The Pop History Dig

“Dylan’s Hard Rain”
1962-1963

Bob Dylan at work making music and poetry in 1962.
Bob Dylan at work making music and poetry in 1962.
     It was early fall 1962 when Bob Dylan’s song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” was first heard by a New York café audience.  Those were anxious times in America, with the Cold War in high gear.  A Cuba-Soviet Union alliance was getting cozy that summer, making some Pentagon and State Department analysts nervous.  By late August of 1962, there had been reporting in the New York Times and Washington Post/Times Herald that the Russians had increased their military aide to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, located just 90 miles from Florida.  The Russians increased the flow of conventional arms to Cuba, as the Kennedy Administration kept a wary eye on the island nation.  Though not publicly revealed at the time, on August 29, 1962, a U-2 spy plane over Cuba would reveal that eight missile installations were under construction.

     Bob Dylan, meanwhile, was in the midst of a very productive period of song writing, penning nearly 40 songs in 1962.  One of these was “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” which Dylan appears to have written sometime that summer, possibly influenced by the gathering storm clouds over Cuba.  The song would become a classic protest song, one filled with forebodings on war, social injustice, and other dreads.  Dylan first performed the song in September at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, and then more publicly a week or so later on September 22nd at Carnegie Hall as part of a hootenanny show sponsored by Sing Out magazine.  Dylan by then had also been working in studio sessions with his recording label, Columbia Records, which would record “Hard Rain” as part of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, not released for sale until late May 1963.

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“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”


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     Dylan patterned “A Hard Rain…” after a British folk ballad, “Lord Randall,” Child Ballad No. 12, from the late 19th century, in which a mother repeatedly questions her son, beginning with “Where have you been?,” as the ballad later reveals the son has been poisoned and dies.  Dylan’s “Hard Rain” embraces a broad message with themes and imagery relevant to injustice, suffering, pollution and warfare – a song well-suited for its times and beyond.

“A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”
Bob Dylan, 1962-1963


Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
And what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Oh, who did you meet my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my songs well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.


     By October 1962, the “Cuban missile crisis,” as it came to be called, had the full attention of a nervous nation.  The young Presidency of John F. Kennedy was brought to the brink of war in a showdown with Russia.  On October 16th, Kennedy was shown new U-2 photos revealing fully-equipped missile bases in Cuba capable of attacking the U.S. with nuclear warheads.  Plans were drawn up for a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba, as a massive mobilization of military personnel and hardware began.  Troops and equipment were assembled in Florida.  President Kennedy appeared on television to inform Americans of the crisis and the possibility of a confrontation.  A Naval blockade was placed around Cuba to prevent the Russians from delivering more missiles.  In the end, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev turned his ships around, averting what some believe could have become World War III.  The Soviets agreed to dismantle the missile sites and the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba.  The crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war in the 1960s.

     Bob Dylan no doubt, like the rest of the country at the time, wasn’t sure what those days might bring.  In the liner notes on Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album of May 1963, music writer Nat Hentoff would  reveal that Dylan wrote “A Hard Rain” under some dread at the time – certainly in the shadow of Cold War tensions generally, whether or not the summer-of-1962 events on Cuba were the spur for the song: “Every line in it [i.e. Hard Rain] is actually the start of a whole new song,” Dylan told Hentoff.  “But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”

     Certainly in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, as the nation had faced the possibility of a nuclear exchange, Dylan’s “Hard Rain” dread – and similar songs that would arrive with his Freewheelin album, including “Blowin in the Wind,” and “Masters of War” – gave Dylan a kind of philosophical currency he did not have before.  But Dylan did add come clarification when it was suggested that the refrain of “Hard Rain” was meant to convey nuclear fallout.  In a 1963 radio interview with Studs Terkel, Dylan stated: “No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain.  It isn’t the fallout rain.  I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen… In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters’, that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”

Early 1960s: Bob Dylan performing and/or recording.
Early 1960s: Bob Dylan performing and/or recording.
     The Dylan song had an impact on leading thinkers and cultural leaders of that era.  The first time Beatnick poet Allen Ginsburg heard Dylan’s “Hard Rain” he marked it as a changing of the guard in the social protest movement,  believing that “the torch had been passed to another generation from earlier Beat illumination and self-empowerment.”

     “A Hard Rain,” said one review in Rolling Stone, “is the first public instance of Dylan grappling with the End of Days, a topic that would come to dominate his work.”  The verses, continued that review, are examples of Dylan describing his task as an artist: “to sing out against darkness wherever he sees it.”  Bob Weir of the 1960s’ Grateful Dead rock group said of the song: “It’s beyond genius… I think the heavens opened and something channeled through him.”

