Bob Dylan’s songwriting skills have serenaded a disquieted American public for generations, most recently winning him a Nobel Prize in Literature this month. His light, whimsical voice has contrasted with the strength of his poetic lyrics during times of strife.
During the 1960s, Dylan became increasingly invested in the civil rights movement, which led him to write two songs about racial conflicts in Mississippi, but that was not the first time the state was an influence on him.
“(Dylan’s music) was pretty heavily influenced by Mississippi,” Elijah Wald, a Bob Dylan scholar, said.
A songwriter himself, Wald has written books on Dylan and blues music.
Dylan was influenced by a number of Mississippi blues artists such as Robert Johnson of Hazlehurst, John Lee Hooker of Tutwiler, Big Joe Williams of Oktibbeha County, Bukka White of Houston (who was a second cousin to B.B. King) as well as others, according to Wald.
“I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction . . .” Dylan wrote in his memoir “Chronicles.”
Less than two months after James Meredith became the first African-American student to enroll at Ole Miss, Dylan wrote “Oxford Town,” which appeared on his second album.
Wald said although he is unclear if Dylan ever personally visited Oxford, the campus riot of 1962 certainly had an impact on him.
“‘Oxford Town’ was one of the very first songs I remember hearing as a child,” Adam Gussow, associate professor of Southern studies, said. “My father, Alan Gussow, was a painter, and when Dylan’s second studio album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,’ came out in 1963, he got a copy and played it nonstop in his studio. I was 5 years old.”
Gussow said the song is an unusual protest song since it never directly names Meredith, the man at the center of the 1962 riot at the University of Mississippi. He said it is also unusual because of the way Dylan drives his guitar’s rapid-fire strumming. Dylan’s voice sounds vaguely amused rather than thunderingly prophetic.
“The riot is ‘all because his skin was brown,’ and I suspect that as a young child I picked up from the song, at least subliminally, on the idea that race was a problem in America,” Gussow said.
“Oxford Town in the afternoon / Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune / Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon / Somebody better investigate soon,” Dylan wrote.
“The song just… ends,” Gussow said. “The investigation might happen, or it might not. The whole thing, as Dylan framed it, was a big, sad joke.”
By 1963, Dylan was a prominent civil rights advocate, and he had released his third album “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” which included his song “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” which addressed the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers.
“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.”
He first performed the song at a rally in Greenwood.
Wald said although Dylan grew up in the North and was performing in Greenwich Village, New York, he began dating Suze Rotolo, a political activist with the Congress of Racial Equality. It led to Dylan traveling and performing in the South as well as at the The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In years since, Dylan has not been a stranger to protesting injustice. He would later protest the Vietnam War in the 1970s and join a coalition of artists called Artists United Against Apartheid.
Wald said compared to the other protest songs, “Oxford Town” is not culturally significant on a large scale.
Yet within the state, others find the song a star realization.
“I think that ‘Oxford Town’ conveyed some big-ass truths with the brilliant shrug of a natural-born poet,” Gussow said.