Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #26: I Shall Be Free

It's hard not to like the fact that Dylan, as a capper to this fantastic album, slotted in "I Shall Be Free" over any other songs, sending off his album on a goofy, funny high note (and completely taking a left turn from the title, which suggests a "We Shall Overcome"-type hymn). "I Shall Be Free" sounds like it was recorded late one night, probably with some liquid courage, and not quite fully formed - you can hear Dylan pause at points, taking a dipper into his stream of consciousness, and coming up with Anita Ekberg and Willie Mays to flesh out some of the odder passages. Even for an album with a certain looseness (as previously mentioned, "Blowin' In The Wind", of all songs, has a brainfart that came perilously close to ruining the take), "I Shall Be Free" takes the cake, as Bob hoots and hollers at certain points and has occasional moments where he nearly busts out giggling. Thankfully, this song actually encourages that kind of loose ambiance, and the released take is a little richer for it.

"I Shall Be Free", in a lot of ways, is as dated a song as any on this album, which isn't the insult you might think it to be. After all, so much music ends up dated to begin with, even great songs tend to have elements that place it squarely in a certain era; think of Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and the wacky synthesizer noises plucked directly from a Janet Jackson album. And think about the context of this song - in an album stuffed to the brim with timeless, age-defying music, there are certainly going to be songs that slip through the cracks. You hear "I Shall Be Free", with its cultural references - not that MLK Jr. and Bridgette Bardot are dated references, but as they were uppermost on Bob's mind, it tells you pretty easy what year his mind was in - and its freewheeling prose (sorry, had to do it - I couldn't quite get past the album, could I?), and it's impossible to think of this song as anything other than a song of the 1960s.

It's interesting to note, though, that even for a song with this level of spontaneity, Bob still measures a certain amount of care and songcraft, making sure the song doesn't sound like a tossed-off piece of fluff. His eye for social mores still remains sharp, like the verse where he talks about a politician that "loves all kinds-a people", while eating different foods of ethnic nature (including chitlins - is that much different from current-day politicians trying to glad-hand minorities by adopting their various customs?). Ostensibly an off-kilter love song, Dylan inverts the traditional man-woman relationship by making him a drunken goon and her a rough-and-tumble lady that wears the pants and earns the checks (as a folk singer - now there's an audible wink to the audience if I ever heard one). He even manages a raunchy joke, where JFK asks him how to "make the country grow" and Bob rattles off the names of famous actresses, promising "country will grow!". Or, at least, I assume that's a raunchy joke; maybe my 21st century filthy mind is hearing something that isn't there. For my sake, let's hope not.

You never hear songs like this anymore, which also adds to the dated aspect, but speaks just as much to the ways that songwriting has evolved and changed over the past 40 years. Outside of, say, Weird Al or somebody like that, the art of humorous songwriting has more or less vanished since the 60s and 70s; this may or may not be a bad thing, but it's certainly something that has occurred. Part of it is our shifting tastes in music; after all, you also don't hear party records, or Motown-style pop (which saddens me greatly), or spoken-word records like Cassius Clay's album of poetry (which has its own whimsical cadences and language, almost like Dylan, to be honest). Part of it is the fact that songwriting, as it has matured from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to more confessional and broader based songs, tends to squeeze out the funnier elements in lyrics, simply because humor often doesn't belong there (Frank Zappa tried, with wildly mixed results). And part of it is simply that it's hard to write a song like "I Shall Be Free", especially if you're actually trying. They say that for actors, drama is hard, but comedy is much harder, due to the inherent nature of both genres - what makes us cry is often universal, but what makes us laugh is far less so. Any singer worth his or her salt can tug at our heart strings, but making us chuckle is a much tougher proposition; you can't really blame them for not bothering.

"I Shall Be Free" isn't a Dylan classic by any means, but it's a hoot to listen to, and a worthy choice as closer to the pinnacle of his acoustic period. After dealing with some weighty issues, taking us down highways of grief, of anger, of heartache, and of darkness, Bob decides to loosen up and show us that at the end of the day, he's got a smile on his face. The irony is that, come a few short months and a lifetime of progressive fame later, that smile is wiped clean off his face. Just take a look at his album cover.

And that's it for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan! Thank you so much to everybody that's reading and sticking with the blog - I hope that I sufficiently brought up enough interesting issues to do justice to an album that consistently asks its listeners to think, ponder, sympathize, and simply use the 10% of our brains allotted to us. In a few days, I'll be starting with The Times They Are A-Changin', an album of starkly different mood and many different themes; it isn't considered Dylan's "issues" album for nothing. I hope you'll stick around for that, as well.

To close things out, I'm simply going to paste the cover to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, as beautiful and just plain cool an album cover that's ever been created. It's a genuine work of art, and it seems like a fitting way to end my Freewheelin' series. Thank you all again, and see you in a few days!

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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, I am really enjoying this. I'm on for the ride..

Anonymous said...

does everybody get that the paint which fell on his head was black?...(what does one look like with black paint on one's face?)...& that he then had to sit, not in the tub, but in the BACK of the tub?...i just don't think many people catch on to what he's saying here...

Tony said...

Anonymous 1, thank you for the kind words.

Anonymous 2, thank you for pointing that out; I'd missed the significance as well. I wonder what "half prize" meant...

Tony said...

From a user at one of the Bob Dylan forums, an mp3 link to a Woody Guthrie song that served as inspiration for "I Shall Be Free":

"We Shall Be Free" by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Sonny Terry, from 1940

http://www.sendspace.com/file/0ndo86

Cody said...

Before buying "Freewheelin", I owned Highway 61 Revisted and The Essential Bob Dylan set. Neither of those albums really shows Dylan's humorous side much, so I was really surprised when I heard "I Shall Be Free". It's not as funny as the first time I heard it, but it always makes me laugh.

Can't wait for "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to be covered. It's not my favorite Dylan album by any means, but the songs are sure to have some interesting interpretation. I'll try to comment more; I've read every song blog, and really enjoy them.

Anonymous said...

to mr. tony...this is anonymous #2...from now on i'll call myself "zimfreud"...anyway, i think what he actually says is "half-price"...as a "black" he may have been charged less than the "white rate" for that service, & i think he's basically mocking the insanity of the situation & sort of enjoying the fact that he's been charged less, as if to say "screw you, you racist idiots, you can't get me down".

Tony said...

Thank you for the kind words, Cody! I actually started with Live 1966 - the hoopla surrounding the album's release drew me in, and I've never looked back. And Live 1966 has its humorous side, although it has very little to do with the lyrics. ;)

zimfreud, that does make more sense, and definitely fits in with the lyric. You've got a very good ear, sir!

Pete Shanks said...

For modern talkin' blues, check out Todd Snider -- e.g. Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues, admittedly a bit long in the tooth now. Snider is best when he's funniest (which is often) and live is likely to talk more than sing ... He has even written a song about the famous time Dylan threw Phil Ochs out of the car, and managed to make it sympathetic to both of them -- "Thin Wild Mercury" on The Devil You Know ...

Absolutely the "back of the tub" line is "half-price" -- in this and Oxford Town Dylan is preaching to the choir (racism/ridiculous) but there's a place for that.

Moose said...

I think the best modern day example of an artist trying to use a numerous approach to their music it's the beastie boys. Like Dylan, they often sung about serious issues and religion, but they always came back to that humor. It is no surprise, as I'm positive they were strongly influenced by Dylan and sampled him on occasion

Moose said...

That's humorous...