“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album, released in May 1963, included “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album, released in May 1963, included “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
     Blogger Teri Tynes, reviewing “Hard Rain” in March 2010 at Walking Off The Big Apple.com, noted that the song’s series of  “mostly disturbing apocalyptic visions” were  “like something out of Dante’s Inferno.”  Tynes also noted the call to action that comes with, “What will you do now my blue-eyed son?” in the final verse.  “Taken in the historical context of 1962,” Tynes wrote, “the song could be interpreted to mean the arms race, nuclear threats, the power elite, the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, or even environmental pollution, the latter just emerging into consciousness with the [September 1962] publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.”

     Dylan himself writes about that period of his life in his book, Chronicles, where he explains that he was then reading a lot about the pre-Civil War period at the New York Public Library, and finding little to be cheery about.  That, no doubt, coupled with the angst of his own times, pushed the artist to his own inner revelations and the poetry he then produced.  Dylan was 21 years old in 1962, with a lot more ahead.

“What Does It Mean?”
Critic & Fan Interpretation


Bob Dylan in Washington, D.C., August 1963.
Bob Dylan in Washington, D.C., August 1963.
     The lyrics in Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” meanwhile, have touched off years of interpretive comment and analysis by all manner of critics, fans, Dylan lovers and Dylan detractors.  A sampling of such opinion and critique in more recent times can be found online at various blogs and websites such as SongFacts.com, where a free-ranging conversation on this song and others is posted for all to see.  Some comment from that site is sampled here below.  In one post there, a writer named “jerrybear” of Flint, Michigan offers this interpretation, among others:

…The “white ladder all covered with water” could refer to the popular capitalist myth of the ladder of success that everyone is supposed to be able to climb if only they work hard enough, blah blah yadda yadda.  Only some people may be so poor and beaten down that they cannot climb the ladder… For them the ladder is symbolically “covered with water” and no matter how hard they try to climb it they just keep slipping down….

     Tim, of Charlotte, North Carolina, offers his view on another “Hard Rain” line: “‘I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’– I always thought this was a reference to the Billie Holiday song ‘Strange Fruit,’ which referred to the lynchings of black people in the South…”  Bob of Boston has a different take on the same line:With Dylan’s work, like all poetry, “there are a myriad interpretations…” “I believe the line ‘I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’ is a reference to Dante’s Inferno where a group of sinners are doomed for eternity to be trapped in black trees.  When Dante breaks one of the branches the tree bleeds and cries out…”

     “This song is, indeed, about the threat of nuclear annihilation,”writes James of Wakefield, Massachusetts, citing the line, “the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.”  But James also adds: “that is far too simplistic an analysis.  Bob Dylan’s work is as close as popular music ever came to approaching real poetry and, like all poetry, there are a myriad interpretations.  Some of the themes addressed in this work include the general injustice of the world, the unrealized ‘better society’ (‘a highway of diamonds with nobody on it’), the guilt and fear in leaving a dangerous and damaged world to the next generation (‘I saw a new-born baby with wild wolves all around it’),…the artist’s fear of ‘shouting in the wilderness,’ and so on…”

MCA single of “A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall” by Edie Brickell & New Bohemians from1989 film, “Born on The Fourth of July.”
MCA single of “A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall” by Edie Brickell & New Bohemians from1989 film, “Born on The Fourth of July.”
     Still others mentioned that a cover version of “Hard Rain” by Edie Brickell that is heard on the soundtrack of the 1989 Vietnam-era film, Born on the Fourth of July, was also quite moving for them. ” …I love the song,” wrote “James” of Boerne, Texas.  “It really made the movie, Born on the Fourth of July, for me.  I know that this song has been used in many tribute videos to honor our service men and women.”  Born on the Fourth of July, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic, the all-American boy who is paralyzed during combat in Vietnam and becomes an antiwar activist on his return to America, was nominated for eight academy awards.

     Another writer suggested that the highway-of-diamonds line “referred to the carbon in asphalt converted to diamond under intense (nuclear) heat.” Amanda, from Fayetteville, Arkansas wrote: “I believe the line about the woman whose body was burning is in reference to Joan of Arc, and the young girl who gave him a rainbow is Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.  Just my opinion.”  And Mark from Washington, D.C. called Dylan “an empath, channeling the late 50′s and early 60′s mood and culture into lyrics.”  These, of course, are only a small sampling of opinion and interpretation on Dylan’s song from one website.


