Some Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Oxford Town

Four photographs that tell a story. The first, taken in Greenwood, Mississippi on 2nd July 1963, is of a young Dylan playing ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’ at a voter registration drive event.

The second, on the 13th of December that same year shows Dylan and James Baldwin sharing a joke at the Tom Paine awards.

The third is Dylan and Ruben Carter talking through prison bars, sometime in 1975, Bob in full Rolling Thunder garb.

The fourth is a beaming Bob with President Obama, having just played ‘Blowing in the Wind’ as part of the White House’s Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement concert. He stepped off the stage, went over to Obama, and shook his hand.

Almost a half century on from the voter registration drive, Dylan is clearly delighted to see the fruits of that labour. On the night Obama won, he was playing in Minnesota and took the unusual step of addressing his audience: ‘Tony likes to think it’s a brand new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are gonna change now’.

*

Emmet Till, Hattie Carroll, Medgar Evers, George Jackson, Ruben Carter: black victims of white hate, killed and/or imprisoned all because of the colour of their skins. And all remembered by Bob Dylan in songs of empathy. Each one named, remembered, their lives mattering. Part of that world of darkness was the fact of racism in America. And before any of these, Oxford Town; a minute and forty five seconds, twenty lines, no names mentioned. According to the sleeve notes ‘Of “Oxford Town,” Dylan notes with laughter that “it’s a banjo tune I play on the guitar.”’. The good people at Expecting Rain point to ‘Cumberland Gap’ as the original, a tune Dylan would have known via Pete Seeger. The echoes, however, are really not of the tune, but of the lyrics, with the repeated ‘Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap’ echoed in ‘Oxford Town, Oxford Town’ and the lines ‘Me and my gal, my gal’s pap/we live down in Cumberland Gap’ transformed into ‘Me and my gal, my gal’s son/We got met with a tear gas bomb.’

Musically, what Dylan does is different; the guitar is in open D tuning, with a capo on the sixth fret and he plays a driving, circular flatpicking riff between verses that sit over a characteristic open tuning drone, the result being more dulcimer or autoharp than banjo. It’s sombre, moody and not at all like the upbeat, comic ‘original’. There’s a stark simplicity to the singing that matches the accompaniment to perfection.

Around the time he wrote ‘Oxford Town’, Dylan was recorded singing the old hymn and marching song ‘No More Auction Block’, a kid inhabiting a song with a voice as old as pain. We’re told this song was the model for ‘Blowing in the Wind’, but again the link is tenuous enough, deriving more from a shared sense of right and justice that runs through the weave of Dylan’s subsequent work. If you want to lift the darkness, you need to understand its causes.

*

But even this apparently simple song is fraught with ambiguities. For a start, what’s it about? Well, racism, obviously, but who is ‘he’, who ‘I’? Again, the sleeve notes tell sort of help: ‘Otherwise, this account of the ordeal of James Meredith speaks grimly for itself.’ But it doesn’t, not at all, or it might have to an audience drawn from the early 1960s Civil Rights movement, but to the casual listener nothing is obvious.

Of course, the story of Meredith’s enrolment to the University of Mississippi and the October 1962 riots that followed as segregationist whites tried to block him is well documented, as is the story of the song’s composition for a Billboard competition for a newspaper story song. But who wants to do that kind of research to appreciate a very short song? Nobody, and there’s really no need, it’s all there in the song, really, in the lyrics.

And such lyrics, spare and lean, especially coming straight after ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’. Five verses, four of them rhyming AAAA, the fifth, the third, central, verse ABBA:

Oxford town around the bend
Come to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the colour of his skin
What do you think about that, my friend?

This small variation demands attention, makes you hear this verse differently, even if you don’t realise it. It’s the key to what Dylan’s doing here. The two rhyming pairs bring disparate things into focus. What’s happening isn’t far away, it’s just up the road, around the bend, almost right here; what do you think about that, my friend? And the doors, all doors, are closed to some people just because they’re black. ‘If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street’. As it is in Patterson, so it was in Oxford, Mississippi. And this, I think, is why Meredith isn’t named in the song, because racism isn’t about you, the individual person of colour, it’s systemic, it’s about power and privilege, and individuals are just pawns in a game of power and privilege. In this sense, ‘Oxford Town’ lays a basis on which the songs about individual black victims of white power can be commemorated and supported in song.

In a poem first published in 1954, the year that segregation in American public schools was found unconstitutional, a finding that made Meredith’s actions possible, and that was then reprinted in Pictures From Brueghel in, of course, 1962, William Carlos Williams, poet of Paterson, wrote ‘a new world is only a new mind’. So, how do you change minds? By inviting people to think, not by telling them what to think, by asking ‘what do you think about that, my friend?’ For instance, if you don’t know the story behind the song, you might think that those met by tear gas were there to support Meredith, but they weren’t, they were white rioters. You might also imagine that the two men who died were rioters, but they were innocent bystanders, a French journalist and a white ‘sightseer’. Only pawns. Two unsolved execution-style murders. Somebody better investigate soon, but nobody has, because power is not inclined to investigate itself, not in a land where justice is a game, where penalty and repentance is a six-month sentence, where black lives really don’t seem to matter.

*

There are many threads in the weave, and one of them relates to the idea of equity founded in justice. Dylan never stopped being a political writer, he just came to see that politics cannot be separated from the rest of life. The thread that began on the Freewheelin’ album is still there on Rough and Rowdy Ways, you just have to listen for it.

*

[Note: Originally written for a book of fan essays to mark Dylan’s 80th birthday that unfortunately hasn’t happened. I don’t read the books about him, so I can’t, and don’t, claim that any of what I’ve written here is original, it’s just my reaction to a great minor song.]