Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #57: It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but one thing I enjoy having in my life are little rituals, things I do as a matter of course throughout the day, whether it's how I do my exercising, how I conduct myself at a gaming table, or just the way that I eat breakfast. There's something comforting about a ritual, even though it's a strictly illogical comfort; there's no particular reason for anyone to do anything of that sort. We all know about sports fans that will wear the same clothes during a playoff run, sit in the same chairs, eat the same food, even cross their legs or arms the exact same way. And, if you asked those people, they would probably admit that, deep down, they know that all that rigamarole does nothing to help their team win. But it makes them feel better, helps them cope with something that is beyond their control by doing things that are in their control, and that's the really important part. That's how those rituals work, when you get down to it; doing the things you know you can do help you deal with things you may not be able to do. At least, that's what I tell myself.

In my first year of college, I attended a class on European history from 1800-1945 or thereabouts. As it turns out, we didn't quite get to 1945, as the class pacing was a bit too leisurely and the course ended somewhere around Triumph of the Will; but that's neither here nor there. As it happens, this semester coincided with my Dylan fandom slowly burgeoning into Dylan obsession, and from that came a little ritual that (at least, I think) helped me get into the proper mindset for learning about this weighty subject. Before every lecture I attended, I'd pop Bringing It All Back Home into my Discman (ah, the B.I. - Before iPod - era), cue up "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)", and listen the whole way through before entering the lecture hall. If I got there early enough, I'd listen twice. And this ritual of mine helped steer me to a B+ for the class (well, that and my already ingrained interest in history), one of the few courses where I actually reached those glorious heights. One wonders how many other classes I could have done as well in if I'd simply chosen a Dylan song to listen to before those; alas, that question will never have an answer.

Now, I'm sure you all have the same question (other than "you're a little strange, aren't you?") - "why that Dylan song?" And, believe it or not, I have an answer for you. Every time I hear "It's Alright, Ma", I feel something weighty, something important, coming out of my speakers, a song that could actually match the massive importance we place upon our past and the events that have led us to where we are today. I'm drifting into very deep waters of pretentiousness here, but I think I have at least the ghost of a point; who amongst us hasn't heard this song and marveled at just how incredibly, mind-blowingly deep the song is, or at least feels like? How can you not hear lyrics like "he not busy being born is busy dying", or the one about the President (more on that in a second), or "while one who sings with his tongue on fire/gargles in the rat race choir", without feeling that Dylan is singing about something that speaks to each and every one of us, touching on the machinations of our lives, what we deem to be important and what truly is important, and making sense of what so many others have tried to make sense of but failed? Isn't history, which shapes our lives even though it's already happened, something like that? How do we learn from the past unless we're taught about it? And how do we make sense of ourselves without somebody lending a hand to all of us?

We all remember that famous moment on Before the Flood when Dylan, singing "It's Alright, Ma" as the closer of his acoustic sets, gets to the line about the President standing naked, and the audience explodes in applause. After all, this was in the thick of Watergate, as Richard Nixon's doomed Presidency slowly spiraled towards his undignified resignation, and every single person knew exactly what Dylan was talking about in that particular moment, with that particular line. But there are probably a few of you that haven't heard modern Bob concerts, and I will admit that it's been a while since I heard any 2000-era Dylan shows and my memory may be a bit foggy, but I still recall that around 2002 or 2003, especially as the Iraq war drew closer to and eventually became reality, Dylan would play "It's Alright, Ma", hit that line, and the crowd would inevitably explode into cheers and applause. Not only does that show you the power of Dylan's words stretching across generations, but it also shows you just how history works sometimes. The faces may change, but the feelings don't.

"It's Alright, Ma", as I hear it, is a song about feelings, and emotions - one man's reaction to the strangeness of the world enveloping him, with its hypocrisies and evils small and large, and his attempt to find a small candle of light in all that darkness. As brilliant as the line about the President is, it's always been the line before that's stuck with me more - "and goodness hides behind its gates". Whatever interpretation you give this song, including the notion that Dylan's telling his audience his new approach to songwriting or whatever, you cannot deny that the vision he's spinning is a dark one indeed. Everywhere you turn is something new and horrifying - advertisements that tell you lies, people that only want to drag you down to their depths, those that wish to force their morals down your throat even though there's no truth in them. And yet, somehow, there's light to be found - that "trembling, distant voice, unclear" of someone reaching out to you, a tacit reminder that no matter how alone and confused we may feel, there's somebody that feels the exact same way, and wants just as badly as you to find someone to share their feelings with. And Dylan, who I feel has always been a romantic at heart, allows us to have hope, reminds us that there's nothing and nobody that we belong to, and in the end can break his bonds and say "what else can you show me?", thumbing his nose at everything he holds in contempt. And if he can do that, you can do it too.