Cover art for Mark Edwards’ 2006 book, “Hard Rain.”
Cover art for Mark Edwards’ 2006 book, “Hard Rain.”
     In 1969, photographer Mark Edwards hit upon the idea of trying to compile photographs to illustrate each line of the Dylan’s “Hard Rain” song.  In May 2006, an exhibition of Edwards’ photos, following up on this idea, began to be shown at various venues around the world, followed by a book titled, Hard Rain: Our Headlong Collision with Nature.  This work offers photographic images to help illustrate the “sad forests” and “dead oceans” that Dylan’s tune invoked, as well as the places “where the people are many and their hands are all empty” – and more.  Edwards’ intention was to highlight and go beyond many of interconnected problems that Dylan alluded to with his musical imagery – environmental degradation, poverty, the wasteful use of resources, and more.  The exhibition has been seen by some 15 million people at over 100 venues.  Similar work continues today with the Hard Rain Project and subsequent photographs and exhibition to help illustrate solutions to the problems highlighted in “Hard Rain.”

Cover art for Bob Dylan’s 2008 version of “a Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” produced for Expo Zaragoza.
Cover art for Bob Dylan’s 2008 version of “a Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” produced for Expo Zaragoza.
     Bob Dylan, too, has used his song for some environmental-related work.  In 2008 he recorded a new version of “Hard Rain” exclusively for Expo Zaragoza 2008 – a World’s fair focused on water resource issues and sustainable development.  Zaragoza is the capital city of the Zaragoza Province of Spain and the autonomous community of Aragon.  Zaragoza hosted Expo 2008. 

     Dylan also chose a local-band, Amaral, to record a version of the song in Spanish.  The new version of “Hard Rain” ended with a brief Dylan comment that he was “proud to be a part of the mission to make water safe and clean…”

 


Handwritten Lyrics

A portion of the page of Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for the song “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” that reportedly sold at auction in August 2009 for 51,363.60.  Click for auction site.
A portion of the page of Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for the song “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” that reportedly sold at auction in August 2009 for 51,363.60. Click for auction site.
     In 2009, an on-line auction site, Gotta Have Rock and Roll.com, obtained some of Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for the song “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.”  According to the website, these working lyrics were given to Dylan’s long-time friend Peter McKenzie by Dylan’s first manager, Kevin Krown.  The website also had a signed and dated letter from forensic document examiner, James A. Blanco, giving his opinion that the writing was Dylan’s.  Described by the site as “an incredible rock and roll artifact showing the working of Dylan’s mind as he worked out the lyrics to this classic song, ” the item went up for bid in August 2009 with an estimated value of $30,000-$40,000.  On August, 6th 2009, after 11 bids, the handwritten lyrics were sold for $51,363.60.

     Since then, additional handwritten lyrics of Dylan’s have gone to the auction block, with collectors bidding even higher amounts.  Dylan‘s handwritten lyrics to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” with most of the verses appearing on a weathered sheet of ruled paper — which also included Dylan’s lyrics for “North Country Blues” on the back — sold at an auction for $422,500, according to a Sotheby’s representative.  The winning bidder in this case was Adam Sender, identified as an American collector and a hedge fund trader.  Mr. Sender also owns the guitar that John Lennon was using when he met Paul McCartney.  Sotheby’s was “banking on there being a rich person out there who came of age in the 1960s for whom this [Dylan’s lyrics] would mean a great deal,” said Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University and author of Bob Dylan in America.

2005: Paperback edition of Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” Vol. 1, published by Simon & Schuster.
2005: Paperback edition of Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” Vol. 1, published by Simon & Schuster.
     The two sets of hand-written Dylan lyrics originate from a batch of documents that have been described as “The MacKenzie-Krown Papers,” according to Dylan historian Clinton Heylin.  Eve and Mac MacKenzie and Kevin Krown were friends of Dylan’s during his early New York years.  Together, they came to possess a number of Dylan’s early songs — some handwritten, some typed out with chords.  Kevin Krown, also a folk singer in the those years, introduced Dylan to the New York music scene in 1960, and the two became friends.  Krown came to have a number of Dylan’s lyrics sheets.  After Krown’s death in the 1990s, the lyrics were given to Eve and Peter MacKenzie, in whose New York apartment Dylan sometimes stayed and composed music.  The handwrittten notes for “The Times They Are-A Changin’” were first sold by the MacKenzies’ son, Peter, about 10 years ago to a private collector.

