Bob Dylan: Only A Pawn In their Game

14 Jun

pawn

It was 50 years ago this week that Medgar Evers was murdered outside his Mississippi home. Within six months Bob Dylan had penned, performed, recorded and included on the album The Times They Are a-Changing his song about Evers’ killing, Only a Pawn In Their Game.

Great art is often borne of tragedy, but Dylan’s song wasn’t the only art borne of this one. Writer Eudora Welty, a native Mississippian, wrote a short story Where Is the Voice Coming From on the day she learned of Evers’ killing; Welty said “the short story was the only thing she had ever written in anger,” according to Jerry Mitchell’s blog at clarionledger.com.

The story was published by The New Yorker less than a month later, shortly after the arrest of Byron de la Beckwith for the murder. The similarities between the accused and the protagonist in Welty’s story were so strong — even though Welty wrote it before even being aware of Beckwith — the magazine changed the names and the name of the town for legal reasons.

“No, Welty didn’t know De La Beckwith’s name or what he looked like,” wrote Jarvis DeBerry at nola.com. “But Welty was from Mississippi and of Mississippi, and she knew Mississippi. So even if she didn’t know the name or look of the assassin, she was dead certain she knew how he’d sound.”


“I says to my wife, ‘Just reach and turn it off. And be quiet. You don’t need to set and look at a black n—–r face no longer than you want to or listen to what you don’t want to hear. It’s a free country.’ ”

That’s how Welty’s story began. Dylan’s song began “A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood” and he sang it that summer, less than a month after Evers’ murder, at a voter registration drive in Mississippi for the first time, according to pophistorydig.com.

He sang it again that summer at the festival in Newport, according to the website, and at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28 before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington — perhaps one of the few times Dylan performed when his words weren’t the most memorable of a day.

Dylan’s album was released early the next year, and Beckwith was tried twice that year for Evers’ murder. Both resulted in hung juries; it didn’t help the prosecution that segregationist governor Ross Barnett shook hands with the defendant, in front of the jury, before the deliberations, according to nytimes.com.

More than two decades passed and Beckwith served time in another case of potential vioience born of bigorty. Anyone younger than 30 might find it hard to believe, but the case to try Beckwith a third time for Evers’ murder was fueled by a newspaper. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s stories spurred the final trial, and if you’ve seen Ghosts of Mississippi, you know how it ends.

It’s doubtful Beckwith had the revelation Dylan predicted in Only a Pawn In Their Game that the killer would. By all accounts, he died unrepentant in prison in 2001.

“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.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Two years after Beckwith died, Dylan returned to Mississippi to perform at a music festival. He was 62, and Evers’ older brother Charles was 80, and they had never met. Donna Ladd, who midwifed the two’s meeting 40 years after Medgar’s murder, described it in heartwarming fashion at jacksonfreepress.com.

“(Dylan) warmly grasped Mr. Evers’ hand and held it for a good five minutes while they talked eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart, man-to-man. They both nodded a lot and seemed emotional. I didn’t try to get closer. This was between two giants of the Civil Rights Movement, and the man they—we—had lost to hatred. I blinked back tears.”

sources: clarionledger.com, nola.com, pophistorydig.com, nytimes.com, jacksonfreepress.com

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4 Responses to “Bob Dylan: Only A Pawn In their Game”

  1. ileneonwords June 14, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    Thanks for sharing that meeting between Charles Evers and Dylan. I posted Phil Och’s “Too Many Martyrs” a few days ago, another great song.

    • David Markowitz June 15, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

      ilene — we should both thank Donna Ladd for sharing her story. It was indeed special. Enjoyed your site. I’ll be back, and i look forward to reading about phil ochs.

      • ileneonwords June 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

        Yes, Thank You to Donna Ladd! Thanks for visiting!!!!

  2. LondonJazzCollector June 15, 2013 at 3:32 am #

    A good story well told, thank you

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