As expected, there’s a lot of debate gathering among scholars and writers about Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature. Currently, I teach a course on the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and one of Dylan’s songs has always been included in my syllabus. It’s also one of the songs in my book “We Shall Overcome” and part of two CDs that accompany the publication.
That song “Oxford Town” is apparently about James Meredith and his attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi. After much turmoil he was finally enrolled, but four years later he was shot and wounded while marching on a Mississippi road, hoping to show that things had changed in the state.
“He went down to Oxford Town. Guns and clubs followed him down. All because his face was brown, better get away from Oxford Town,” Dylan wrote and sang of the conflict that happened mostly on the University of
I didn’t expect it would be mentioned among his other more popular compositions, especially “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Times
They Are A-Changin.”
Like many of his other songs, the ballad captures with poignancy the fierce urgency of the times, artfully placing the shooting of Meredith within the greater context of the era.
Dylan also offered a paean to the Black experience in his salute to blues master Blind Willie McTell. “There’s a woman by the river, with some fine young handsome man. He’s dressed up like a squire, bootlegged whiskey in his hand. There’s a chain gang on the highway; I can hear them rebels yell. And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
When Dylan sang “How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man,” it was another way of referencing the civil rights struggle, and it has often been cited that Sam Cooke composed his anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” after hearing Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Even so, it’s been a two-way street with Dylan and the Black experience, and as much as he has celebrated Black culture and personalities, he has also been influenced by many African-American singers and entertainers, including Little Richard, blues belter Big Bill Broonzy and the great blues diva, Ma Rainey, who he cited in his song “Tombstone Blues.”
And it’s hard not to think of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the legendary dancer, in Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
In his song “Chimes of Freedom” there are undeniable images of “underdog soldiers” rushing down on the
“unarmed road of flight.”
I will close with another civil rights song Dylan devoted to the memory of Emmett Till, called “The Death of Emmett Till.” Till was a Black teenager killed in Money, Miss., in 1955 by two white racists. Again, with poetic insight and a profound sensitivity, Dylan invoked the crime and pleaded for peace in one of his most heartfelt memorials to the fallen.
“This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man,” Dylan wrote and sang in the last stanza, “That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan. But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give. We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.”
Dylan found a number of lyrical and musical ways to pay homage to Black culture, and for this effort and other things, we have no problem with him getting the Nobel or any other award given his art for the cause of freedom and justice.