     Bob Dylan’s musical cannon, meanwhile, continues to be heard and played around the world.  To date, his “Hard Rain,” for example, has more than two dozen cover versions, including those by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Leon Russell, Bryan Ferry, Robert Plant, Jimmy Cliff, and others.  As a songwriter and musician, Dylan has received numerous awards over the years including Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards; he has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.  He is considered to be one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century and has produced 34 studio albums, 13 live albums, and 14 compilation albums.  Seven of his albums were No. 1 hits on the U.K. album charts; five topped the charts in U.S.  In 2008, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded him a special citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

     See also at this website, “…Only A Pawn in Their Game,”another story of Dylan’s protest music from the early 1960s.  Additional stories on music at this website may be found at the Annals of Music category page, or go to the Home Page for other story choices.  Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. –  Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 6 March 2012
Last Update: 29 May 2012
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Dylan’s Hard Rain, 1962-1963,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 6, 2012.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Rolling Stone magazine’s cover story tribute to Bob Dylan at his 70th birthday, May 24, 2011.
Rolling Stone magazine’s cover story tribute to Bob Dylan at his 70th birthday, May 24, 2011.
“Live at The Gaslight 1962" is a CD with 10 songs from Bob Dylan performances at the Gaslight cafe in New York's Greenwich Village; Columbia Records, 2005.
“Live at The Gaslight 1962" is a CD with 10 songs from Bob Dylan performances at the Gaslight cafe in New York's Greenwich Village; Columbia Records, 2005.
The Original Mono Recordings box set of  Dylan's first 8 studio albums in mono on 9 CDs, released in October 2010 on Legacy Recordings with 56-page booklet.
The Original Mono Recordings box set of Dylan's first 8 studio albums in mono on 9 CDs, released in October 2010 on Legacy Recordings with 56-page booklet.
Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album, released in Aug. 1965, rose to No. 3 in the U.S., No. 4 in the U.K.
Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album, released in Aug. 1965, rose to No. 3 in the U.S., No. 4 in the U.K.
Clinton Heylin’s “Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973,” Chicago Review Press, 2009.
Clinton Heylin’s “Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973,” Chicago Review Press, 2009.

“Bob Dylan,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, New York: Rolling Stone Press, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp.286-288.

Alan Light, “Bob Dylan,” in Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke (eds), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock n Roll, New York: Random House, 1992, pp.299-308.

Bob Dylan, Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan, New York: Borozi/Alfred A Knopf, 1973.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Wikipedia .org.

Associated Press, “Cuba Charges U.S. With Air Violations,” Washington Post, Times Herald, July 2, 1962, p. B-19.

“Raul Castro Sees Khrushchev,” Washington Post, Times Herald, July 4, 1962, p. A-8.

“Experts Doubt Landing Of Red Forces in Cuba,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, August 9, 1962, p. A-17.

“Cuba Says Sub Violated Waters; U.S. Denies It,” Washington Post, Times Herald, August 16, 1962, p. A-16.

“Red Technicians Landing in Cuba,” Washington Post, Times Herald, August 17, 1962, p. A-1.

“U.S. Studying Red Influx in Cuba,” Washington Post, Times Herald, August 23, 1962, A-17.

“15 Communist Ships Head for Cuba, Probably With Arms, Technicians,” Washington Post, Times Herald, August 24, 1962, p. A-8.

“Guns to Cuba,” Washington Post, Times Herald, August 24, 1962, p. A-12.

Joseph A. Loftus, “Russians Step Up Flow of Arms Aid to Castro Regime; More Technical Personnel Sent In–U.S. Aides Doubt Rise in Offensive Power; Soviet Increases Aid Flow to Cuba,” New York Times, August 25, 1962, p. 1.

Robert Shelton, “Songs a Weapon in Rights Battle; Vital New Ballads Buoy Negro Spirits Across the South; Music Is New Force in Bolstering Morale, Leaders Declare,” New York Times, August 20, 1962, p. 1.

“Carnegie Is Still Going Strong: Capacity Crowd at Hootenanny,” New York Times, September 24, 1962.

“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” Wikipedia .org.

“The Ten Greatest Bob Dylan Songs,” Rolling Stone.com.

Greil Marcus, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, Public Affairs, 2005.

Song List & Liner Notes by Nat Hentoff, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, May 1963.

Teri Tynes, “New York Notes on Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’,” Walking Off The Big Apple, March 31, 2010.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan,” SongFacts.com.

