Union Sundown: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

By Tony Attwood

For this review I’ve been listening to the version of the song on Infidels and a singularly different version on You Tube recorded at The Warfield 1992.  

I have to say I am not sure what Dylan was about with this live version – far from adding anything to the song it seems to me to distract.    There is also a version by David Albion which I found so horrible I could only listen to about 10 seconds before stopping it, so I am not providing a link

Thus it is the album version for me.   A rollicking rock blues sung with the sort of echo chamber that I’ve rarely encountered beyond rock records of the late 1950s.  But it works really well – the great demagogue with his megaphone standing before the crowd telling them what’s what.

The music is a simple rotation of A and G chords through the verse, with that glorious guitar rock lick going on behind.  In the chorus we move across to rotating D to A chords with an E to A to round it off.

I think we’ve heard Dylan talking about the need to help the workers through protectionism before, although at this moment I can’t remember where.  But being English I come from a different tradition – although curiously at this moment we have our rampant protectionists too, the political party: the United Kingdom Independence Party.   They are doing quite well, and at the time of writing have just got their first MP.  If I say they are the total antithesis of everything I believe in, then you’ll know where I am from the start.

For me this is one of those songs where I love the music, even though, largely because of where I live and my upbringing, I can’t sympathise at all with protectionism.  For me, the fault is not that we buy from around the world – I want to do that, and I want the workers who create the shoes, clothes and computers I buy to be well paid and get ever higher standards of living.  Naive of course but that’s what I want.

But there’s an enormous kick at the end of the song.  I still can’t work out if there is additional meaning there, or it is just a few lines to make up the last verse.  I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Where the UK and perhaps the US has gone wrong (and as a UK citizen I do not want to start saying that I know what’s what in any other country) is through going for the global economy, but meanwhile not delivering a good enough education system at home, so that our citizens can take on the jobs not covered by poorer countries.  Like developing anti-gravity devices, providing energy without carbon emissions, giving everyone healthy food and plentiful water…

So I come from a different place from Dylan on this one, but that doesn’t spoil my enjoyment.  For once it is a political protest song that I mostly don’t agree with but so what.  Yes of course I am against greed, but greed and capitalism are one of a kind, for the most part.  For every Victorian philanthropist that we had, we had a dozen mine owners who paid their workforce the lowest possible wage and kept the guard dogs around them should anyone have the temerity to ask for an extra penny.  And with the mine owners and the like backed by the government – just look at Winston Churchill as Home Secretary taking on the miners and using the troops to put down the strikes in 1910.

In one sense, irrespective of his political views, Dylan is therefore being simplistic in the song.   In a free market capitalist economy companies will outsource production to provide cheaper goods and more profit and capitalist governments will support them.  By making their goods cheaper the firms get more sales, and consumers buy the cheaper goods and governments get voted back in.  If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have sustained itself.

Anyone who wants to by pass imported goods can certainly do that, although in the UK that is slightly more complicated, because (at least for now and I hope for a long time to come) the UK is part of the European Union, which means there are no import duties on anything traded within the Union.  So we export and import across Europe without trade barriers – and about half our trade is done this way.

Well, my shoes, they come from Singapore
My flashlight’s from Taiwan
My tablecloth’s from Malaysia
My belt buckle’s from the Amazon
You know, this shirt I wear comes from the Philippines
And the car I drive is a Chevrolet
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy makin’ thirty cents a day

But where I fall out with Dylan here is in the area where he suggests that the problem is not just that of big corporations, but with ordinary people in supermarkets and on line who will buy what is best – often cheapest – for them.  We do have “fair trade” products but an awful lot of people go for the lowest price, no matter what.

So for myself the key is in the last line of that first verse.  The question is what do we do about the poverty created by this sort of global market – poverty within a country that we have no control over.  What do we do about this by-product of global capital?

Of course if you want to protect jobs in your own country you should buy products made in your own country – but the person living on less than a living wage says, “how can I?  I don’t have the money”.  So the cycle continues.

And so the simplicity of the verse

Well, you know, lots of people complainin’ that there is no work
I say, “Why you say that for
When nothin’ you got is U.S.–made?”
They don’t make nothin’ here no more

is the core of the song.   In the end therefore I guess my problem comes back over and over with that chorus

Sure was a good idea
’Til greed got in the way

No, I doubt capitalism was ever a good idea.  It was just the idea that made some people in the USA and the UK very rich.

But I do like the way Dylan has a bash at the trade unions.  Trade unions in the UK have developed in a very different way from the unions in the USA, as far as I know, and those that are left are still hanging on in the UK, are still doing a good job for their members protecting against employers who play the dirty tricks like trying to change contracts without agreement on both side, and then trying to avoid redundancy payments.

And so Dylan finally moves on …

Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid

This almost seems like part of another song, not really connected with the main thrust of the argument about global trade.  When I first listened I remember wanting Dylan to go further with this, but somehow he just didn’t want to.

Certainly all the years since would seem to boost this point in these four lines.  If only Bob had left these lines for another song, and then developed it fully what a song that might have been.   Masters of War: Looking back from the wreckage.

Index to all the songs reviewed.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Union Sundown: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

  1. James says:

    I think this song is a bit more complex than it appears at first glance. As he does elsewhere he takes a sentiment and bangs at it from every angle. So he starts with a lament on the lack of domestic manufacturing. And really a lament is all it is. He doesn’t say that the /government/ should do anything about it. He doesn’t even say that its wrong for the woman to have that job at “thirty cents a day for a family of twelve”.

    On the third verse he starts going at causes. And the first person he goes at are the American consumers. “There’s no work for you? You wonder why? Look at the stuff you bought.” He doesn’t really blame businesses or capitalism. That’s just the way it is. “Capitalism is above the law. If you’re not buying it when they make it here, they’ll make it somewhere else.”

    Then he goes after the unions themselves that care more about the bottom line than jobs or the well-being of the largest amount of workers. And he goes after them for supporting regulation. Dylan shows remarkable economic acuity by recognizing that Farm jobs are manufacturing jobs as well. And he blames the unions for supporting over regulation and environmental NIMBYism:

    “They used to grow food in Kansas
    Now they want to grow it on the moon and eat it raw
    I can see the day coming when even your home garden
    Is gonna be against the law”

    Again, the last first doesn’t offer any answers. It just says what it as Dylan sees it.
    “You say globalization is the answer, but every country in the world isn’t a free market. They’re tyrannies that might use slave labor. And just as poor people in other countries will do whatever they have to to put food on the table, the same is here for workers are against globalization.”

    This song is about emotion of a man from a certain populist POV. There’s not a lot of public policy in it. So, yeah, a Free Market makes more people happy most of the time. Yes, it is not necessarily in the interest of Americans to manufacture everything they use locally (or even at all). It’s not a good idea to engage this song at that level.

  2. Shabtai Shacham says:

    Hi Tony
    I think one should not approach this song ( or any Dylan song) as an economics essay.
    Dylan is feeling and expressing the hardships and the injustice caused by globalization and capitalism.
    If I am not wrong , in the time the song was written 1983- the word or the term “globalization” did not even exist.
    Also, you can look at this song as a prophecy about the 2008 markets meltdown , caused by unrestrained greed .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *