L’assassinat en 1955 d’Emmett Till, jeune Noir de 14 ans venu de Chicago pour passer des vacances dans le Mississippi, a largement contribué, par la vaste campagne politique qui s’en est suivie à mobiliser l’opinion des USA et à relancer la campagne pour les droits civiques. Bob Dylan a composé cette chanson fin 1961 ou début 1962 – il a alors vingt ans, et c’est la première chanson protestataire de sa plume. Il la chante pour la première fois en public en janvier 1962, et l’enregistre en 1963, mais elle est restée inédite jusqu’à ce que Columbia ne se mette à ressortir ses fonds de tiroirs…

C’est une des plus « à la Guthrie » des chansons du jeune Dylan. Il y raconte sobrement l’affaire, avec beaucoup de détails, sans pathos…


’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town walked in a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy you should all remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but disremember what
They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat
There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a blood red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie
He was a black skinned boy, so he was born to die

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear
To see the smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must cease to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow men
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live