Evan Schlansky, “The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #7, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’,” American Songwriter.com, May 1, 2009.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, Paperback, 2005.

Mark Edwards, Lloyd Timberlake, Bob Dylan, Hard Rain: Our Headlong Collision with Nature, Publisher: Still Pictures Moving Words, 2006.

The Hard Rain Project.

“Born on the Fourth of July (film),” Wiki- pedia.org.

Lot #171: Bob Dylan “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” Handwritten Working Lyrics, GottaHaveRockandRoll, Bidding ended  on: August 6, 2009.

Dave Itzkoff, “Sign of the `Times’: Dylan’s Lyrics for Sale,”Arts Beat, New York Times, November 29, 2010.

“Bob Dylan’s Handwritten Lyrics on View in NYC,” The Independent (UK), December 4, 2010.

Dave Itzkoff, “Accept It: Dylan’s Lyrics Are Sold at Auction,”Arts Beat, New York Times, December 10, 2010.

“Bob Dylan’s Handwritten ‘Times They Are a-Changin” Lyrics Sell for $422,500; Hedge-Fund Trader Buys Document at Sotheby’s Auction,” Rolling Stone, December 10, 2010.

Katya Kazakina, “Dylan’s ‘Times They Are A-Changin’ Fetches $422,500,” Bloom- berg.com, December 10, 2010.

See also a new journal devoted to Bob Dylan’s art named Montague Street and also a related blog at GardenerIsGone.

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“Only A Pawn in Their Game”
1962-1964

July 2, 1963: Bob Dylan at civil rights gathering in Greenwood, Mississippi singing ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ a song about the murder of activist Medgar Evers.
July 2, 1963: Bob Dylan at civil rights gathering in Greenwood, Mississippi singing ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ a song about the murder of activist Medgar Evers.
     In the summer of 1963, the civil rights movement in the United States was coming to a head.  There had already been eight years of activism in the south, beginning with the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, where a young preacher named Martin Luther King began to emerge as a leader.  In 1957, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas had begun.  By the early 1960s, college students had conducted “sit ins” at lunch counters to protest segregated restaurants.  A few black students by then had, for the first time, gained admission to the universities of Alabama and Georgia.  Blacks across the south and elsewhere were finding they could act to change their world.  Medgar Evers was one of those who became committed to action.

Medgar Evers, 1963.
Medgar Evers, 1963.
     Evers would become one of the rising young leaders in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.  In the 1940s, he had dropped out of high school at the age of 17, joined the army and fought in Europe during WWII, completing his service honorably in 1945.  But when Evers returned home, he was prevented from voting in elections, and was also intimidated by a mob of white men.  He vowed then to work for change.  By 1952, he graduated from Alcorn State University and married a classmate Myrlie Beasley. 

“Only a Pawn
in Their Game”
1963

A bullet from the back of a bush
took Medgar Evers’ blood.
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
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game.

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.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.

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.

From the poverty shacks, he looks
from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats 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.

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from
the bullet he caught.
They lowered him down as a king.
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.

     In early 1954, Medgar Evers applied to the then-segregated University of Mississippi to study law.  When his application was rejected, Evers became the focus of an NAACP campaign to desegregate the school that would later culminate in the 1961-62 case of another student, James Meredith.  By this time, Evers and his family were living in Jackson, Mississippi and he became the first field secretary of the NAACP in that state.  He traveled throughout Mississippi recruiting new members, organizing voter-registration, protesting unequal social conditions, and boycotting companies that practiced discrimination.  Evers soon had a high profile as an activist, and that made him a threat to the power structure in Mississippi, and also a target.

 

Shot in the Back

     On June 12, 1963, just past midnight, Evers drove up to his Jackson home, parking under the car port, the kitchen door to his house a short distance away.  Evers that night had attended a group meeting at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, while his wife Myrlie and his children watched President Kennedy’s televised speech – a speech that focused on the racial tensions in Birmigham, Alabama, where violent clashes between protestors and police had been going on for the past two months.  As Evers got out of his car, he grabbed a bundle of T-shirts that were to be handed out the next morning to civil rights demonstrators.  He only took a few steps away from his car toward the kitchen door when he was shot in back.  The bullet tore though his body and went into the house where his wife Myrlie and their three children were.  “Medgar was lying there on the doorstep in a pool of blood,” said Myrlie. “I tried to get the children away. But they saw it all – the blood and the bullet hole that went right through him.”  Medgar Evers was 37.

