. Though he himself claims to have no clue, as he says when John Cohen asks (Sing Out, October ’68):

JC: Could you talk about some of the diverse elements which go into making up one of your songs, using a song from which you have some distance?
BD: Well, there’s not much we could talk about – that’s the strange aspect about the whole thing. There’s nothing you can see. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
JC: Take a song like I Pity The Poor Immigrant. There might have been a germ that started it.
BD: Yes, the first line.
JC: What experience might have triggered that? Like you kicked the cat who ran away, who said “Ouch!” which reminded you of an immigrant.
BD: To tell you the truth, I have no idea how it comes into my mind.

Cohen’s bizarre cross (“a fleeing, ouch-saying cat”?) is rather unfathomable and, moreover, disturbing; what else could one answer to that than: huh?

Dylan’s answer just before that is familiar – he repeats it in the booklet with Biograph (1985), as he says a few words regarding the creation of “Dear Landlord”: “Dear Landlord was really just the first line. I woke up one morning with the words on my mind. Then I just figured, wat else can I put to it?

So the first line opens the floodgates. Still, there is a slightly more detailed try to take at the lyrics of the Poor Immigrant. Specific wording, the religious connotations and the rhythm of the text are reminiscent of

Let me tell you there ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner
Who’d hurt all mankind just to save his own
Have some pity on those whose chances grow thinner
‘Cause there’s no hidin’ place against the kingdom’s throne

… of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” – the song that runs as a silver thread through Dylan’s entire career. He already sings it in the Basement in the summer of 1967, again during the Rolling Thunder Revue in ’75, in 1989 he records a beautiful studio version for the soundtrack of the film Flashdance, in ’91 the song unexpectedly appears once again on the set list (in Argentina, 8 August, immediately after the equally surprising opening “New Morning”) and in the episode “More Trains” of his Theme Time Radio Hour, March 2007, radio maker Dylan finds the metaphorical use of “train journey” reason enough to qualify the song as a train song, allowing him to play it again. In every single decade of Dylan’s long career, “People Get Ready” comes along.

Thematically, however, “Peter Amberley” seems to be the trigger that interviewer John Cohen is looking for. After all, that song is the account of the tragic fate of a pitiful young guy (he is sixteen or seventeen) who leaves home to build a life in New Brunswick and after a few months dies over there in an undefined lumberjack accident. A miserable death, too; Peter’s death struggle lasts for days, there are no painkillers, he gets into a delirium and the associated hallucinations and the rave about home and family are eventually processed by his friend John Calhoun in the tragic ballad. All in all, it seems to inspire at least the opening lines of Dylan’s ballad:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home

And from there the poet Dylan, presumably, associates on from a rather clean slate. It looks like he has a poetic tone and structure, but he does not compile a literary composition – we’ll see what happens, we can almost hear the poet thinking.

Twenty-four verse lines, four of which repeat the title. The remaining twenty express the uneasiness of the immigrant in varying degrees of misery, with no further coherence than just that. A tension build-up or even a linear relationship the different forms of malheur do not have.

In terms of content, the poet mainly draws from the Bible. Nine of the nineteen fatalities described are more and less directly traceable. In Leviticus 26 alone three of them (strength spent in vain, eat but not satisfied and sky above like iron) and all of the others in the Old Testament too (fill his mouth with laughing in Job 8, for example, and build his town with blood in Micah 3).

Remarkable – again – is a parallel with Kafka. The Immigrant shares two of the ordeals with Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the beetle from Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis, 1915). The lonely suffering Gregor also finds no satisfaction in food (“das Essen machte ihm bald nicht mehr das geringste Vergnügen – he was fast losing any interest he had ever taken in food”) and likewise loses his eyesight, but still can hear (“who hears but does not see”). Dylan’s final line fits with some good will to Gregor’s end, who peacefully dies contemplating his cruel family “with tenderness and love” (“his gladness comes to pass“).

Coincidence, probably. Dylan’s knowledge of Kafka’s work is too superficial to consciously incorporate these kinds of subtleties, but it does once again indicate a kind of artistic connection between the two Jewish greats.

The melody, the simple accompaniment and the power of the opening line are irresistible. The colleagues pick up the song immediately after the release of John Wesley Harding and cover the song to this day.

Judy Collins and Joan Baez have already recorded it within a year (on Who Knows Where The Time Goes and on Any Day Now respectively). Thea Gilmore’s performance is, as usual, beautiful (both live and on her tribute album John Wesley Harding, 2011). Taj Mahal injects soul (recording 1969, released in 2012 on The Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal) and Richie Havens produces a strangely unstable, yet catchy version, also in 1969 (on Richard P. Havens, 1983, the double album with on each side a Beatles cover). Richie Havens’ voice usually saves every cover he picks up, but this time he is defeated on that front by Gene Clark.

The ex-Byrd plays a beautiful, perhaps not too imaginative up-tempo Poor Immigrant that is only released on the compilation album Flying High (1998), demonstrating the same quality as on his cover of “Tears Of Rage”: how that heartbreaking, transparent, plaintive voice rises a Dylan song to thin, rarefied heights.

The two most beautiful covers are incomparable. The gospel great Marion Williams sings many Dylan covers, but her “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” stands out above all those covers – a soulful gospel adaptation with a slow dramatic build-up in a Muscle Shoalsy setting; about what Otis or Elvis would make of it, with Jerry Wexler at the helm. The closing song of her great album The New Message (1969), the album that opens with her equally superior version of “I Shall Be Released”.

The other highlight is instrumental and illustrates Dylan’s statement from Chronicles: “Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words.”

With his trio Jewels And Binoculars, jazz grandmaster Michael Moore lovingly raids Dylan’s catalog – “Explorations of the music of Bob Dylan for reeds, bass and percussion,” as he calls it. He delivers a masterpiece, the high point of both the album Jewels And Binoculars (2003, also including a breathtaking “Dark Eyes” by the way) and the high point of the Poor Immigrant covers at all. Bassist and percussionist build a blood-curdling, disturbing foundation, Moore’s lyrical, melancholic and narrative clarinet steps in, and lo and behold, all of a sudden he is here again: the feverish, hallucinating Peter Amberley on his deathbed, deliriously raving,

Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death.

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  1. Bob Dylan’s second recording of PGR is on the soundtrack from the movie Flashback, not Flashdance.

  2. Thanks Douglas – your correction is just in time to be processed in the proof of my next (Dutch) book on The Basement Tapes – I made exactly the same, slightly embarrassing, mistake in a piece about “All You Have To Do Is Dream”.

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