I think the first protest song I ever loved was Joan Baez’s version of Joe Hill. In it, a dead activist appears to the singer in a dream: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / Alive as you or me / Said I, ‘but Joe, you’re ten years dead’ / ‘I never died’ said he.” By the end of the song Hill (who was a real person, executed in the state of Utah in 1915 for a murder he probably didn’t commit) has come to stand for all workers who defend their rights against seemingly impossible odds.
So when I heard Dylan’s I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine from 1967’s John Wesley Harding, I was immediately curious. Apart from the almost identical first line, St. Augustine has a very similar melody to the older song, and its stark accompaniment (Dylan’s guitar and harmonica with simple bass and percussion behind it) seemed to belong to the world of rousing folk songs I knew. But St. Augustine is a different kind of song altogether.
Whereas Joe Hill ends with a call for the downtrodden to organize, St. Augustine is haunted by anxiety and sorrow. He is a messenger from another time, “alive with fiery breath”, and his apparently futile mission is to search “for the very souls / Whom already have been sold.” His complaint is that “no martyr is amongst ye now / That you can call your own.” In the third and final verse the singer becomes one of the crowd “who put him out to death.”
The shift from Joe Hill’s simple protest is decisive: it is as if Dylan had turned the protest song inside out, training the light that had exposed injustice “out there” in the world in on the listener. If St. Augustine remains enigmatic, the response of the crowd that kills him is not. The song ends on a note of bewilderment: “Oh, I awoke in anger / So alone and terrified / I put my fingers against the glass / And bowed my head and cried.”
What distinguishes St. Augustine from the protest music of its time is the fact that the singer includes himself in the outrage that is expressed. There is no sense that things could be better if we could unite against a common enemy, because the enemy is inside us.
That same prophetic anxiety pervades All Along the Watchtower, the most famous song from the album, in which businessmen, jokers, thieves, princes and barefoot servants once again suggest a spilling over of ancient characters and values into the bedeviled present. But for me even that song doesn’t chill the spine and stir the blood like the uncanny St. Augustine.
I wonder what Joe Hill would have made of it.