It Ain’t Me, Babe

Commentary

After the low of Ballad in Plain D, Dylan rights the ship with the next song, one of his all-time classics. The title says it all really. The narrator is telling someone – in no uncertain terms – that he is not the person she is looking for. He thinks she is not looking for a lover but rather a personal servant, someone who will “open each and every door” and “come each time [she] calls”. Each line defines a little more what he thinks is wrong with her twisted definition of  a relationship.

Michael Gray points out that the lyrics follow the general pattern of many blues songs, in particular, how they often employ the phrase “Go away from my window / door / kitchen /whatever” at the beginning of each verse. An example of this style of lyrics can be found in Sleepy John EstesDrop Down Mama.

Go away from my window
Stop scratchin’ round my screen
You’re so evil woman
And I know what you mean

 

Tim Riley thanks It Ain’t Me, Babe is one of Dylan’s most “flexible” songs, citing that Dylan’s furious vocal and musical performance  on Before the Flood (done with The Band), which  “adds just the right amount of ‘gall’ to the song”.

Riley was not the first to note the way Dylan sings a lyric and arranges the music can significantly change a song’s meaning. Betsy Bowden, in her seminal Dylan work, Performed Literature, which was published in the late sixties, was the first to my knowledge to write at length on this subject. Bowden devotes nineteen pages of her book to this particular song, and does a masterful job of dissecting every nuance of the lyrics, the music, and most importantly, the various and varied ways that Dylan has performed the song and in the process gave it new meanings. In my opinion Performed Literature is required reading for all serious Dylan fans. Bowden is a scholar, and the text does contain a bit of jargon that is sometimes impenetrable, but still worth it. It’s a shame that she never updated it.

Dylan seems to enjoy messing around with this song. On Another Side he performs the song in a fairly straightforward manner. The tone is sympathetic to the feeling of “Babe”. On Live 1964 he performs the song as a duet with Joan Baez. He turns it into a playful little ditty, as if he were cajoling a lover to consider changing her ways. On Before the Flood, the heat of his vocal and the roar of The Band change the song to something like “IT AIN’T ME, BABE – YOU STUPID BITCH”. The tone becomes self-congratulatory. The listener gets the idea that the song is no longer aimed at a lover, but instead is a celebration of a victory over the critics and fans that wanted Dylan to do their bidding. On Real Live, he gives the song a more sympathetic reading, as if he were trying to make a very dense woman understand that the relationship is just not going to work. It becomes “It Ain’t Me, Babe – Can’t You See This Just Doesn’t Make It?”. 

It’s not hard to understand why Dylan has been the most bootlegged artist in history. He not only performs songs: he often evolves them into something akin to a brand new song. (By the way, for an interesting reading on the history of bootlegs, which Dylan has played an important role, see Clinton Heylin’s excellent Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry.)

Time for some trivia. Sonny Bono, of the duo Sonny and Cher, based his smash hit I Got You, Babe on It Ain’t  Me, Babe. It would also seem that Bono got the title for another hit, I Just Wanna Be Friends With You, from Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do. Tiny Tim, the well-know sixties icon who played the ukulele and sang with an utterly weird falsetto, did a version of I Got You, Babe that can be found on the Dylan bootleg, Bob Dylan, Tiny Tim & The Band Down In The Basement.

Peter Stone Brown, writing on rec.music.dylan, posted some interesting information concerning the Tiny Tim/Dylan/Sonny and Cher connection.

Tiny Tim visited Woodstock sometime in 1967, more than likely to record part of the soundtrack of the Peter Yarrow movie, “You Are What You Eat” on which he was backed by The Band. Two songs from the session appear on the album, “I Got You Babe” and “Be My Baby” featuring one of the most outrageous screams ever put on record. Tiny Tim recorded a few other songs with The Band, most notably the most preposterous version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” ever. These can be found on various Basement Tapes boots. At the time he apparently went to Dylan’s house, and after playing songs for him, he said to him something along the lines of: “Mr. Dylan, you are to music today what Rudy Vallee was in the ’20s.” And according to Tiny, Dylan replied: “Mr. Tim, do you want a banana?”

The hit version by The Turtles.

A  bit better version by Johnny.

Baez sings  it, without irony 🙂

The Monkees‘ lead singer.


Lyrics

Go ‘way from my window,
Leave at your own chosen speed.
I’m not the one you want, babe,
I’m not the one you need.
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong,
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong,
Someone to open each and every door,
But it ain’t me, babe,
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe,
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.

