Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” Lyrics Meaning

This song is set against the backdrop of America’s Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. And its title, “Only a Pawn in the Game”, is of course an allusion to chess in which pawns are the most-numerous and valueless pieces, whose primary function is to protect the more-valuable soldiers and royalty. And likewise the idea that Dylan is putting forth is that poor White Americans who committed hate crimes, particularly in the era in which this song was written, are actually “pawn(s) in their game”. From the aforementioned phrase, the pronoun “their” refers to the White elite, and the “game” being played is their goal to retain power. 

So in summation, the idea he is putting forth is impoverished Whites who persecute and murder Black people – such as Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers – are not the only ones guilty of these crimes but also those behind the scenes who intentionally encourage them to do so in the name of blinding them from the big picture, which is fundamentally that they are just as suppressed as the Blacks.

Indeed the murder of Medgar Evers (1925-1963), which is referenced in both the first and last verse, was the catalyst which caused Bob Dylan to write this track. However, as alluded to earlier, the song is not about Evers himself and is in fact more about his killer. In the first he is painted as someone who, once again, “can’t be blamed” for his actions since Bob basically insinuates they were not his own. And in the last he is portrayed as an individual who when he dies, unlike Evers who went “down as a king”, will instead be buried as who he actually is – “a pawn in their game”.

Lyrics of "Only A Pawn In Their Game"

Facts about “Only a Pawn in Their Game”

  • This is considered by many to be the first pop song to equate poor Whites as basically suffering from the same oppressive system as Black people.
  • British singer Morrissey recorded a cover of “Only a Pawn in Their Game” in 2019. The former Smiths‘ frontman released it as part of his 2019 album California Son.
  • The first time Bob Dylan performed this song was on 2 July 1963. The performance took place during a voters’ registration rally held in Greenwood, Mississippi , United States. FYI, this was the same state where Medgar Evers was murdered just three weeks prior. 
  • Dylan later performed it on 28 August 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It’s noteworthy to say that that was the same venue in which iconic Civil Rights’ leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) made his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Who wrote “Only a Pawn in Their Game”?

Bob Dylan wrote this song, and it was subsequently produced by Tom Wilson (1931-1978).

When did Dylan release “Only a Pawn in Their Game”?

The track was released by Columbia Records on 13 January 1964 as part of Bob Dylan’s album, The Times Are A-Changin’.

Where can I hear Morrissey’s version of this classic?

You can listen to it below:

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