Bob Dylan’s recorded “George Jackson”, released as a single but never on an album, on November 4, 1971 and it was released eight days later. Jackson was killed in Soledad Prison on August 21 of that same year. Like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio”, the song was a quick turnaround on an issue of contemporary importance – Jackson’s killing was one of the sparks of the Attica Prison riots.
The circumstances of Jackson’s death are complicated, and it would seem almost inconceivable that a song like “George Jackson” would be recorded today. Jackson was sentenced at eighteen years of age to a year to life in prison for robbing a gas station, and in prison he became radicalized, turning to Marxism, Maoism, and eventually becoming a member of the Black Panthers. He wrote extensive letters to people outside of prison, and those letters were collected into well-received books. I read “Soledad Brother” when I was about twenty and when I was fascinated by the fragmentation of the counter-culture into increasingly militant organizations, but I have to admit that I don’t have any really clear memories of it today.
Jackson was shot by guards during a confrontation that led to the deaths of three guards and two prisoners just days before he was to go on trial for the murder of a different guard. The facts of the case are wildly disputed, with many arguing that he was set up for assassination, and others noting that he was in possession of a handgun in the prison and that he may have killed several guards. Clearly he was a much more divisive figure than someone like Reuben Carter, a prisoner about whom Dylan would also write later in the 1970s, who was clearly a much more conventionally sympathetic figure. For his return to topical songwriting Dylan did not pick an easy topic upon which there would be unanimity.
The song itself, I just learned today actually, was released in two versions. There was a full band version with back-up singers as the A-side, and a solo acoustic version was the B-side. I’ve been listening to the B-side all week as that is the one that is included on the CDs of non-album bits in The Complete Album Collection. You can hear the full version here.
I greatly prefer the stripped down acoustic version, as the other one sounds sort of needlessly over-produced to my ears. The song is a bit odd in its construction by Dylan terms, with the very short two line verses and the repeated two line choruses. I also have to wonder if this was the first song to break into the US Top 40 (it peaked at #33) that uses a clearly enunciated word “shit”? I don’t know the answer to that at the moment.
The most interesting thing about the song is that it marked a full-blown return by Dylan to political and topical song-writing, six years after he gave that up. I’d be curious to know if playing The Concert for Bangladesh played any role in that, or if it’s a mere coincidence. Having listened to the acoustic version all week, I was surprised that the song hadn’t ever received more attention, particularly among fans who felt he’d betrayed the topical song movement. Now that I understand that that was the B-side it makes more sense, because while the A-side is topical, it’s also so highly produced that it would be hard for the remaining folkies to get into it.
Here’s Joan Baez doing a very folk version, as she always does: