"Only a Pawn in Their Game," performed by Bob Dylan / by Patrick Shea

Performer: For Billboard information, see my earlier post about Dylan's song "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You." This week's song, "Only a Pawn in Their Game," has always been one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs. As a memorial to Medgar Evers, the song also fits in with my series about songs that say goodbye.

Writers: Bob Dylan

Title: A phrase that clearly states the main idea of the song.

BPM: ~160; varies throughout the song

Length: 3:30

Structure: Verse / Verse / Verse / Verse / Verse

Points of Interest:

1) A memorial is an important method of saying goodbye. In an effective memorial, the departed is elevated and understood in the larger social context, without losing his or her identity as a human being. Dylan does just that in "Only a Pawn in Their Game," elevating the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was killed for working toward equality and social justice. Dylan goes one step farther in his memorial, however, and de-elevates the killer, taking away his name, his significance to any larger context, and his humanity; saying instead that he was only a tool of a larger racist power structure. This is certainly a fair outcome for the killer himself, though when applied to all racist poor white people, brings the song into some murkier territory.

2) Dylan bookends the song by stripping the killer of his humanity. In the first verse, the killer is identified as a series of body parts, listed together with other objects such as a bullet. The only man in verse one is the man that the killer aims his gun at, Medgar Evers. In the last verse, Dylan dehumanizes the killer by taking away his name, and therefore his memory, in death. As Medgar Evers in celebrated and remembered, his killer will be wiped from the human record. And this is fit punishment.

3) The murkier territory in the song is in the middle verses, where Dylan extends this erasure to all poor white racists, and suggests that they can't be blamed for falling prey to the manipulations of a larger racist power structure. Dylan says (twice) that racism is taught and reinforced by a larger system of privilege, which is true. However, that doesn't mean that poor white people are hapless idiots, and I think that's where a lot of educated onlookers go wrong. Human beings are moral; they know that its wrong to shoot people, or to hang people, or to throw rocks at children on their way to school. Human beings know that it's wrong to shoot black kids for walking through a white neighborhood in Florida, or for selling cigarettes, or for whatever other excuse white people drum up. Human beings know that Muslim registries are wrong, and they know that Mexicans are not rapists. Human beings know that whatever your politics, it is wrong to vote for a person who promises suffering for these groups and for many others. People have to be held accountable for their actions and for their votes. No one gets to plead ignorance, no matter what they are taught otherwise. You are human beings; you know better.