Bob Dylan’s best songs – It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) – #7, released version

Well, I still do that song [It’s Alright Ma]. It’s still very relevant to me.
~Bob Dylan (June 1985)

“I’ve written some songs that I look at, and they just give me a sense of awe,… Stuff like, It’s Alright, Ma, just the alliteration in that blows me away. And I can also look back and know where I was tricky and where I was really saying something that just
happened to have a spark of poetry to it.”
~Bob Dylan (to John Pareles, Sept 1997)

Ironically, this song, which Dylan performs unaccompanied on the “folk-side” of his half-folk, half electric album, is more of a rock and roll performance than anything else on the record.
~Paul Williams (Performing Artist 60-73)

@ no.7 on my list of Dylan’s 200 best songs.. comes this acoustic masterpiece with lyrics that still makes me shiver in awe…

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

best of the best:

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

original version:

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
Make 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 they 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 forget
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

….and proceeded to record the final versions of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “It’s Alright, Ma” & “Gates of Eden” in a single take, with no playback between songs! ….. It is as though all three songs came out of him in one breath, easily the greatest breath drawn by an american artist since Ginsberg & Kerouac exhaled “Howl” & “On the Road” a decade earlier.
~Paul Williams (Performing Artist 60-73)

From Wikipedia:

Released March 22, 1965
Recorded Columbia Recording Studios, New York City January 15, 1965
Genre Folk rock, folk
Length 7:29
Label Columbia
Writer Bob Dylan
Producer Tom Wilson

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is a song written and performed by Bob Dylan and first released on his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home. It was written in the summer of 1964, first performed live on October 10, 1964, and recorded on January 15, 1965. Described by Dylan biographer Howard Sounes as a “grim masterpiece,” the song features some of Dylan’s most memorable lyrical images. Among the well-known lines sung in the song are “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” “Although the masters make the rules, for the wisemen and the fools” and “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” The lyrics express Dylan’s anger at hypocrisy, commercialism, consumerism, warmongers and contemporary American culture, but unlike his earlier protest songs, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” does not express optimism in the possibility of political solutions.

Live in Leicester. From the 1965 tour of England:

Influence:

Clinton Heylin, in his biography Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, wrote that the recording “opened up a whole new genre of finger-pointing song, not just for Dylan but for the entire panoply of pop.” To this, Heylin adds that “It’s Alright, Ma” probably contained more “memorable aphorisms” than any of Dylan’s songs. One of these lines is “he not busy being born is busy dying,” from the song’s second verse, which was used by Jimmy Carter in his Presidential nomination acceptance speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. During his campaign for President in 2000, Al Gore told talk show host Oprah Winfrey that this was his favorite quotation.  Writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens quoted from the song’s lyrics in his last article for Vanity Fair, written shortly before his death from esophageal cancer. Hitchens posted at the top of his essay the verse of “It’s Alright Ma” that ends with the words “That he who is not busy being born is busy dying”.

Another memorable line is “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” which appears in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. In addition, the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations lists this as well as three other lines from the song: “Although the masters make the rules, for the wisemen and the fools,” “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” and “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.” Other well-known lines include “Propaganda, all is phony” and “Advertising signs they con you into thinking you’re the one.”

From the 30th anniversary concert:

In a 2005 reader’s poll reported in Mojo magazine, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was listed as the #8 all-time greatest Bob Dylan song, and a similar poll of artists ranked the song at #21.  In 2002, Uncut magazine listed it as the #5 all-time Dylan song. The song was featured inthe final episode of The Sopranos. It has also been referenced by other songwriters. For instance, the indie-rocker Stephen Malkmus quotes “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” at the end of his song “Jo-Jo’s Jacket” from Malkmus’ debut solo album.

Free Trade Hall in Manchester on the 7th of May, 1965:

From the Oakland show of Dylan and The Band’s 1974 world tour:

From The Rundown Rehearsal Tapes recorded in 1978:

Also check out:

Reference:

-Egil

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