IN 1967, Bob Dylan and the musicians who were about to become The Band spent a few months lazing around and playing music, mostly in a big pink house in Saugerties, New York State.

They were recuperating from an infamously tough world tour. The singer had endured a bad motorbike accident. The troupe, therefore, set about relaxing with all means available.

The recordings they made were rough and ready. Some were little better than drunken pranks; some were among the best things Dylan had done. The point was that he chose not to care one way or another. The entire bootlegging industry was founded on those "basement tapes". Some of the songs have been covered since by hundreds of artists. Yet for decades Dylan dismissed the entire exercise.

You could call that his prerogative. After all, by 1967, just 26, he had already rewritten the book where songwriting was concerned. But who composes something like - if there is something like - I Shall Be Released and ignores his own creation?

Dylan did just that. While everyone from The Band to Elvis to Nina Simone was having a crack at his anthem, he suppressed the original recording until 1991. When he did tackle one of his most famous works it was as filler, an afterthought, for a greatest hits collection. On that occasion, with typical insouciance, he messed around with lyrics that no-one else dared to disturb.

Dylan has always been blasé about his fecundity. It is - and he knows it - part of the legend. Blowin' In the Wind, in his tale, was the work of a few minutes. But long before I Shall Be Released he had developed a horror of protest, politics and "anthems". These days he will tell interviewers that he's "not a voting man". He will sneer at political types. Yet if he once speaks approvingly of someone he calls "Barack", news stories will travel the world. And he hates it.

That's fine for Dylan, less useful those who would like to see some "light come shining" in their political darkness. Tomorrow, if you have £101.99 to spare, he'll let you have those old Saugerties recordings on six CDs - a truncated version commands a rational price - and be asked not to wonder why ancient home recordings could command such a tag. Dylan these days is a global multimedia enterprise. He doesn't do protest. He certainly doesn't bother to justify his prices.

The fact is that he was a singer of protest for the briefest of moments. He was disenchanted with the job, in fact, long before he appalled the folk establishment with pop songs and electric guitars in 1965. The fact contains an irony. He was good at those anthems; he was the best. He was of his generation and felt the need for Blowin' In The Wind, A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall, With God On Our Side, When the Ship Comes In, Chimes Of Freedom and a lot more besides.

In 1967, something in him felt a need for I Shall Be Released. It remains the most universal - whatever that means - of his songs. It has spoken of and for political prisoners - and all hostages to human fortune - since it was written. The first version, the one preserved on that £101.99 The Basement Tapes Complete, aches with a yearning for liberty. But Dylan would be the last person to vouch for the description.

Political folk cured him of politics. He had barely earned a reputation as a protest singer when he began a one-man protest against the "spokesman of a generation" label. First, he grew impatient with radicals instructing him on the causes he should support. Then he grew profoundly uneasy over the notion that any song should - or could - tell anyone what to think or why.

These things can go badly wrong, as Dylan knew better than many fans. In 1967, while he caroused in that basement, the US was deep in the blood and mud of Vietnam. A lot of people were demanding that Dylan "speak out". He refused. His sole response was to ask one interviewer, teasingly, why it was assumed that he was against the war. Art, he seemed to say, doesn't take sides. For those who wanted art to articulate their beliefs, this was cold comfort.

One part of Dylan's point has been borne out often enough. We Shall Overcome, that anthem of anthems adapted by Pete Seeger, might be associated inextricably with the civil rights movement. These days anyone with a grievance feels entitled to assure themselves that sooner or later they will "overcome" whatever their problem happens to be.

In essence, a political song can be one of three things. It can be entirely contemporary and therefore as enduring as yesterday's newspapers. It can be vague to the point of meaninglessness, like John Lennon's Give Peace A Chance or Imagine. But once in a while, if art enters the argument, it can rise above "issues". It can be Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land or, better, I Shall Be Released.

There's still no guarantee crass political types won't engage in misrepresentation (or sheer stupidity). In the mid-1980s, fans of Bruce Springsteen - not to mention the singer himself - were aghast to hear Ronald Reagan invoke Born In The USA and pass off bitter words on Vietnam's aftermath as a hymn to traditional conservative virtues. One irony ensued: Springsteen protested with all his might.

There is little enough of politics in popular song today. Given the usual state of the world, that's more than mysterious. Fans can point you to this or that track denouncing globalisation or prejudice, but nothing has caught the public imagination in the manner of the Special AKA's Free Nelson Mandela, now three decades old. The corporate types on whom the music industry depends are happy enough with songs for charity. Politics, real politics, is regarded with suspicion.

We saw as much during the referendum campaign. The Proclaimers have never hidden their support for independence. Their 1988 song, Cap In Hand, set out their beliefs precisely. Yet when the song raced up the download charts in September it did so with little radio airtime. The BBC, conspicuously, was less than keen to have politics confused with entertainment. An assumption about the proper purpose of music was made.

This year's MTV Europe Music Awards have a new category honouring songs "with a message". Beyoncé's Pretty Hurts, or Arcade Fire's We Exist, are noble efforts. But MTV's brainwave has an insidious subtext. It asserts that most music doesn't say anything at all; that "a message", of protest or not, must be corralled in a category of its own. Even the word "politics" is a little strong, it seems, for the organisers.

That might only reflect a world in which the business of politics is held in disrepute, in which activism is expressed in single-issue campaigns, in which consumerism - the music industry's reason to exist - is all. A protest song, in the old sense, implies community. We have forgotten what that means. In the 21st century, release from amnesia would count as liberty.