The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #5, “It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)”


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.

If Bob Dylan had only written one song, and that song was “It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding), he would still be considered rock’s greatest poet. Uncontestedly, nobody else has created a lyrical masterwork that could come close to matching this song’s unnerving and radiating power, except for Bob Dylan.

It’s Alright Ma, at seven-and-a-half minutes, encapsulates rebellion, clarity, insight, youthful passion and moralism. It’s a young man’s song you can sing all your life; Holden Caulfield on acid. “Propaganda all is phony.”

The needling melody wavers between two notes for a surreal amount of time as the guitar figure descends behind it. The chorus is a relief. Anybody can sing these words in this rhythm, but it’s the qualities that make Dylan’s voice unique that allows him to deliver them with the ultimate resonance.

Dylan’s reputation as a prophet is derived largely from this song, a beacon of truth from inside the “Matrix” of global capitalism and suffering. It’s message: don’t follow leaders, watch yer parking meters. Don’t be snookered by the right or the left, the “preacher” or the “teacher.” Keep your eyes open. Plus, Dylan, as a spokesperson for his generation, had a lot more “games to dodge” then the rest of us. In a way, this song belongs to all of us, but imagine, for a second, if Dylan was singing this song to himself, an autobiographical ballad. “It’s alright ma, I can make it.” What if Ma was Ma Dylan?

The song is similar in effect and message to his epic poem “Last Thoughts For Woody Guthrie,” which, if Dylan had set it to music, would probably have made this list.

No, and it ain’t in the rumors people’re tellin’ you
And it ain’t in the pimple-lotion people are sellin’ you
And it ain’t in no cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star’s blouse
And you can’t find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can’t tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain’t in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes
And it ain’t in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons
And it ain’t in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin’ and tappin’ in Christmas wrappin’
Sayin’ ain’t I pretty and ain’t I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can’t even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows

….and you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat
Sayin’, “Christ do I gotta be like that
Ain’t there no one here that knows where I’m at
Ain’t there no one here that knows how I feel
Good God Almighty

The verses to “It’s Alright Ma” contain enough lyrical bon mots to inspire a thousand lyricists. In fact, four lines from the song ended up in Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. One line in particular, ” even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked,” is one of those those quintessential concert screamers that always provokes a roar from the crowd. Jimmy Carter quoted “he not busy being born is busy dying” in his acceptance speech at the 1976 Democratic National convention. Al Gore ruminated on the famous “president” line in Rolling Stone in 2000:

Gore is a man whose view of the world seems to have been as equally formed by listening to Bob Dylan songs as by reading dense policy reports. At one point, we ask him to take apart the lyrics of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which contains his favorite Dylan line: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” When we get to the line, “But even the president of the United States must have to stand naked,” Gore smiles and interprets it for us: “The president of the United States is a human being – an ordinary person put into an extraordinary job. And sometimes that person must stand apart from all the trappings, illusions and perquisites, and all the authority, and be seen as a person – for who he or she is.”

It was a sexy enough idea when Dylan sang the line during the time of Kennedy, but by the time he returned from a long hiatus to resume playing live in 1974, the lyric seemed highly prescient in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Dylanologists like to point out that this is one of the few songs Dylan chose to represent himself with at the 1992 MSG tribute concert, (along with “Last Thoughts For Woody Guthrie” and “Girl From The North Country”) although this was probably in part because no one else wanted to try it. Few recorded cover versions exist. Stephen Stills tried to write his own version with 1971’s “Word Game.” While he was undisputedly the flashier guitar player, his composition fell short. The Byrds covered it for the film Easy Rider (and released an abbreviated single) after Dylan didn’t want his version used in the film – apparently he wasn’t a fan.

One thing is known; the man who wrote it holds the song in high esteem, perhaps the highest.

From the 60 Minutes transcript:

60 Minutes: Over more than four decades, Dylan has produced 500 songs and more than 40 albums. Does he ever look back at the music he’s written with surprise?

“I used to. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written,” says Dylan, who quotes from his 1964 classic, “It’s Alright, Ma.”

“Try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that, and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, you know? It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic. And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time.”

Does he think he can do it again today? No, says Dylan. “You can’t do something forever,” he says. “I did it once, and I can do other things now. But, I can’t do that.”

Who among us could ever hope to write a song like that, even once?