     On June 19, 1963 in Washington D.C., Evers was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, receiving full military honors.  More than three thousand people attended.  It was the largest funeral at Arlington since the interment of John Foster Dulles, former U.S. Secretary of State in 1959.  On June 23, 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers’ murder, but it would take decades before justice was finally served in the case.

 

“Oxford Town”

     Meanwhile, in New York’s Greenwhich village, a new, young singer named Bob Dylan had been playing coffee houses and recording some new folk music along with old blues.  In 1962, Bob Dylan had released his first album, Bob Dylan, and also had written songs such as “Blowin in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” which were labeled “protest music” by some since they touched on issues of the day, including civil rights.  Some of Dylan’s music keyed specifically on civil rights subjects of that time. In 1962, for example, he wrote “Oxford Town” – a song about the riots that ensued in Oxford, Mississippi when black student James Meredith became the first to be admitted to University of Mississippi.

“Oxford Town”
1962

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town

Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien’?

Me and my gal, my gal’s son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don’t even know why we come
Goin’ back where we come from

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

     The small town of Oxford was the university’s main campus and on September 20, 1962, it became something of battleground, as U.S. Marshalls had been sent there under direct order from President John F. Kennedy to ensure James Meredith’s enrollment and protection.  Rioting ensued; two were killed and numerous students were injured.  Dylan’s “Oxford Town” focused the events surrounding the campus riots and Meredith’s enrollment there, and also the larger civil rights movement then unfolding.  “Oxford Town” was written by Dylan in October or November 1962 and first recorded on December 6, 1962.  He is said to have performed the song at appearances in the fall and winter of 1962 and 1963, including a Carnegie Hall concert in October 1963.  The song also  appears on Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

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“Oxford Town”-1962

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     Back in New York, Dylan continued to perform in Greenwich Village, as well other cities during 1963, and also a few television shows.  On May 12, 1963, Dylan sparked controversy when he walked out of a rehearsal for a scheduled appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Dylan wanted to perform “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” but was informed by CBS Television’s “head of program practices” that the song was potentially libelous to the John Birch Society.  Rather than comply with the censorship, Dylan refused to appear on the program.  He did perform several days later with Joan Baez on May 18, 1963 at the Monterey folk festival in California.  His second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released at the end of May 1963.

Pete Seeger performing in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Pete Seeger performing in Greenwood, Mississippi.
     Following the murder of Medgar Evers on June 12th, 1963, Dylan was moved to write a song about the incident, which he titled “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”  In Mississippi that summer, there were voter registration drives underway in various communities, one of which was Greenwood, Mississippi.  It was here that Dylan visited on July 2, 1963 after an overnight flight.  He performed there before a small gathering of civil rights workers and did the song “Only A Pawn in Their Game” and others.  Pete Seeger, who had been there for a few days already, also performed at the Greenwood gathering.

Joan Baez & Dylan in August 1963 at the historic ‘March on Washington’.
Joan Baez & Dylan in August 1963 at the historic ‘March on Washington’.
     Elsewhere that summer, Dylan would also perform his songs, including those with the civil rights themes, at numerous performances.  At the July 26, 1963 Newport Music Festival, he performed “Only A Pawn in Their Game” and did duets with Joan Baez, some in small group sessions.  On the main stage near the end of the festival, the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” were performed with a larger group that included Dylan, Baez, Pete Seger, the Freedom Singers, and Peter, Paul and Mary.  In late August 1963, at the historic “March on Washington,” Dylan sang “Only A Pawn in Their Game”, among others, at the Lincoln Memorial – where Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.  Nor would Dylan end his songwriting of civil rights-related music with his 1963 Medgar Evers tune.

 

Hattie Carroll’s Death

     Dylan also wrote and recorded a song in late October 1963 entitled, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”  The song first appeared on Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin.’  However, he performed the song live very soon after he had first written it.  The song provides what is believed to be a generally factual account of the death of 51 year-old African American barmaid named Hattie Carroll.  She was struck by a wealthy young tobacco farmer from Charles County, Maryland named William Devereux “Billy” Zantzinger – named “William Zanzinger” in Dylan’s song.  For his crime, Zantzinger served a sentence of six months in a county jail.  In 1963, Charles County, Maryland was still strictly segregated by race in public facilities such as restaurants, churches, theaters, doctor’s offices, buses, and the county fair.  The schools of Charles County, for example, would not be integrated until 1967, four years after Hattie Carroll was killed.

