1962. A nation on the brink of war, a people enwrapped in civil unrest. And in the midst of it all, a generation determined to change it all. With such incomparable conditions disturbing the recent quietude of the country and emotions ranging from anxiety to anger gripping her people, the youngest generation of Americans learned to fly under new banners and to thrive within the chaos.
One young songwriter, Bob Dylan, came to define that generation and their revolutionary sentiments. Dylan, just twenty-one, used the turmoil of 1962 as creative inspiration, penning nearly forty songs throughout the year. Many of these tunes found their way to his eponymous second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s development as a musician, lyricist, and artist throughout 1962 was magnified by the magnitude of and crisis surrounding global and national events. So many of the songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan were intentionally crafted and easily adopted as protest anthems; no longer was Dylan merely the author of pretty folk tunes but the philosophical and musical master of a generation.
Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” for example, was espoused as the ultimate anti-war anthem. Written in reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the seemingly-imminent war with the Central American powerhouse (and her new ally found in the Soviet Union), Dylan’s subtle lyricism warns of the dangers and consequences of nuclear war. But Dylan’s employment of lyrics like “What will you do now, my blue-eyed son?” also endow the song with local, racial undertones. To this day, critics and students of Dylan associate “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” with such racially-attuned ballads as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” as well as the mythical wanderings of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.
Another track on the album, “Oxford Town,” hailed from a specific, stateside event. On October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi, as the university’s first black student. His enrollment was the result of multiple applications and denials, and finally, following an appeal to the Supreme Court, the federal approval of his admission into the college. Despite the approval of the country’s highest power, the community responded with passion; riots broke out across the city, resulting in hundreds of injuries and two deaths.
Shortly following the riots of Oxford, Broadside, an instrumental underground magazine centered around the folk revival, issued an open invitation for songs about James Meredith. Inspired by the call to action, Dylan composed “Oxford Town.” The song appeared in the December 1962 issue of Broadside and was released in May 1963 alongside other protest anthems like “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Unlike many of the other songs on his second album, “Oxford Town” employs a simple, sparse lyricism and easy picking pattern. The directness and simplicity of his lyrics seem to suggest how ostensibly obvious the problem is and how easy it should be to fix. “He went down to Oxford Town/Guns and clubs followed him down/All because his face was brown.” Dylan highlights the nonsensical and unnecessary violence of the situation, with the suggestion that it all resulted from something as simple and, in his eyes, inconsequential, as his skin tone.
Except for the repetition of “Oxford Town,” Dylan never specifically refers to Meredith or Ole Miss; his words could as easily apply to any racial conflict. In an interview with Studs Terkel the following year, Dylan said, “It deals with the Meredith case, but then again it doesn’t. . . . I wrote that when it happened, and I could have written that yesterday. It’s still the same. ‘Why doesn’t somebody investigate soon’ that’s a verse in the song.” The ambient implications of Dylan’s lyrics make it not just an anthem of an event, but of an era.
Bob Dylan went on to become an icon of his generation, carrying the torch of a people no longer willing to bow down to popular opinion. As Rolling Stone wrote of the artist in the ’60’s, his purpose in life was “to sing out against darkness whenever he sees it.” The light Dylan shone on a season of unrest helped transform such bitter beginnings into happy endings.
And as happy of an ending as possible followed the release of “Oxford Town.” Meredith graduated from Ole Miss in 1963 with a degree in political science, and Dylan returned to the University in 1990, performing “Oxford Town” under the shining, welcoming lights of Ole Miss’s Ted Smith Coliseum. A new era was born, ushered in and heralded by the words of Bob Dylan.
HEAR BOB DYLAN PERFORM “OXFORD TOWN”
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