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“Persecution Smith”

September 9, 2010

My previous post featured “Positively Wall Street,” a Dylan parody by Christopher Guest []. 

The song I’ve chosen for this post—“Persecution Smith”—is also “Dylanesque,” and it raises the issue:  how do you differentiate between a parody, an hommage, and an imitation?

Based on their definitions, the distinctions seem fairly clear:

  • Parody is “a humorous or satirical imitation of a serious piece of literature or writing… a burlesque imitation of a musical composition.”1
  • Hommage (French for “homage”) is “tribute paid to an artist, writer, composer, etc., as by incorporating some characteristic idiom or style of the person in one’s own work.”2
  • Imitation is “an instance or product of imitating, such as a copy of the manner of a person; impression.”3

Intention is what distinguishes the terms—are you trying to make fun of someone, are you demonstrating your admiration for the person, or are you just ripping them off?

But how do you know what a performer’s intention is?  Anyone hearing Guest sing the line “I’m up to my knees in cow shit” could obviously tell it’s a parody (if being part of a National Lampoon production hadn’t already tipped them off).  However, the artist’s intent isn’t always that clear—which brings me back to “Persecution Smith.”  Where on the parody-hommage-imitation continuum does this song fall?  Normally, I identify the performer upfront, but in this instance, I want you to guess who he is.  Please resist the temptation to Google it before you listen; I think you’ll be surprised.

From 1966, it’s Persecution, Persecution, “Persecution Smith.”

Parody, hommage, or imitation?  I’m inclined to say “All of the above.”

Musically, it’s a knock off of Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues.”  The high-pitched “Morse Code” guitar part at the beginning and ending of the song is reminiscent of Dylan’s harmonica; the other guitar fills sound similar to Mike Bloomfield’s playing on that song .

Lyrically, it’s all over the map.  The name Persecution Smith is a play on Dylan’s Mr. Jones (from “Ballad of a Thin Man”) and, as in that song, the singer is pointedly putting him down and mocking him—though who exactly this object of scorn is gets pretty muddled:  he’s ambushing the mailman, watching protest marches, and at the Watts riots.  And what’s up with the “My Friend Flicka” reference?

The point of the song only comes together in last verse:

“When you’re finished with your ideals,
And you’re finished with your dreams.
When you’re finished your crusading and no longer hear the screams.
When you’re finished trying to picture a world with people free.
When you’re finished looking up and the down is all you see.
Then make your goal the first foxhole,
And hide your head beneath your bed.
’Cause you won’t be alone my friend, you know who you’ll be with —
With Persecution, Persecution, Persecution Smith.”

Not remotely equal to Dylan, but okay for a struggling 21-year old musician in Detroit.  And that musician was…

Bob Seger.  “Persecution Smith” was one of 5 singles released in 1966-67 by the group Bob Seger and the Last Heard.  They all sold moderately well in Michigan, but it would take 10 more years before he achieved massive commercial success with his album Night Moves.  

I first heard “Persecution Smith” on public radio station KCRW.  From 1984 to 1988, they broadcast a fantastic comedy and music program called The Cool and the Crazy.  It was the brainchild of Gene Sculatti (a.k.a Vic Tripp) and Ronn Spencer (a.k.a Art Fraud).  For several weeks, they had a contest called “Battle of the Bob Dylans,” where they would play 2 songs by artists emulating Dylan and have listeners phone in to vote for which they liked better.  One night they pitted “Public Execution” by Mouse and the Traps (which I knew from the Nuggets compilation) and “Persecution Smith.”  “Public Execution” won and the hosts theorized that Seger lost in part because he had become mainstream (and thus was viewed as uncool by KCRW’s audience).  You can hear one of their “Battle of the Bob Dylan” contests (though not the one with “Persecution Smith”) online:

In 2000, Gene Sculatti wrote an article called The All-Time Top 10 ‘Next Dylans’: Monkee, Punkers, Bubblegum King: They Wished That For Just One Time They Could Stand Inside His Shoes.4  Bob Seger didn’t make his list that time—probably because, whatever you think of his music, “Persecution Smith” was his only Dylanesque song. 


From → The 1960's

  1. Patty Birk permalink

    What a great post – I am so glad that you include me on your mailing list. I am passing these on to another friend who enjoys them also. I’m loving being introduced to some of these artists that somehow escaped me all those many years ago.

    Hope you are doing well!

  2. Jim Laffan permalink

    “Bob Dylan with his raunchy harmonica and Ernest Tubb voice raunching and rheuming in the old jack-legged chants…in huge volume from out of the speakers up in the redwood tops on the dirt cliff across the highway.”

    And all these years, I’ve thought it was him spoofing US. If you can’t bullshit a bullshitter, can you parody a parodist? Something’s happening here but I just don’t know what it is…

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