Oxford Town


The narrative of Oxford Town centers on events that took place at the University of Mississippi in 1963. “Ole Miss” is located a mile from the town of Oxford, Mississippi, 75 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee.

James Meredith, an Air Force veteran, was the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss. Many Mississippians supported segregation, including Mississippi’s governor Ross Barnett, who pledged to keep the university segregated by “whatever means necessary”.

After it became obvious trouble was brewing, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent federal marshals to protect Meredith. Riots ensued. One hundred sixty marshals were wounded and two bystanders were killed.

Dylan sings the song in a matter-of-fact manner that suggests that the narrator is not terribly surprised about what happened. He come to the door, he couldn’t get in/All because of the color of his skin/What do you think about that, my friend”. The tune itself, which Dylan describes in the liner notes as a “banjo tune”, is happy and jaunty, in ironic contrast to the seriousness of the song’s theme.

“Me and my gal” could be read as Dylan referring to himself and his girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, who was involved in the civil rights movement and was at least partially responsible for getting Dylan involved. The lines “I don’t even know why we come/Goin’ back where we come from” clearly point an accusatory finger at some civil rights workers’ lack of commitment to the cause. The listener is encouraged to examine his own commitment.

It’s hard to believe, but Meredith is now a staunch Republican and – even more unbelievably – served as a policy adviser to none other than Jesse Helms, the ultra-conservative, race-baiting former senator from North Carolina. Couldn’t make this stuff up.

broadside request for song about James Meredith

Dylan supposedly wrote the song in response to a request by the editor of Broadside for a song about Meredith’s plight.

Oxford Town is a wonderful song. It’s a shame that Dylan has only performed it live once, in Oxford, in 1990. Those interested in investigating the song further should seek out Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature.


Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town

Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien’?

Me and my gal, my gal’s son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don’t even know why we come
Goin’ back where we come from

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

1 thought on “Oxford Town”

  1. I looked into Meredith’s work for Helms, and a Wiki article quotes Meredith as saying that Helms was the only rep who would hire Meredith, after Meredith tried unsuccessfully to work for many others

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