Karl Young
Karl Young

I Pity the Poor Immigrant
Writer: Bob Dylan
Mark Bittner: vocal
Bruce Kaphan: harmonium
Karl Young: shakuhachi

Eventually fate led me out to the street, where I spent the next 13 to 14 years. I first started singing “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” during the early part of the time when I was sleeping on the street. I’d quit playing music, but occasionally I’d go to where I had my guitar stashed, take it down to City Lights Bookstore and play for change. It was a desperate period for me. I thought of the song as being about the seeker who’d made a start down the path, but wished he’d never done so after discovering just how hard the journey was. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” was one of the first songs I recorded—just voice and guitar. I ended up wanting more music on the track than just my guitar and voice, so Bruce Kaphan played simple harmonium and tambourine parts. That was going to be it until one day I heard a shakuhachi player at an art opening. The shakuhachi is a Japanese flute that’s capable of a lonely, haunting sound. I thought it would be perfect for “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” I introduced myself to the player, Karl Young, who turned out to be a very interesting man. Besides being an expert shakuhachi player, he’s also a nuclear physicist and Zen Buddhist. Karl was willing to record and improvised a beautiful accompaniment. Later, we brought in Joe Kyle Jr. on acoustic bass.

After the session with the shakuhachi, Bruce bounced out the day’s work to me, sending it to me across the Internet. But there was a glitch somewhere, and all I received was the harmonium and shakuhachi parts. No voice, no guitar. What I heard was impossibly sad and mournful. Those two instruments working together created a tremendous sorrow. It brought tears to my eyes when I heard it. I loved it so much that I kept the mistake and listened to it over and over. One day I realized that this is the version that works best for me. It should be just my voice, the harmonium, and the shakuhachi. So once I can get back into the studio I’m going to record a new vocal and leave out the other instrumentation (guitar, bass, and tambourine). Provided I can come up with a vocal that complements the beauty of the shakuhachi and harmonium, it will give the song the special quality I was seeking in the first place.