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.