Bob Dylan Countdown #134: “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”

Don’t be misled by the title:  The immigrant wandering through this enigmatic yet lovely song from John Wesley Harding has not arrived from another country. He is an outsider, ostracized by his own actions in the very world he himself has created. His quest for wealth and self-gain has led him to a place where he is completely alone.

This is one of the best performances on John Wesley Harding, where the songs sometimes are mitigated by the hushed nature of the recordings. “I Pity The Poor Immigrant,” by contrast, is clear and open-hearted, marked by Dylan’s sympathetic vocal performance and a melody that is warm and sorrowful all at once.

It’s a fine line that Dylan walks here. One the one hand, his narrator shows great empathy for the character he is describing. Yet the song also has to scold, so that the immigrant’s behavior isn’t excused. There is even an element of condescension to it all, what with the narrator acting as the arbiter for what’s right and wrong about the actions of this grown man.

All of those contrasting vibes somehow mix smoothly, mirroring the way we all react sometimes when hearing of the fall of someone from on high. How easy is it, after all, to shift from concerned to judgmental when considering such a situation. Ultimately, the narrator makes it all the way back to the heartfelt side of the equation in those chilling final lines describing the immigrant:  “Whose visions in the final end must shatter like the glass/I pity the poor immigrant when his gladness comes to pass.”

Therein lies the nifty, subtle trick that Dylan pulls off with “I Pity The Poor Immigrant.” Not only does it comment on those who fall from grace, but it also slyly shines a light on how we react to them, lest we veer into immigrant territory ourselves.

 

 

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