“To Live Outside the Law,
You Must Be Honest”:
Freedom in Dylan's Lyrics
Bob Dylan stands for an ideal of personal freedom. He (or his lyrical persona) won't stick around in a bad situation (“Don't Think Twice, It's All Right”), consent to be owned (“It Ain't Me, Babe”), be someone's boss (“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”), try to please (“It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) ”), answer reporters' clichéd questions, stick to folk songs, or work on Maggie's farm “no more.” There are many things he won't do: but what will he do? This is a lot of negativity: if he just keeps on keeping on, where will he end up?
Starting with Another Side of Bob Dylan, Dylan turned from overtly political songs to songs of a personal nature. At a 1966 concert, someone shouted: “Play protest songs!” Dylan answered: “Oh come on, these are all protest songs. Aw, it's the same stuff as always. Can't you hear?” Then he played “Ballad of a Thin Man. ”1 The “same stuff,” apparently, was an assertion of freedom. These self-expressive, iconoclastic songs, written against folky expectations, tend to harp on rejecting the influence of others—lovers, families, “everybody “who” wants you to be just like them” (“Maggie's Farm,” “To Ramona”).
Sometimes, in these songs, there is an allegory of the personal to the political (“Maggie's Farm”). Sometimes, Dylan takes a critical view of political protest, that it remains empty so long as it remains abstract (“My Back Pages”), and that the political
1 Mike Marqusee, Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art (New
York: The New Press, 2003), p. 199.