I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Commentary

David Pichaske, author of Songs of the North Country, writes: “It [Pity] is the finest song on John Wesley Harding, tightly structured, ordering each of its stanzas in a series of parallel phrases, using rhetorical parallelisms within those phrases.”

immigrantsThere are similarities between I Pity the Poor Immigrant and I Am a Lonesome Hobo.  Like the hobo,  the immigrant is portrayed in a very negative way.  The hobo is “deceitful” as well as a thief. The immigrant is a cheat and liar. The hobo is not the lovable, carefree hero of the song Woody Guthrie made famous, Hobo’s Lullaby, and the immigrant is not the sympathetic fruit picker of Guthrie’s Deportees.

The song seems to be a warning to those contemplating major changes in their life with the sole aim of improved economic conditions. The lyrics warn that such a strategy will fail in the long run, that it will “shatter like the glass”.  Wilfred Mellers, author of A Darker Shade of Pale, suggests the song “points a crooked finger at the American Dream“.

Some commentators have suggested the song may have it’s roots in Dylan’s own family’s experiences, given that his father was the son of an immigrant. Others have suggested that his manager at the time, Albert Grossman, played a role, himself the son of an immigrant. Robert Shelton, author of No Direction Home, suggests that all of us are immigrant or exiles from the Gates of Eden. Others think that Dylan might be talking to himself, accusing himself of dishonesty as he made a name for himself  in the commercial music business, a continuation of  I Am a Lonesome Hobo.

The author of  an article in the Journal of Kerbala University has an interesting take.

People are unwilling immigrants in the land of living, exiled from paradise and placed into the broken happy temporal world where people must  struggle against the temptations to do evil and instead choose to do good…….

The godless hate their lives, and trapped in a choice between two forms of torture, fear and death as well. Dylan, in this poem, talks about the immigrant who worships money and, God laments, “turns his back on me.” Then, after reviewing their mistakes the immigrant makes, Dylan speaking as God ending with “I pity the poor immigrant/ When his gladness comes to pass.” Here, it is a suggestion of a harsh judgment to come drains the expressed pity of mercy…….

Indeed, the poem is told from God’s point of view. It is about those who disobey. Dylan sings for God and sends a warning. ” I pity the poor immigrant/ Who wishes he would’ve stayed home”,  In these lines God expresses pity; then the rest of the song is only a repetitive invocations of pity, talking in detail about how the immigrant uselessly disobeys, how he uses every power to cheat and lie without benefit; loneliness is the only result. The godless hate their lives, and trapped in a choice between two forms of torture, fear and death as well.

Like most of the songs on John Wesley Harding, I Pity the Poor Immigrant is full of biblical references.

Dylan: “Whose strength is spent in vain…..”

Leviticus 26:19: “I will make your heaven like iron.”

Dylan: Whose heaven is like Ironsides.”

Leviticus 26:19: “I will make your heaven like iron.”

Dylan: “Who eats but is not satisfied”

Leviticus: 26:26 “Though you eat, you shall not be satisfied”

Of course, it’s very well documented that early in his career Dylan often borrowed tunes from old folk ballads. The borrowing, often called the “folk process”,  was very common at the time and not at all exclusive to Dylan. Dylan stopped adapting old melodies for his songs after The Times They Are A’Changin’.

bonniedobsonThis practice made a brief reappearance here though. The melody is borrowed from the old folk tune Come All Ye Tramps and Hawkers.  Shelton notes that Dylan may have remembered the tune from one of his early sixties Greenwich Village contemporaries, Bonnie Dobson, who frequently performed the ballad Peter Amberley which uses the same melody. Interestingly,  Peter Amberly, is also about an immigrant’s journey that ends badly. Dobson had a hit with her song, Misty Dew Morning Dew, which has been covered by many artists, including Robert Plant.

Dylan played it for the first time at the Isle of Wright Festival, and hasn’t done it again since 1976, during the Rolling Thunder tour. I prefer the original, by far.

Gene Clark of The Bryds fame gave it a go.

So did Ricky Havens.

Also gospel singer Marion Williams.

And of course Joan Baez.


LYRICS

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev’ry breath
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death
I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain
Whose heaven is like Ironsides
Whose tears are like rain
Who eats but is not satisfied
Who hears but does not see
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me
I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass

3 thoughts on “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”

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