It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Commentary

Dylan really embraces the outlaw song on Bringing It All Back Home. “Outlaw song” is the term Woody Guthrie used to categorize songs that contain rebellious, anti-authority ideas. At least four songs on this album, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Maggie’s Farm, Outlaw Blues, and It’s Alright, Ma, fall into this category.

The Beat poets were the kings of the outlaw muse, and the Beats’ anti-establishment themes are all over It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).  For example, these lines:

Although the masters make the rules

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.

The short concise phrasing and anti-establishment rhetoric are common characteristics of Beat writing. It’s Alright, Ma contains only twenty words with three syllables, seven with four, and none with more than four.  Only .04% of  the words contain three or more syllables.

A suggested exercise: compare and contrast It’s All Right Ma with Ginsberg’s Howl.

Many have remarked on how much Dylan sounds like a modern rapper on It’s Alright Ma (and even more so in Subterranean Homesick Blues). Paul Williams called him a “natural rapper”. In 1986 Dylan appeared on a Kurtis Blow album, displaying his rapping skills (such as they are) on the song Street Rock. Dylan raps the first verse.

I’ve indulged in higher knowledge to scan over encyclopedias
Keep in constant reaches of reports in our news medias
Kids starve in Ethiopia, and we are getting greedier
The rich is getting richer and the needy’s getting needier

Dylan also appeared on a recording and video of a song called Gone Till November by Wyclef Jean, also a well-known rapper. 2 minutes 30 seconds in…

Dylan has written more than his share of quotable quotes over the years, and It’s All Right, Ma is full of them.

To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.

….

he not busy being born
Is busy dying.

….

even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

….

money doesn’t talk, it swears

Dylan apparently likes to play It’s Alright, Ma live. It appears on Live 1964, Before the Flood and Hard to Handle, a concert film of his 1986 Australian concert tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Live 1964 documents a Dylan’s concert at the New York Philharmonic.  He duets on several numbers with Joan Baez, and also plays several songs from the unreleased Bringing It All Back Home, including It’s Alright, Ma. The performance  is a little shaky, and Dylan fumbles the lyrics towards the end.

Although I’m not a huge fan of Before the Flood, a recording from the well-publicized “comeback tour” Dylan did with The Band in 1974, it contains the definitive version. In my opinion, many of the songs from Before the Flood are marred by an overly histrionic vocal, but that style is perfect for this song. The crowd roars when Dylan sings “every the president of the United States/Sometimes has to stand naked”, which I suppose is not surprising since the country was in the middle of the Watergate fiasco.

It’s also on the loathsome At Budokan.


Lyrics

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover
That you’d just be
One more person crying.

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred.

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it.

Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not fergit
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something
They invest in.

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him.

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in.

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him.

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes
Must get lonely.

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

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