Only a pawn in their game (1963): the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

“Only a Pawn in Their Game” refers to the murder of Medgar Evers, as the opening lines of the song reveal.  He was the civil rights activist who was the Mississippi leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.   The song was said to be one of the first that suggested that the poor white man or woman was as victimized by discrimination as the poor black.   Dylan sang the song at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which I have mentioned in relation to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

As many commentators and critics have said, “Only a Pawn in Their Game” puts forward the notion that Medgar Evers’ killer was not the only person guilty of murder: he was just the pawn in a much bigger game.

In this regard there is a strong link with Lonesome Death where Dylan suggests we should cry for the miscarriage of justice and the action of the judges as much as for the death of Hattie Carroll.  The killer is guilty, but blame is everywhere.

But the song moves onto more complex territory still, suggesting a conspiracy in which the poor whites are encouraged to blame the poor blacks while the people they most certainly should blame are the wealthy and powerful whites who have failed everyone in their economic and political leadership.

It is, as we used to say, “the system”, although these days I guess I’d say, the economy, the politics, the social structure and our psychology, and that’s only the start of the list.  But it is hard to make that lot rhyme let alone fit into a slogan.

So this song moved away from being a civil rights song, and became far more revolutionary: it is about overthrowing the state.  And there is no uplifting thought here, no “We shall overcome,” in fact Dylan is saying “this is how it is”.  Which is curious because on Times – the title track on the album – he is saying the change is happening, you can’t stop it, things are getting better, the new order is taking over.

Medgar Evers had dropped out of high school at the age of 17, joined the army and fought with honour in Europe during the second world war.  But then he found like so many others he didn’t return a hero, but as an outsider.  Indeed the issue of returning heroes is one that was of huge significance in England after the first world war, as much as in the US.

Our countries would willing accept such men as soliders ready to lay down their lives, but as civilians back in their own country, that was a different matter.  In Britain my forefathers voted in the most left wing government we have ever had and threw out Churchill and the rest who had led the government’s war.  In America… well I can only read this from a distance, but songs such as this tell us little changed.

When Evers returned home, he was prevented from voting in elections, and vowed then to work for change.  He, like James Meredith, applied for a place in a segregated University of Mississippi to study law.  The NAACP campaigned to desegregate the school and you can read my understanding of these events in the review of Oxford Town.   As always, my apologies if I have misunderstood any of this history – while beyond any doubt these were massive landmarks in the history of the US, they had no impact on the UK, where I live, and so I am very much reporting from without not within.

Medgar Evers worked with NAACP organizing voter-registration and the boycott of companies that practised discrimination and achieved something of a reputation.

On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was shot in back, outside his house.  He was buried a week later at the Arlington National Cemetery, receiving full military honours and Byron De La Beckwith, of the Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers’ murder.

Of course times have changed – but watching from 4500 miles away, I wonder how much, and if the game Dylan was complaining about – the game of stopping the poor from understanding exactly why they are poor – isn’t still being played out on both sides of the Atlantic.

One website I read while researching the background to this song, suggests that “Dylan’s ever-constant hammering of the rhymes and odd tempo (there are moments where his lines are overwhelming the chord changes) make the song sound less serious than it should be, and this is just about the most serious song on the whole album. Dylan, who apparently had forgotten the subtleties that marked his best work on Freewheelin’, fires away with a number of broad generalities – so every Southern politician rose to power on the back of the black man? And every poor white man is trained like a dog to hate blacks? Doesn’t speak too well about the intelligence or independent thought of poor white men in the South, now does it? Surely not every man or woman in Alabama or Louisiana was born with strings attached, waiting to be just another puppet?”

Personally I think this is incorrect, and in the arguments that follow in the commentary on that site the author does backtrack a little – but I think he is profoundly on the wrong track.

And I find it unfair because of an oddity in my own life.  I played the album so that I knew it by heart – which is not so difficult for a young musician wanting to understand the full musical and poetic construction of the songs.  Coming back to the songs now I can still conjure up the complete lyrics and music in my head and make a fair fist of playing and singing them, and just for the hell of it, I just did it without listening to the album again.

But of course I do listen to the recordings each song I review, and play them a number of times.  And I find that on this album one I actually really do want to hear, despite knowing it inside out, is this song.   Those sudden changes of pace, the repeating of the rhymes, in this case they seem even more powerful than before.  I knew them, but had somehow forgotten the impact.

Dylan is right in what he does here, in my opinion, because the poet’s job, by and large, is not to represent reality, but to bring out emotional responses to that reality.  Of course Dylan is overplaying the part because that was what he had to do.  Should he have written a piece which said

A South politician preaches to the poor white man

But of course I say “A”, because they don’t all follow the segregationist plan

OK I am teasing, but political poetry doesn’t work like that.  You emphasise, over-play, make the point.  This is poetry not a doctoral dissertation.

