Happy Birthday Bob Dylan!
How Bob Dylan’s message in ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ applies to the investment business.
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying….
Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony
— Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)“
Arguably “It’s Alright, Ma” is the best written Bob Dylan song. It was written in 1964, covered by Roger McGuinn on the soundtrack for the 1969 movie Easy Rider and performed regularly by Dylan and The Band on the 1974 tour during the Watergate scandal.
The song is 20 stanzas long, and the rhyming, imagery and emotional depth are unparalleled. It is dark in content — a message from the mid-1960s, shedding light on society’s flaws.
The song starts with an apocalyptic tone, which was not only a recurring Dylan theme early in his work but it was also a sign of the times. The body of the song deals with the remorseless working of things — that whatever is wrong can’t be stopped. No doctrinaire optimism will turn the ship around by itself.
In the fifth stanza, Dylan relates how the actions of powerful people impacts us all.
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
In the first line below, Dylan sings that if you’ve read enough history and/or have been a keen enough observer of human nature, you kind of learn what to expect. The second line might be a warning to watch out for people’s partisan political agendas.
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it
He dishes it out to both optimists and pessimists and their partisanship hang-ups. Later, in the reference to the president of the United States, the minstrel reminds us that even the most powerful are fallible.
“Although the masters make the rules/For the wise men and the fools” points to the anger and disdain that Dylan has for policymakers. And “he not busy being born is busy dying,” used by President Carter in his 1976 acceptance speech for the Democratic Presidential nomination and also by Al Gore, means that powerful people will be judged.
Toward the end of “It’s Alright, Ma” Dylan submits that a life unexamined is an empty vessel and is not worth living.
Below is how I see Bob Dylan’s message in the song and its application to the investment business:
- Read enough history, Dylan relates, and you can learn what to expect in the future. (History and markets rhyme.) The song matches the massive importance we place upon our past and the events that have led us to where we are today and where we might be going into the future.
- Money has great influence, though sometimes its impact is perverse. Think of quantitative easing’s impact on markets, the growing schism between the haves and have-nots, and the threat of screwflation that poses risks ahead. (Note: The Fed’s legacy of Ben Bernanke might be judged harshly in the fullness of time.)
- The song does not express optimism in the possibility of political solutions. Think of our inert and partisan leaders in Washington and their unwillingness to address our cyclical and structural fiscal problems.
- We are all being fed a false picture of reality in terms of economic growth and corporate profit prospects. Think of the gap between rising P/E ratios and the lowly 10-year U.S. note yield.
- We shouldn’t live our investment lives with our heads down and our eyes closed. The investment masses are sometimes ignorant of the fate that awaits them. Think of being a contrarian.
- As Socrates wrote, “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Investors who don’t have a zest for knowledge are doomed to poor investment returns. If you invest without the ambition to garner as much information as possible, you will not likely succeed… “you’d just be one more/Person crying.”
While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in
P.S. — Hat tip to subscriber “jesusishere” for bringing up the idea of this column to me yesterday!