What makes this song so enduring, other than just how amazing his words are, is the message those words carry, summed up in that final verse and in the last line: "it's alright,'s life and life only". Dylan never denies that those evils exist in the world, nor does he say that we will ever be rid of them; that's not realistic, and we all know that. But, ultimately, because we know that doesn't mean that we have to be slave to anything, any evils, or any masters, and that we don't have to live our lives with our heads down and our eyes closed. We can, if we want to, push back and say "what else ya got?", and let the world know that we can take anything it dishes out. Dylan, in fifteen astounding verses, captured a feeling that people have had for eons, a feeling that has, yes, helped make history. He sang "it's alright, Ma, I can make it", and sometimes I am inclined to really, truly believe him.

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rob! said...

nice write-up!

i think its instructive to remember that, at the 30th anniversary concert in 1992, Bob chose Its Alright Ma to be one of the three songs he performed solo.

its also this song i think of when, in one of Bob's farcical 60s press conferences, said all his songs say "Good luck, I hope you make it." i think your review sums that up quite well.

Anonymous said...

It's also the song he brought up in his 60 Minutes interview a few years ago in explaining that he's no longer capable of writing the same types of songs he used to, so it's pretty clear he himself considers this to be one of his true masterpieces.

Honestly, I think this is probably the best-written song Dylan ever penned. It perhaps lacks the gift for imagery that he's employed so beautifully throughout his career, but in terms of sheer lyrical technique, it is absolutely staggering.

Anonymous said...

I've been listening intently to this song since I found Dylan, in 1975, courtesy of my older brother, who actually palled around with him from '61-'64. I have come to regard this epic saga as Dylan's finest "protest songs", echoing his remark to disgruntled British audiences in 1966, "...they're all protest songs, man..."

Listen carefully to each verse, and you'll hear Dylan's plaintive query, his unending search for something genuine, true, and real. He disguises his seeking, right in plain sight, with words that would have made T. S. Elliot proud.

I disagree with the poster who thinks this song "lacks the gift for imagery", for which he is so rightly honored.

This song is bubbling over with imagery, and leads us right to his next long masterpiece, "Desolation Row".

And one of the unending joys about It's Alright Ma is that, for me, the verses take on new meaning as time passes. They do not remain fixed and static.

Anonymous said...

In my sophomore year at Mater Christi Catholic HS my english teacher, Tom Intondi (who unfortunately is no longer with us) turned the class on to this song and Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. We did two or three classes analyzing the lyrics. Masterpieces. That was 1968, I was 15. Thus began my long relationship with the greatest american songwriter.

I place this one up there with "Idiot Wind" among his best.

For them that defend what they cannot see, with a killer's pride, security...

We're idiots, babe, it's a wonder we can even feed ourselves.


Anonymous said...

what a beutifully written piece. Your feelings about the song must be echoed by many dylan fans and by anyone who has been touched deeply by a song or poem. my response to "it's alright ma" has always been,in great part, political. darkness at the gates of noon is, of course a reference to arthur koestler and his seminal attack on stalinism. One thinks also about the denoument of "easy rider" and the darkest reflections on american bigots.
dylan songs can eat into your mind like no others, and they can inspire you



Great song. Very powerful. Ironically, I used fragments of it this week to reflect on my ruminations in a pre-Obama world. Take a read:

Anonymous said...

Great post. The lyrics of this song have always fascinated me moreso than any other (Dylan or non-Dylan). The song is so deep, it's almost unapproachable; there is no way to dissect it. You just have to admire the big masterpiece from afar.

When I went to see Bob Dylan in concert last year, this song impressed me the most. He did a great job performing it, and it was surreal to hear him singing it right in front of me.

Anonymous said...

Well put.
I think you got this just about right mate.
This song does feel like a quietly (sighingly) defiant look at all the wrong things in the world.
Dylan’s explaining that he's living separately to all this, and refusing to fall into any of the traps, and he doesn't mind if they kill him for it.

The president line reminds me of a line in Henry V where the king says of himself that, "his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man;" so that's a possible Shakespearian influence I guess.

Lastly, I'd like to suggest (and I’ve noticed this since learning to play it) that the music is so perfectly in sync with the lyrics on this song. The music give the song a lot of it's feel and sort of, calm despairing gravitas (as I see it).
Either way just because there's little melody, this is a masterly constructed song all round.

Anonymous said...

this is a fantastic post. sometimes i feel strangely alone when it comes to my love and appreciation and awe of bob dylan, which i know is completely insane considering his success as a musician and icon. I guess it feels lonely to live in a world where there are no current musicians make me feel like anyone may ever have the same talent and insight that dylan has. while he hated being referred to as a voice of his generation, i wish we had on now...

Gronk said...

Spine-tingling post my man. Kudos to you for nailing this one. This song is like a statue, a rallying speech, a Dantesque vision.

"Money doesn't talk, it swears."

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box Come and join us inside to listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.