Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #41: I Shall Be Free No. 10

This is the kind of song where analysis seems almost besides the point; after all, there is a line in here that goes "Yippee! I'm a poet and I know it...hope I don't blow it". What in the world am I going to say about that? Basically, Dylan takes the chord structure for "Talking World War III Blues", sticks in a little harmonica blowing over a choppy guitar progression so that it isn't a straight ripoff, and gives us his version of a rap freestyle (even though I assume the lyrics were written at some point previous to recording - the notion that the whole thing was spontaneous is far too much to swallow). The song is basically a lark, through and through, with a few interesting lines to pick through and puzzle over. But that's what us Dylan fans do best, right?

Certain bits of the song amuse me on a surface level - Bob's attempt to tie this "I Shall Be Free" to the Freewheelin' version with an "I gotta woman, she's so mean" verse (complete with triple rhyme in the verse's final line), his over-counting in the Cassius Clay verse, and the fact that he actually uses the phrase "wowee!" at some point. The guy has a sense of humor, of course. Then there's other stuff that actually makes me think a little, that makes me think the song might not just be a piece of fluff he brought in because it gave him a chuckle. He does chuckle at the end anyway, an "aren't I clever?" chuckle, but you get what I'm saying.

For instance, there's the verse about his friend that "pretends to barf" when his name is brought up that makes me look askew, especially when he says "I got a million friends!" You wonder if he's talking about somebody specific, and who those "million friends" actually are. Then there's the very first verse, where he starts the whole song by saying "I'm just average, common too" and says that talking to him is no different than talking to us. Wonder what makes him say that...perhaps the fact that he was basically feted as the voice of a generation from his second album? And then there's that little dig he threw in at the end, where he says the song is "something I learned over in England", and if that's not a shot at someone, I don't know what is. He wouldn't slip that in unless he wanted to poke a little fun.

I suppose you could go through the whole song line by line like that if you so choose, kind of like how I had to explicate poems in high school (I sucked at that, if you couldn't guess), and try to spot the hidden meanings, the subliminal messages, and the coded stuff Dylan only wanted a few people to understand. Shit, people have been doing that to Blood On The Tracks for decades, probably because the raw emotion and staggering songcraft isn't enough for them and they want to REALLY make sure how exactly Dylan's sticking it to his ex-wife. There is a point where the analysis becomes too much, where we're picking over nothing but bones that have been picked over a million times. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

On the other hand, Dylan would certainly not be the first, nor the last person to insert these sorts of messages into his songs; in fact, his puckish sense of humor would almost demand it. And what the hey, it's fun to treasure hunt in Bob's lyrics. Some of the crazier shit practically begs us to spot the hidden meaning. And come on, this song's on Another Side for a reason, just like all of them are. It's not as amazing as "Chimes of Freedom", or as quietly semi-personal as "To Ramona", or as well-meaning as "Ballad of Plain D" (which, for its multitude of faults, is undeniably well-meaning), so there's got to be something else, right? I mean, right?

Maybe not. Maybe trying to spot meaning in this song, as with all songs by any artist, is because we as humans need to find logic in our lives, to understand the inexplicable, and to put a reason on something that might not actually have it. We do this with the big things in life (the search for a Supreme Being, our constant attempts to understand terrorism), as well as the small ones (just why exactly is it that hot dogs come in packs of eight, and hot dog buns in packs of six?). And we especially do it when confronted with something strange, out of the norm, difficult for our minds to compute. I'd say "I Shall Be Free No. 10" qualifies.

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Pete said...

"something I learned over in England" -- recorded at the height of the British Invasion! I don't think there's anything more to it than a good-humored poke at people who thought music was born in Liverpool.

Tony said...

I don't really think there's anything to it either, Pete; it's just that, given the crap Dylan took about "Scarborough Fair", there's the chance he took a little dig or wink or whatever at Martin Carthy and the traditional-minded crowd. Who knows, really?


Happy to have stumbled upon your blog. Since you are a fan, I thought I'd introduce you to my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which I think you'd enjoy.

It's a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven's door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture...

Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they're all characters in Bob's songs.

You can get a copy on or go "behind the tracks" at to learn more about the book.

Anonymous said...

just why exactly is it that hot dogs come in packs of eight, and hot dog buns in packs of six?)

That same question was asked in the now legendary catoon Animaniacs

Rob said...

It's just a modern rewrite of Ledbelly's "We shall be free.". Like all talking blues, its purpose is to entertain.

Anonymous said...

'Now you’re probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about
What’s probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for
It’s nothing
It’s something I learned over in England'

There's a pause and a guitar pattern after 'what this thing here is for' which I have always interpreted as 'You ask why if I'm a poet, I carry a guitar?'.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song. Contact us via the website as we are linking to your pages.