Karl Young
Karl Young

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

Its Inclusion

After I gave up on my ambition to make it as a musician, I sometimes played on the street to feed myself. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” was one of the songs I would sing. I was in the pit of despair, afraid that I was not going to survive the streets, and I saw this song as speaking to that. The song makes particular sense if you understand the immigrant as the seeker who, when the inevitable difficulties arrive, regrets having started the journey.

The Recording

This version of “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is a happy accident. It was one of the very first songs we recorded, when the idea was to record just voice and acoustic guitar. It sounded empty to me, so I asked Bruce to add harmonium, a small organ played by pushing bellows with one hand and chording with the other. Then Bruce added a minimal bit of tambourine. I thought it was finished, but wasn’t very excited about it.

Not long after that I heard a band at an art opening. One of the musicians, Karl Young, was playing a shakuhachi, a wooden Japanese flute. It has a mournful, mystical sound, and I thought it would be a perfect addition to the song. Karl agreed to come to the studio, and his improvisation came out great. Later, we added a string bass. Then a miracle occurred: Bruce sent me a mix of all the parts, but something went wrong. All I received was the harmonium and shakuhachi. Nothing else got transferred. I loved the sound of the two instruments together. It brought me close to tears. To make a long story short: we dropped all the other instrumentation, and I did a new vocal. While it’s nothing like how I used to sing it on the street, it recreates the sorrow and fear I felt at the time.

To watch a YouTube video I made of the song, click here.