Go lightly from the ledge, babe,
Go lightly on the ground.
I’m not the one you want, babe,
I will only let you down.
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part,
Someone to close his eyes for you,
Someone to close his heart,
Someone who will die for you an’ more,
But it ain’t me, babe,
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe,
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.

Go melt back into the night, babe,
Everything inside is made of stone.
There’s nothing in here moving
An’ anyway I’m not alone.
You say you’re looking for someone
Who’ll pick you up each time you fall,
To gather flowers constantly
An’ to come each time you call,
A lover for your life an’ nothing more,
But it ain’t me, babe,
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe,
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.

4 thoughts on “It Ain’t Me, Babe”

  1. steve

    Some notes on this song included in the vintage fanzine, Homer the Slut.  These are from Volume I.  It was available on the net at one point.  Can’t find it now.

    Wilfrid Mellers (Darker Shade of Pale)

    Dylan seeks escape from any human eelationship that threatens his personal integrity.

    These songs are not really cruel, because he is asking the other person not to fear self-knowledge…..1T AIN’T ME BABE, …dismissive in that he refuses to allow the girl’s self-regarding love to engulf him, disarms through its lyricism and chuckles through its internal rhymes. Here Dylan’s irony laughs rather than blisters, and laughter can be a great healer.

    (Talking of BEFORE THE FLOOD =) Songs from various periods of Dylan’s career are re-created with a forward-looking, forward-thrusting drive Liberated by The Band. IT AIN’T ME, BABE becomes not merely a cheeky woman-rejecting number, but a positive celebration of freedom, chortling in cock-a-hoop abandon.

    John Herdman (Voice Without Restraint)

    There are a number of songs of the period up to BLONDE ON BLONDE which present, with varying degrees of irony and from differing vantage points such a sane man’s view of finished, dying or unpromising relationships.._…IT AINT ME BABE is a warning off song, aimed at discouraging a starry-eyed admirer…_.There is certainly an element of hardness in these songs which can look like cruelty:

    Go melt back in the night, babe

    Everything inside is made of stone.

    There’s nothing in here moving

    Anyway I’m not alone.

    In neither song is Dylan putting someone down; rather he is advising them to “think positively”, in a way which implies a genuine concern…..

    Anthony Scaduto (No Direction Home)

    IT AIN’T ME BABE tells Suze and all women that the Search for an illusory Hollywood-romantic love, for someone who will die for her, who will pick her up each time

    she falls, a lover for your life, has turned him to stone because he cannot fulfills such terms.

    Michael Gray (Song and Dance Man)

    When we come to Dylan’s more concentrated and sustained expressions of this same theme, of this negative-positive moral, we find, I think, that their plausibility derives from their being always addressed to a particular woman or specific entanglements of which the narrator understands the full worth. It is never, in Dylan’s hands, a merely boastful theme-never a Papa Hemingway conceit, an I’m-too-hot-to-hold bravado. The opposite impulse,the desire to stay and be entangled, is always felt to be present, though it cannot (until Nashville Skyline) win. We have this formula in DON’T THINK TWICE, ITS ALL RIGHT, from the second Dylan album, a song based, for its tune, on Johnny Cash’s composition UNDERSTAND YOUR MAN:

    I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wonderin  all the way down the road

    I once loved a woman-a child, I am told

    I gave her my love but she wanted my soul

    But don ‘t think twice, it’s all right. .

    The same integrity of spirit underlies the 1964 song IT AIN’T ME, BABE:

    You say you ‘re looking for someone

    Who’ll pick you up each timeyou fall

    To carry flowers constantly

    An to come each time you call,

    A lover for your life an’ nothing more,

    But it am ‘t me, babe,

    No, no, no it ain’t me, babe,

    It ain‘t me you ‘re lookin’for, babe.

    In the first of those two examples, there is a hint of direct reproach, yet the narrator’s own doubts give this a redressing balance. The title line is, ¡n that verse of the song, deliberately addressed to the narrator himself. In the second example above, doubt is unnecessary because behind the narrator’s careful assessment of the woman involved there is an element of compassion for her needs, and a consequent determination on his part to acquit himself fairly.

  2. Avatar

    So right about Betsy Bowden! I have been wondering over the years why almost no one refers to her. Clinton Heylin does, of course, but other than him?

     

    1. steve

      She definitely picked-up on what Dylan was doing very early on. Years later Paul Williams and others chimed in. Definitely an overlooked book. I’m glad somebody else appreciates it too.

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