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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ain’t Working on ‘Maggie’s Farm’ No More: Dylan tops record charts; Specter breaks Republican hearts

I got a head full of ideas

That are drivin' me insane.
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

It’s been nearly 45 years since Bob Dylan stepped on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, electric guitar strapped across his back, and defiantly told the establishment that had made him a star, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

And while Dylan’s transition from the world’s most beloved folkie to full-blown cultural icon is now largely forgiven even by his most adamant detractors, at the time the chord Dylan struck was far from harmonious.

Dylan's landmark appearance at Newport was wedged between two long forgotten acts by the name of Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers. The fact that these two groups were so closely culled from the folk tradition only accentuated the disruption Dylan caused. So horrified was the crowd by Dylan’s now notorious 3-song set, that shortly after the band finished someone is reported to have shouted: "Bring back Cousin Emmy!"

Much in the same way Dylan’s performance at Newport took the folk movement by surprise, US Senator Arlen Specter’s unexpected decision last week to switch political affiliation shocked the Washington establishment.

Chances are slim there’ll be any cries to “Bring Back Uncle Arlen!” on the part of the Republicans, however.

In hindsight, the real disdain the folkies had toward Dylan back in 1965 wasn’t so much that he ‘went electric’ (“Like a Rolling Stone” was, after all, already at the top of the charts). It was the way in which he thumbed his nose at them in such a defiant way, and did so in such a public forum.

Similarly, Specter’s decision to announce his defection one day prior to Obama’s 100th day in office was hardly the sign of a wallflower. Like Dylan, Specter was given a stage and he used it to maximum benefit.

But let’s be honest. Just as the fans at Newport knew they weren’t going to be able to keep Dylan in their pocket forever, the Republicans had to have seen this coming. Back in February, Obama’s $787 billion dollar stimulus got a total of three Republican votes— and Specter was one of them.

Admittedly, politicians cross the aisle all the time to imbue their political capital. But to cross the aisle on that vote at that defining moment in Obama’s young presidency was clearly a telltale sign of things to come, especially considering Specter’s long history of political vacillation.

There’s no question Specter needs to replenish the capital in his waning political coffers. Polls show the Pennsylvania senator has the support of only 30% of the likely GOP voters in the 2010 primary. But why the seismic shift to the Left? Two words: Barack Obama.

Roughly 180,000 party moderates – the very people Specter needs to win the upcoming Republican primary – switched parties in 2008 to vote for Mr. Obama in the general election. As a result, Specter is seen (and probably accurately so) as a political dead man walking.

Dylan was at a strikingly similar point in his career when the Festival Committee asked him to headline Newport in 1965. Not that Dylan’s supporters had abandoned him— far from it. When Dylan walked out on stage that warm July night, he was at the top of his game— loved, admired and perfectly in tune with the times. But Dylan knew something his adorning fans didn’t. It was time to move on. Time to chart a new course. Time to explore a new direction. In short, it was time.

It’s one thing to reinvent yourself. As any observant Dylan aficionado knows (is there any other kind?), Dylan was inventing “Dylan” long before he ever got to Newport. Even politicians need a bit of reinvention from time-to-time. Lest we forget, Ronald Reagan—perhaps the most significant force in the Republican Party in the last 50 years—switched parties in 1962, claiming, “I did not leave the Democratic party, the party left me.” Sounds remarkably like the rationalization Specter has repeatedly given when pressed to do a little soul searching on why he’s thrown his lot with the Left.

But in the end, Specter’s defection to the Dems is no Newport. Dylan wasn’t closing the door to his legions of supporters; he was opening a new one. He wasn’t walking away from his admirers; he was inviting them to join him. And on the topic of introducing electric music and the years of controversy that followed, for Dylan, "It was honest." Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Pennsylvania politician. For Specter, it was all about self-preservation.

There’s no question the times in which we live are uncertain. And, as history has repeated shown, no one bears the brunt of these changing times more than our politicians and cultural icons.

Dylan opens his 3-song set at Newport with 'Maggie's Farm'.

Dylan was right. We really don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows; public opinion will do just fine…

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.
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