“The Lonesome Death
Of Hattie Carroll”

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders
And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling,
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ‘em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’.
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.

     Reportedly, the main incident occurred at a white-tie Spinsters’ Ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland in early February 1963.  A drunken Zant- zinger arrived at the hotel carrying a toy cane  — a cane later described by Time magazine as “a wooden carnival cane that he had picked up somewhere.”  At the Emerson Hotel, Zantzinger assaulted at least three of the hotel workers: a bellboy, a waitress, and, at about 1:30 in the morning of February 9th, barmaid Hattie Carroll.  She was 51 years old, the mother of ten children. Zantzinger – then 24 years old and about 6′-2″ – struck her after she did not bring his bourbon quickly enough.

     When Zantzinger and his party arrived at the hotel that night, he was already drunk and had earlier assaulted employees at a Baltimore restaurant, also using his toy cane.  At the hotel Ball, however, he continued to be abusive, calling a 30-year-old waitress a “nigger” and hitting her with his cane.  Shortly thereafter he started in on Hattie Carroll when she didn’t bring his bourbon immediately, cursing her – calling her a “nigger” and a ” black son of a bitch” – and hitting her on the shoulder with the cane.  He also attacked his own wife, knocking her to the ground and hitting her with his shoe.  Hattie Carroll meanwhile, told co-workers she felt ill after being hit and verbally abused, and then collapsed.  She was  hospital- ized shortly thereafter and died eight hours later.  Her autopsy showed hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure.  A brain hemorrhage was the reported cause of death.

     Zantzinger was initially charged with murder.  His defense was that he had been extremely drunk and said he had no memory of the attack.  His charge was reduced to manslaughter and assault, based on the likelihood that it was her stress reaction to his verbal and physical abuse that led to the intracranial bleeding, rather than blunt-force trauma from the blow that left no lasting mark.  On August 28, 1963 Zantzinger was convicted of both charges and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963.
Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963.
     Time magazine, covering the sentencing, noted:

     “In June, after Zantzinger’s phalanx of five topflight attorneys won a change of venue to a court in Hagerstown [50 miles or so west of Baltimore], a three-judge panel reduced the murder charge to manslaughter.  Following a three-day trial, Zant- zinger was found guilty.  For the assault on the hotel employees: a fine of $125.  For the death of Hattie Carroll: six months in jail and a fine of $500.  The judges considerately deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop.”

     Bob Dylan, meanwhile, had been following the case in the news, and reportedly wrote the song in Manhattan, sitting in an all-night cafe.  He recorded it on October 23, 1963, when the trial was still relatively fresh news, and incorporated it into his live performances.  Dylan also performed the song on Steve Allen’s network television program soon after its release.  A studio version of the song was later released on January 13, 1964 and it also appears on Dylan’s 1964 album, The Times They are A-Changin’.  But by then Dylan had begun moving away from protest and folk music.

 

Reluctant Icon

Dylan, with guitar, in the early 1960s somewhere in the south -- quite possibly Greenwood, MS, July 1963.  Photo, www.bobdylan.com
Dylan, with guitar, in the early 1960s somewhere in the south -- quite possibly Greenwood, MS, July 1963. Photo, www.bobdylan.com
     Dylan, by virtue of his early 1960s protest music, had become something of a civil rights icon and protest leader – at least in the eyes of many civil rights workers at the time.  But he soon moved to take himself out of that role, feeling restricted and pigeon- holed by the designation.  In December 1963, three weeks after the assassination of John Kennedy and four months after the March on Washington, Dylan was the invited guest of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at their annual Bill of Rights dinner.  There, Dylan was to receive the Tom Paine Award for services to the cause.  But in accepting the award that evening, and after some heavy drinking, Dylan signaled his frustration with the protest role, finding it a burden and a limit on his creativity.  For some, this was Dylan marking the end of that involvement; expressing his rejection of his role in protest politics and of folk musician in that genre.  It would be something of a pattern for Dylan whenever the outside world tried to define him.  In mid-1964 he reportedly said to writer Nat Hentoff: “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman.  From now on, I want to write from inside me …I’m not part of no movement… I just can’t make it with any organization…”  Then came Dylan’s embrace of electric music at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, which left many of his fans and colleagues in shocked disbelief.  Yet the change in style, like his speech at the civil rights award dinner, would be Dylan being Dylan, following his muse, and rejecting outside labels, especially when others would try to impose some definition on who he was or what his music meant.

