Bob Dylan Countdown #135: “Oxford Town”

It’s hard to imagine it now considering how much of a contrarian to expectations he has been throughout his career, but Bob Dylan wrote “Oxford Town” in response to a challenge posted by Broadside magazine for songwriters to write about the 1962 riots in Mississippi, which concerned the admittance of a black student to the previously segregated university there. Dylan must have figured that, if somebody was going to do it, it might as well be somebody who could get it right.

To do it right, Dylan doesn’t take the expected path. Instead of singing as the voice of a generation, a la “Blowin’ In The Wind,” he inhabits the body of a citizen from that town. That allows him to put away any pretensions of poetry. He can tell the story simply and cut right to the emotions that were boiling over in that time and place.

Since it is set up in this plainspoken way, I think many people probably consider “Oxford Town,” while well-intentioned, a bit of a lightweight in the Dylan catalog. Those people are mistaking succinctness for simplicity. As I said earlier, any flowery language would have been completely out of character for this character, a simple man who is enlightened enough to have a progressive (at the time) view of civil rights.

In addition, the economy of the wording shines a harsh light on the events in Oxford. The tear gas, the guns, the clubs, the bigotry, the deaths:   No amount of eloquence can soften the blow of those images. Dylan the songwriter needed blunt force from “Oxford Town,” To get it, he excused Dylan the genius from the process.  

 

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