By the Way: Dear Landlord

by Lindy Davies

An interesting email thread recently has seen a bunch of our colleagues bringing up the Georgist-themed songs on their personal playlists. There are quite a few out there, in many styles — from the Isley Brothers’ classic “Harvest for the World,” to the Guess Who’s “Share the Land” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” There are even some movement-specific songs, such as “The Land Song” — and a whole catalogue of folksongs by Toby Lenihan. Send in your titles, and we’ll publish a list in our next issue.

Please don’t put a price on my soul
My burden is heavy
My dreams are beyond control
When that steam whistle blows
I’m gonna give you all I have to give
And I do hope you receive it well
Dependin’ on the way you feel that you live
Dear landlord
Please heed these words that I speak
I know you’ve suffered much
But in this you are not so unique
All of us, at times, we might work too hard
To have it too fast and too much
And anyone can fill his life up with things
He can see but he just cannot touch
Dear landlord
Please don’t dismiss my case
I’m not about to argue
I’m not about to move to no other place
Now, each of us has his own special gift
And you know this was meant to be true
And if you don’t underestimate me
I won’t underestimate you

Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” appeared on his 1967 album John Wesley Harding, which is chock-full of obscure references, a perennial favorite for Dylan-explicators. As befits Bob Dylan’s mystique, the song has layers of meaning, and, of course, there are many interpretations out there. The landlord being “Dear” has led some to interpret him as God; and the “too many, too fast and too much” section seems to criticize 20th-century plastic materialism. (It might also be worth mentioning that Bob Dylan’s songs are well-known for their many biblical references. In the Old Testament, the idolatrous Canaanites saw little difference between the Landlords — whom they called the Baals— and Divine Beings.)

But, “Dear…” is also the standard way of addressing a letter — or even starting to imagine a letter that one might write.

For what it’s worth, it seems to me that this song could have been written the day Dylan finished reading Progress and Poverty (and who knows? This was his first album after his famous motorcycle accident in 1966; perhaps he did have time to do some reading as he convalesced).

The narrator is a worker; he has to give his all when the factory whistle blows. But what kind of person is the landlord? It’s a mystery how he uses all that wealth he gets — will he benefit from it? ‘When he receives it, will it cheer him? It’s hard for a fellow like this to even know what a landlord wants, or what’ll make him happy: “the way that you feel that you live” is almost unimaginable to him.

Surely the boss, the rent-collector, is a person too, and has felt his share of pain — haven’t we all? But for the guy who’s making up these lines to the rhythm of his own mill-toil, it’s not easy to imagine what the boss is doing it all for. Maybe he buys mansions with the money he gets, sports cars, yachts, private jets — they are all tangible enough, but, do they mean anything? Can he touch them?

The last verse is where, to my mind, the song’s Georgist message comes clear. The worker ain’t about to argue, because he has no options — what other place is there for him to move to? Yet in the end — just as someone inspired by Henry George’s vision might be inclined to — he seeks not to obliterate the boss-man but to understand him. Now, of course, this line shouldn’t be read without sarcasm; after all, what chance will he ever get to learn what makes the boss-man tick? Yet, this patient revolutionary manages to have the greatness of mind to condemn not the individual, but the social role in which he finds himself. “If you weren’t a landlord,” he seems to say, “we might find we have a lot in common.” But as things are, if I have to pay you for my right to a spot on this Earth, then you really have “put a price on my soul,” haven’t you?

A postscript: Woody Guthrie was Bob Dylan’s idol. Woody’s This Land Is Your Land is an all-time favorite. But I was pleased to run across the following line in one of Guthrie’s children’s songs, Why Oh Why: “Why does the landlord take money? Why oh why oh why? I don’t know that one, myself! Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye”

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