The Story Behind “All I Really Want to Do” by Bob Dylan and Why He No Longer Wanted to Write Songs in Other’s Voices

In 2016, it was announced Bob Dylan would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” During his acceptance speech, he noted, “Songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record, or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.'”

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Who are we to disagree with Bob Dylan? The written word, be it poetry or prose, can deliver messages that change the world or simply bring out emotions. Dylan’s songwriting has done both, from singing about social injustice to songs about friendship. Let’s take a look at the story behind “All I Really Want to Do” by Bob Dylan.

I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you, classify you
Deny, defy, or crucify you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

Internal Rhymes

Dylan’s recorded output started with a collection of songs primarily written by others. His sophomore effort featured songs written mainly by himself. The biggest success came from others recording his compositions. Peter, Paul, and Mary released “Blowin’ in the Wind” to great effect. As Dylan continued to find his own voice, he released another album of original songs exploring universal themes of social injustice and protest. By his fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan, the singer was exploring more personal territory. A song like “All I Really Want to Do” was not trying to change the world. It was simply about a relationship between two people. The structure is nothing groundbreaking. Each verse begins with something the singer doesn’t want to do and ends with the thing he desires—to “be friends with you.” The internal rhymes are plentiful and change from verse to verse as the song progresses.

No, and I ain’t lookin’ to fight with you
Frighten you or uptighten you
Drag you down or drain you down
Chain you down or bring you down
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

When Columbia Records released Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964, the singer talked at length with Nat Hentoff for The New Yorker magazine, “There aren’t any finger-pointing songs in here, either. Those records I’ve already made, I’ll stand behind them, but some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard, and a lot of it was because I didn’t see anybody else doing that kind of thing. Now, a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know—pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know—be a spokesman. Like I once wrote about Emmett Till in the first person, pretending I was him. From now on, I want to write from inside me and to do that.

“I’m going to have to get back to writing like I used to when I was 10—having everything come out naturally. The way I like to write is for it to come out the way I walk or talk. Not that I even walk or talk yet like I’d like to. I don’t carry myself yet the way Woody [Guthrie], Big Joe Williams, and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to someday, but they’re older. They got to where music was a tool for them, a way to live more, a way to make themselves feel better. Sometimes I can make myself feel better with music, but other times it’s still hard to go to sleep at night.”

I ain’t lookin’ to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you, categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

Other Versions

Many people have recorded “All I Really Want to Do” through the years, including The Byrds, Cher, The Four Seasons, The Surfaris, The Fleetwoods, The Hollies, Sebastian Cabot, World Party, The Hooters, We Five, and Bryan Ferry. The Byrds and Cher had the most success in the charts—The Byrds peaked at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Cher went all the way to No. 15, releasing the song as her first solo single without Sonny Bono. In the UK, Cher took it to No. 9, while The Byrds climbed all the way to No. 4. The Byrds had their first No. 1 song with a version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and Sonny & Cher had their biggest success with “I Got You Babe,” an answer song to Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”

I don’t want to straight-face you
Race or chase you, track or trace you
Or disgrace you or displace you
Or define you or confine you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

Dylan summed it up best in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it—what it all means. When [Herman] Melville put all his Old Testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either—what it all means.”

I don’t want to meet your kind
Make you spin, or do you in
Or select you or dissect you
Or inspect you or reject you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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