     In any case, while Dylan the musician continued to move on to new musical forms and genres – as he does to this day – his contributions to protest music are fact, remain significant, and have become legend.  Dylan’s protest songs of the early 1960s did make an important contribution for many in the civil rights arena and beyond. Dylan’s contributions to protest music are fact,  remain significant, and have become legend. “He was a folk-singer writing during a time when popular song focused on ‘Moon-June’ sentimentality and vacuous ditties,” wrote Robert Chapman in the late 1990s on why Dylan was important to civil rights in the early 1960s.  “At the time it was unheard of for a young white songwriter to compose the kind of songs that he did, and he knocked down some serious barriers as to what was thought possible within the parameters of popular music.”  In addition to “A Pawn in the Game,” “Oxford Town,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” mentioned here, other protest and civil rights-related songs he wrote include: “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and “The Death Of Emmett Till” (a song about the a young Chicago boy beaten to death on a visit to Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman).  And of course, there is also “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Another, somewhat fuzzy photo of Dylan & Pete Seeger at the 1963 Greenwood, MS gathering.
Another, somewhat fuzzy photo of Dylan & Pete Seeger at the 1963 Greenwood, MS gathering.
     Although “Blowin’ in the Wind” is regarded generally as a protest song about peace, war, and freedom, it became something of an anthem for the civil rights movement.  Upon first hearing the song in the 1960s, other musicians involved with civil rights, such as Marvin Gaye and Mavis Staples of the Staples Sisters, were quite impressed.  Staples, in fact, said she was amazed at how a young white man at that time could write something that captured the frustration and aspirations of black people. 

     “Blowin’ in the Wind,” however, was not made famous by Dylan, but by folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, who were also represented by Dylan’s manager.  Their version of the song, released as a single in 1963, sold 300,000 copies in the first week.  By mid-July 1963, it was No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart and had sales exceeding one million copies.  But it was Dylan’s songwriting that shone through on this and other songs of that era.  Thanks for visiting.  - Jack Doyle 

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Date Posted:  13 October 2008
Last Update:  9 February 2010
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Only A Pawn in Their Game,”
PopHistoryDig.com, October 13, 2008. 

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

This 1964 Dylan album contains both ‘Only A Pawn...’ and ‘Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’
This 1964 Dylan album contains both ‘Only A Pawn...’ and ‘Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’
“Northern Folk Singers Help Out at Negro Festival in Mississippi, New York Times, July 7, 1963.

Robert Shelton, No Direction Home, Da Capo Press, 2003 reprint of 1986 original, 576 pp.

Pete Seeger, “Report from Greenwood, Mississippi: A Singing Movement,” originally published in Broadside Magazine, No. 30, August 1963; also in, Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972, p. 247.

Gerry Cordon, Liverpool Community College, Book Review: Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art, by Mike Marqusee New Press, 2003, Review posted, January 18, 2005.

“The Spinsters’ Ball,” Time, Friday, February 22, 1963.

“Farmer Convicted in Barmaid’s Death,” New York Times, June 28, 1963. p. 11.

1965 recording of songs & narrative related to voter registration drive & related activities.   (2004, Smithsonian Folkways)
1965 recording of songs & narrative related to voter registration drive & related activities. (2004, Smithsonian Folkways)
“Farmer Sentenced in Barmaid’s Death,” New York Times, August 29, 1963. p. 15.

“Deferred Sentence,” Time, September 6, 1963.

Robert Chapman, writing on “African American Culture and Bob Dylan: Why He Matters,” posted to selected newsgroups, Saturday April 26, 1997, and later reprinted at “Things Twice” web page.

Bob Dylan’s website; source for “Dylan in South photo.”

“Bob Dylan” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Wikipedia.org.

“Negro Applies to Enter Ole Miss,” The Jackson Daily News (Jackson, MS), January 22, 1954.

Manfred Helfert, “A Bullet from the Back of a Bush – The Life and Death of Medgar Wiley Evers,” Dignity, No. 9, Mar/Apr 1997, pp. 18-24.

Audio recording, The Story of Greenwood Mississippi, Recorded and Produced by Guy Carawan for the Student No-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Featuring Bob Moses and SNCC workers, Fanny Lou Hammer and Greenwood citizens, Mass meetings, hymns, prayers, Freedom songs, Medgar Evers and Dick Gregory, 2004 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings / 1965 Folkways Records #5593.

Murray Lerner, producer, The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 (DVD), Sony, 2007.

See also a new journal devoted to Bob Dylan’s art named Montague Street and also a related blog at GardenerIsGone.

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