This has been the case since the Norse myths and Icelandic sagas circulated.  The characters in the sagas were gods, invincible, heroic.  The white man in the Dylan song was a hypocrite, racist, fascist.  But I didn’t land in the States on my first visit expecting every white man I met to be like this because of Dylan’s song, no more than I expected the Icelanders I met a few years back to wield great axes and call upon Thor and Odin every couple of minutes.

So for me, a complete outsider to the events within the song, I don’t hear “clumsiness and the cliches” I hear something utterly fascinating.  Another Dylan song experimenting with the 6/8 rhythm format that is at the heart of this album, but this time endlessly changing and meandering around that format in a way that refers back to Down the Highway – the only other song I can recall where he does this – although that is just a preliminary to what Dylan does here.

These songs of Dylan didn’t set out to be a photograph of reality, but they did set out to shock and to pave the way for change, which in terms of dealing with the insanity and inhumanity of official segregation did work, but in terms of totally changing the world didn’t.  Nixon and Thatcher still won elections in the US and UK and then won them again, and the right wing fought back.

Which is perhaps why I find today, in 2015, Only a Pawn is a song I do want to come back to.  I don’t believe in conspiracy theories that tell me that man never went to the moon, but I do believe groups conspire together to grab and hold power (such The Gunpowder Plot in English history, which we celebrate the defeat of, every November 5), and the power of societies to resist wholesale change.  (In fact I think I learned that in the first term of the first year of studying sociology – that is what those with power do – they hold on to power).

So I do believe in “their game” although it doesn’t get much of an airing.  Of the songs on Times the official web site has him playing Hollis Brown 211 times in concert, Spanish Leather 299, North Country Blues 2, One too many mornings 40, Only a pawn 9, Restless Farewell 2, Hattie Carroll 296, When the Ship comes in 3, With God on our side 30 times.  I doubt those numbers are right and up to date, but it gives an indication of the way Dylan remembers different songs.

But I am intrigued that Dylan did perform the song at a CBS Sales convention in Puerto Rico and lots of the sales reps from southern states walked out.  Now that is a good statement to make to your record company – no one is going to tell Dylan what to sing.

To me there is a real power in the song from the very opening line

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood

How dramatic do you want the song to be?  And I think it is the power of that opening line that makes Dylan change the rhythm and time throughout the song, to reflect the jagged edge of reality that he is singing about.

But having made such a dramatic statement he then emphasises the the individual elements of the shooting which then remove the reality of the horror, by focussing on such detailed issues.

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

And then the absolute shock of “But he can’t be blamed”.  While we are trying to think how the eyes are behind a man’s brain, or should it be “behind, a man’s brain” – ie the man’s brain was behind the eyes behind the hand directing it all.  I do wish the official web site would think about such things when putting up the lyrics!

But then the reinforcement of the shock, “He’s only a pawn in their game.”

After that there is no holding back

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.

To me what you have there are some of the most powerful lines in contemporary music.  Indeed even now, all these years later I am shocked to see them turning up in a song on an album that sold so many copies.

And he’s not going to lay off either

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

The issue of the power of state schooling to continue the existence of inequality in society is an issue that has occupied me for much of my life since that first term in the first year of studying sociology.  Indeed my pal Drew (a doctor of philosophy, and expert in urban street crime in 19th century London) and I regularly spend hours arguing about the power of society vis a vis the decisions of the individual.  (Mind you the fact that we spend five hours every other week travelling to and from football matches together gives us a lot of time for this sort of debate!)

We imagine in our societies that the individual should be our focus – we put individuals on trial, but do not accept the argument of the influence of society as a force in determining behaviour.  Dylan here is suggesting we should – it is a hugely controversial and radical thought.

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.

This truly is revolutionary stuff.  Free will goes out the window, and the power of social pressure and manipulation by an elite teaches these people how to behave.

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

Byron De La Beckwith Jr. was convicted in 1994 of the killing of Medgar Evers 31 years earlier.   In two trials in 1964 on the same charge the jury had failed to reach a verdict, possibly because the juries were all white.  In Mississippi only voters could serve on the jury, and since blacks did not have the vote, the juries were white.

Over time inconsistencies and irregularities in the second trial were revealed, including the manipulation of who sat on the jury.  Meanwhile De La Beckwith having been a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and having sought the Democratic Party nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi, moved on to being a member of the Phineas Priesthood which expressed hostility towards foreigners, Jews, Catholics and African Americans.

