Watch Bob Dylan Perform “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” His Damning Song About the Murder of Medgar Evers, at the 1963 March on Washington

By Josh Jones

Trauma is repetition, and the United States seems to inflict and suffer from the same deep wounds, repeatedly, unable to stop, like one of the ancient Biblical curses of which Bob Dylan was so fond. The Dylan of the early 1960s adopted the voice of a prophet, in various registers, to tell stories of judgment and generational curses, symbolic and historical, that have beset the country from its beginnings.

The verses of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, enact this repetition, both traumatic and hypnotic. In its dual refrains—“how many times...?" and "the answer is blowin’ in the wind” (ephemeral, impossible to grasp)—the song cycles between earnest Lamentations and the acute, world-weary resignation of Ecclesiastes. “This ambiguity is one reason for the song’s broad appeal,” as Peter Dreier writes at Dissent.

Just three months after its release, when Dylan performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become a massive civil rights anthem. But he had already ceded the song to Peter, Paul & Mary, who played their version that day. Dylan ignored his sophomore album entirely to play songs from the upcoming The Times They Are a-Changing—songs that stand out for their indictments of the U.S. in some very specific terms.

Dylan played three songs from the new album: “When the Ship Comes In” with Joan Baez, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “With God on Our Side.” (He also played the popular folk song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”) In contrast to his vaguely allusive popular anthems, “Only a Pawn in Their Game"—about the murder of Medgar Evers—isn't coy about the culprits and their crimes. We might say the song offers an astute analysis of institutional racism, white supremacy, and stochastic terrorism.

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 hoofbeats 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

These lyrics have far too much relevance to current events, and they're indicative of the changing tone of Dylan’s muse. His refrains drip with irony. The killer of Medgar Evers “can’t be blamed”—an evasion of responsibility that becomes a powerful force all its own.

Dylan revisits the themes of generational trauma and murder in “With God on Our Side” (hear him sing it with Baez at Newport, above). The song is a sharp satire of his historical education, with its inevitable repetitions of war and slaughter. Here, Dylan presents the exponentially gross, existentially dreadful, consequences of a national abdication of blame for historical violence.

Oh my name it ain't nothin' My age it means less The country I come from Is called the Midwest I was taught and brought up there The laws to abide And that land that I live in

Has God on its side

Oh, the history books tell it They tell it so well The cavalries charged The Indians fell The cavalries charged The Indians died Oh, the country was young

With God on its side

The Spanish-American War had its day And the Civil War, too Was soon laid away And the names of the heroes I was made to memorize With guns in their hands

And God on their side

The First World War, boys It came and it went The reason for fighting I never did get But I learned to accept it Accept it with pride For you don't count the dead

When God's on your side

The Second World War Came to an end We forgave the Germans And then we were friends Though they murdered six million In the ovens they fried The Germans now, too

Have God on their side

I've learned to hate the Russians All through my whole life If another war comes It's them we must fight To hate them and fear them To run and to hide And accept it all bravely

With God on my side

But now we got weapons Of chemical dust If fire them, we're forced to Then fire, them we must One push of the button And a shot the world wide And you never ask questions

When God's on your side

Through many a dark hour I've been thinkin' about this That Jesus Christ was Betrayed by a kiss But I can't think for you You'll have to decide Whether Judas Iscariot

Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin' I'm weary as Hell The confusion I'm feelin' Ain't no tongue can tell The words fill my head And fall to the floor That if God's on our side

He'll stop the next war

Dylan’s race/class analysis in “Only a Pawn in the Game” and his succinct People’s History of Christian Nationalism in “With God on Our Side” stand out as interesting choices for the March for several reasons. For one thing, it’s as though he had written these songs expressly to take the political, economic, and religious mechanisms and mythologies of racism apart. This was radical speech in an event that was policed by its organizers to tone down inflammatory rhetoric for the cameras.

23-year-old John Lewis, for example, was forced to temper his speech, in which he meant to say, “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently. the revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery." As a popular white artist, rather than a potentially seditious Black organizer, Dylan had far more license and could "use his privilege,” as they say, to describe the systems of political and economic oppression Lewis had wanted to name.

Dylan’s performance was one of a handful of memorable musical appearances. Most of the singers made a far bigger impression, like Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, and Baez herself, whose “We Shall Overcome” created a legendary moment of harmony. No one sang along to Dylan’s new songs—they wouldn’t have known the words. But Dylan was never careless. He chose these words for the moment, hoping to have some impact in the only way he could.

The 1963 March's purpose has been overshadowed by a few passages in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s powerful "I Have a Dream" speech, co-opted by everyone and reduced to meme-able quotes. But the protest "remains one of the most successful mobilizations ever created by the American Left," historian William P. Jones writes. "Organized by a coalition of trade unionists, civil rights activists, and feminists--most of them African American and nearly all of them socialists."

Dylan sang stories of how the country got to where it was, through a history of violence still playing out before the marchers' eyes. Whatever political tensions there were among the various organizers and speakers did not distract them from pushing through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment Practices clause banning discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex—protections that have been broadened since that time, and also challenged, threatened, and stripped away.

Fifty-seven years later, as the RNC convention ends and another March on Washington happens, we might reflect on Dylan's small but prescient contributions in 1963, in which he aptly characterized the traumatic repetitions we're still convulsively experiencing over half a century later.

Related Content:

The Moment When Bob Dylan Went Electric: Watch Him Play “Maggie’s Farm” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965

A Massive 55-Hour Chronological Playlist of Bob Dylan Songs: Stream 763 Tracks

James Baldwin Talks About Racism in America & Civil Rights Activism on The Dick Cavett Show (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness