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

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Bob-Dylan-bringing-it-all-back-home

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
THAT STUFF AIN’T REAL”

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?



13 COMMENTS

  1. The whole watergate thing really comes into life on the Before the Flood version, he blasts out

    “But even the president of the United States must have to stand naked,”

    The crowd erupts and its probably the best moment on that album.

  2. “that is interesting that you compare this song to the poem, ” last thoughts for woody guthrie.” I place it closer to “the ballad of hollis brown.””

    Save for the guitar, how?

    . . .

    I feel about this song kind of how I feel about “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” In fact, at one time, they were my two favorite Dylan songs. I think the excellent wordplay and imagery makes some people assume the song is more profound than it is. The writing is pretty straight forward.

    I like it, but I think there are two songs from the same album that serve as finer pieces of writing: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

    I wouldn’t rate the song this high, but it’s one of Dylan’s most unique songs, and I think a Dylan list without it would seem strange.

  3. They both affect me the same way. The mood of ‘It’s alright’ and ‘Hollis’ seem to occupy the same helpless realm, as if they were both inspired from a single instance of utter desperation. ‘Hollis’ is how he dealt with it in ’63, ‘It’s alright’ is how he did it in ’65.

    ‘Your brain is a-bleedin/ And your legs can’t seem to stand/Your eyes fix on the shotgun/ That your holdin in your hand’ that line feels like a knife twisting in my gut, and it sticks with you. I compare that to ‘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.’ See? Both songs are blood red.

    Sure, the writing style is different, but taken together with the music it feels like the two songs are brothers. Keep in mind though, this is just how I see it, you might see it differently.

  4. Brilliant social commentary here BD. The song is just pregnant with observations like this:

    “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.”

    But as a song, not a top 10 on my list.

  5. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine anyone, including Dylan, topping this song lyrically. It is packed full of legendary Dylan lines. I think Dylan even realizes how hard it is top this…he’s mentioned as much in interviews, and in recent years it gets a ton of play in his setlists. “…that he not busy bein’ born is busy dyin'” may be my favorite Dylan line of all time.

    It’s not my favorite Dylan song on the whole (that would be other list song “To Ramona”), but it looks just right in the #5 spot.

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