By 1973 Beckwith was under FBI surveillance and was stopped near New Orleans and loaded firearms and a time bomb complete with dynamite was found in his car. He had recently been ordained as a minister in the Temple Memorial Baptist Church – a Christian Identity church.   He served under three years in prison as a result.

He was brought to trial again in 1994 and convicted of first degree murder of Medgar Evers.  Evidence included sworn statements that Beckwith had boasted that he had committed the murder at racist rallies.  Beckwith appealed but he lost the appeal in 1997 and a sentence of life imprisonment without parole was confirmed.

De La Beckwith died, having been transferred from prison to a medical facility, on 21 January 2001.

One year later the prosecutor at De La Beckwith’s final trial was promoted to state judge.  However in 2009, the prosecutor-turned-judge pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice within an FBI anti-corruption probe.  When the judge was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, Byron De La Beckwith’s son was in the courtroom.  He, like his father  at his trial, wore a Confederate flag pin.

So, it continues….

All the songs reviewed on this site.


  1. This is one of my favorite Dylan songs. It never loses its power for me. And Dylan sang this at the 1963 March on Washington.

  2. I’m not much of a Nixon fan (he was a walking disaster) – but you gave him a bum rap here by implying that he fought back against Civil Rights. It’s also very inaccurate to lump Nixon in with “the right.” He really was not on the right, he was – if you look at his policies carefully – neither of the left or right. For example, Nixon imposed wage and price controls – something no true conservative would do. He gained the endorsement of prominent blacks, including James Brown, as well as a national union endorsement from the AFL/CIO. As the book NIXON AND KISSINGER shows in great detail, Nixon was mostly concerned with foreign policy, to the detriment of domestic policy. But – even there, he crossed the lines drawn by conservatives, bringing about detente with both Russia and China, and advocating arms limitation talks. Nixon was guilty of a lot of things, but not encouragement of Jim Crowe or segregation, During his early career – from the late 1940’s and into the late 1950’s – he was quite progressive in these areas. As the tie-breaker in the Senate (Eisenhower’s V.P.) – he was ahead of LBJ in his concern for Civil Rights. As every biographer of Nixon seems to have conceded – the man was complicated. It would be more accurate to say that he neglected Civil Rights during his Presidency – as he was distracted by both the Viet Nam War, his obsession with foreign policy achievements and (later on) the Watergate affair.

  3. John, thank you for the corrections on Nixon. Being in England it is hard to get a true feeling of what’s what – without doing a detailed study, and I must admit I am spending my time on Dylan, more than the politics of the era.

  4. “Pawn in their game” is a great song and it’s even more complex than you suggest. By repeating the claim throughout the song that poor whites can’t be blamed, Dylan is being ironic. He is saying yes they are pawns in a game played by the rich and powerful but those who kill or even just hate are also at least somewhat complicit.

  5. It really is a paradigm shift that is well overdue. We, as a society, have to take collective responsibility for the actions of individuals, even when those actions abhor us and have devastating outcomes. I hope De La Beckwith’s epitaph reads “only a pawn in their game”

  6. Politicians and political actors often use ordinary people’s prejudices but aren’t in control. A negative idealogy, once out there, self reinforces. The poor whites antagonism towards blacks was cultivated at least back to the civil war and likely far earlier. How else do you think they got a bunch of serfs to fight for the large plantation economic model? Most southern civil war soldiers were too poor to own slaves. The south is still trying to manage things as if they won the war. Southern and northern state politics while less separate then they used to be are still pretty distinct.

  7. For a historical perspective, Only A Pawn in Their Game was written towards the end of Jim Crow era in the U.S. Series of Jim Crow state laws were written starting when the Reconstruction Period (President Grants administration) ended. These laws were designed to terrorize Black communities, keep Blacks from voting, committed them to horrendous working conditions in mines factories, sharecropping, and other horrendous work conditions without hope of advancement. These laws were thrown out with the Civil Rights Act in 1965.

    While Dylan was not a activist this particular song Captures the spirit of that period and contributed to the argument for improving conditions for Blacks in the U.S. Has conditions improved enough for Blacks and people of color in the U.S., no. But they have moved enough today to the Black Lives Matter movement discussions of police brutality and tactics, education, health care and more.

    While Dylan may of had different intentions for Times Are a Changing, they have changed and progress has been made. The makeup of politicians has radically changed from the 60s. There are now many people of color and women elected officials and in national positions. There has been many important changes. It is unfortunate that it has taken 55 years for the U.S. to recognize these problems, but hopefully at least some or many of injustices will be corrected in the very near future.

  8. It is my belief that the line of ‘behind a mans head’ is not referring to the position of they eyes but where the gun was aiming (to be precise the back of the head behind the brain) as it was mentioned he was shot from behind and makes more sense than what has been suggested.

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