by Jochen Markhorst
The world is a play scene
Each plays his role and gets his share
In the Dutch speaking world well-known poetry verses from Joost van den Vondel from 1637, but even at that time they were not original. Forty years earlier, for example, Shakespeare writes in As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
… with which the English bard actually ruminates what he already said a few years earlier in The Merchant Of Venice:
I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part.
And before that Erasmus already asked: “For what else is the life of man but a kind of play in which men in various costumes perform until the director motions them off the stage?” (Praise of Folly, 1511), but Shakespeare probably owes the fatalistic wisdom to Petronius. His quod fere totus mundus exerceat histrionem (‘almost the whole world are players’, 1st century AD) is the motto above the front door of Shakespeare’s theatre, The Globe.
Dylan’s derivative, only a pawn in the game, is a slightly more cynical variant of this fairly pessimistic metaphor. After all, it denies the greatest gift from the Creator, the existence of a Free Will. That comparable, but more vicious image of a gaming piece pushed back and forth by higher powers is not too revolutionary in itself (the comparison with chess is quite obvious, especially in war dramas and in spy novels), but in this context , in a sociological indictment, a rather brilliant and haunting find.
The motivation for writing “Only A Pawn In Their Game” is known and is explicitly mentioned in the first lines;
A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
June 12, 1963, while getting out of his car at home, the black civil rights activist Medgar Evers is cowardly shot in the back by the white racist Byron De La Beckwith. He dies in the hospital a little later.
At this point in his career, Dylan does not yet have an allergic reaction to labels like ‘protest singer’ and ‘champion of the Civil Rights movement’, to his reputation as a socially inspired activist, so that same week he writes his song about the crime. Three weeks later he sings it for the first time publicly, during a political meeting in Mississippi.
The event ensures attention from the New York Times (July 7, 1963, page 43). With quite a few editorial errors, unfortunately. Under the heading ‘NORTHERN FOLK SINGERS HELP OUT AT NEGRO FESTIVAL IN MISSISSIPPI’ it says that Pete Seeger is accompanied by Theodore Bikel and one Bobby Dillon, ‘who, like Mr. Seeger, are white’. Apparently, one of the most memorable songs of that day is “Only A Pawn In Their Game”, but it is attributed to a ‘local singer’:
Joining Mr Seeger in leading the songfest, in which most of the audience joined at one time or another, were Theodore Bikel and Bobby Dillon, who, like Mr. Seeger, are white. There was also a Negro trio, the Freedom Singers, from Albany, Ga. All paid their own expenses for the trip and sang without a fee.
One of the more popular songs presented by a local singer was one dedicated to Medgar W. Evers, the Mississippi field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who was slain last month in Jackson, Mississippi. A Greenwood man, Byron de La Beckwith, has been indicted in the shooting.
The refrain of the song was that the man who shot Mr Evers didn’t know what he was doing and should be forgiven: “He’s only a pawn in their game.”
… and the content analysis is not too sharp either. In the refrain it is said that the killer ‘didn’t know what he was doing’ and that he ‘should be forgiven’, the reporter from New York thinks. A trainee, presumably.
The special power of this song is in fact that the poet manages to write an individual-transcending ballad about a despicable, hateful murder. Finger-pointing, perhaps, but the poet does not point his finger at a cruel killer, at a tragic victim of circumstances or at a pitiful casualty, as in topical songs like “The Death Of Emmett Till”, “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” or “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”. In this song both the victim and the assassin remain a symbol, an archetype. The listener will not learn anything about Medgar Evers; the murderer does not shoot an individual, but a name – he does not know his victim either, only knows what he symbolizes. After the first two lines, the following forty-two lines concentrate on the killer’s fate, who remains nameless (‘he ain’t got no name’). The poet presents him as an archetype, too. This is an exchangeable pawn that follows the rules of the game, without having control over it – that is why not he is the one to blame, but this society is, this culture, this set of values and norms.
It is an intelligent, sharp sociological analysis, as recognized by traveling companion Pete Seeger too (in Mojo 100 Greatest Dylan Songs #49, September 2005):
“The song says just putting the murderers in jail was not enough. It was about ending the whole game of segregation. It was the first song I heard that connected the position of the black field hands with that of the poor whites in the south.”
This ability to recognize an incident as a symptom, and to use it as an illustration of social criticism, is one of the things Dylan has just learned from Bertolt Brecht. As we can conclude from his own Chronicles and from Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time, the play Brecht On Brecht has made an overwhelming impression on the young bard. To the song “Pirate Jenny” alone, Dylan dedicates five pages in his autobiography, claiming that from now on he tries to write songs “totally influenced by Pirate Jenny”. But he also paid attention to the rest of the performance. Brecht On Brecht is a kind of ‘best of Bertolt Brecht’, skilfully put together by the legendary dramaturge and Brecht expert George Tabori. Apart from songs, the piece consists of excerpts from plays, poems and essays. And Dylan will have nodded in agreement with wisdoms like
When nothing is right in the right places , you’ve got disorder.
I am a playwright. I show you
What I have seen. In man’s markets
I have seen how man is bought and sold.
This is what I show you, I the playwright.
… just like Dylan, probably consciously, absorbed Brecht’s style of poetry; Brecht keeps the listener awake by Verfremdungseffekte (‘estrangement effects’), frustrating the expectations of the listener. Stylistically, the German lyricist and playwright achieves this with tricks copied by the song poet Dylan here: by occasionally not rhyming, by varying the number of verse lines per verse and by deliberately changing the meter at unexpected moments.
Technically it is therefore a ‘difficult’ song and it is consequently almost never covered. The braveheart who dares to do it, does it either a capella, or tries to smoothen the song, tries to ‘correct’ it with a bit of tampering. The obscure Lenny Nelson Project, for example (1988), and a sympathetic Alison Lewis during a Medgar Evers commemoration in 2014, and the best one, Black Crowe Rich Robinson on the soundtrack for the remarkable documentary film The People Speak (2009) – by occasionally skipping or adding a syllable, especially in the first two lines of each verse, they manage to ‘balance’ the verse lines.
Uncomfortable, just as the song is meant to be, of course. A narrative, social criticism, intelligent, angular, uncomfortable … “Only A Pawn In Their Game” is definitely the most Brechtian song in Dylan’s oeuvre, even more than the “Pirate Jenny” carbon copy “When The Ship Comes In”. And when Dylan plays the song on August 28 during the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King gives his famous I have a dream speech, all the world is his stage.
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