Bob Dylan Countdown #132: “Only A Pawn In Their Game”

Before we discuss the merits of “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” and there are many, it must first be noted how brave the song is. Bob Dylan had the guts to indict the rulers of America for manipulating their citizens into committing atrocities like the murder of Medgar Evers. He also had the audacity to absolve the murderer of the that heinous sin.

Consider that Dylan performed the song in the March on Washington, the pinnacle of the Civil Rights movement, and there he was, singing that the man who killed one of the leading lights of that movement shouldn’t be blamed. That took some serious stones. It wouldn’t have been hard, at least for someone as talented as Bob, to vilify Byron De La Beckwith, who was accused of killing Evers and wouldn’t be convicted of the crime until three decades had passed. But that would have been disingenuous to the 22-year-old songwriter’s trenchant insight on race relations.

In the first verse, he practically removes all humanity from the killer, not to blame him, but to blame the puppeteers. As a result, Dylan insinuates that the man had no more free will than the parts of the gun he used to shoot Evers, or the parts of his body that were slaves to a brain blinded by desperation and rage.

Instead, the politicians and enforcers of law and order are taken to task for their roles in this tragedy. Deluded by these people who are supposed to be looking out for him, this white man, crushed by poverty, lashes out unthinkingly in search of some kind of target. A black civil rights leader like Evers was an inevitable choice.

The lyrics are blunt, and the repetitive nature of the rhymes hint at the self-fulfilling prophecy that has been perpetrating itself since the end of the Civil War. When Dylan sings, “With his fist in a clinch,” we brace ourselves for the rhyme that we know is coming but is still unbearable to hear:  “To hang and to lynch.”

Chess players know that pawns are the most expendable pieces on the board, means to an end for the conquering kings and queens. Portraying De La Beckwith as a pawn is something that might be hard for some to reconcile considering what he did, but Dylan had bigger fish to fry with “Only A Pawn In Their Game.” He knew that the hypocrisy wouldn’t disappear anytime soon, but exposing it in this incendiary song was good enough. And it showed enough courage to make it a fitting tribute to a man as courageous as Medgar Evers himself.

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