Bob Dylan's 'It's alright Ma (I'm only bleeding) - Part 2
Bob Dylan’s ‘It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)’- an analysis- Part 2.
In this instalment we take a closer look at the verses 3, 4,5 and 6 and chorus 1 & 2.
“Temptation’s page flies out the door, you follow, find yourself at war”. In your imagination it is possible to understand this line in an almost literal sense. As said, this song was written in 1964 when the US were stepping up its war efforts against the communist Vietcong in Vietnam. In your imagination you can see a "page", a pamphlet, a flyer recommending, tempting, young people to voluntarily enlist with the American Army for service in Vietnam. Such a ‘temptation’ deludes you with false pretences that voluntary enlistment with the army is a cool and patriotic act of heroism and something to be proud of. Dylan pictured this so-called heroism in a song called “John Brown” which Dylan wrote less than two years earlier”: “John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore, his mama sure was proud of him! She bragged about her son with his uniform and gun and these things you called a good old-fashioned war”. So on the first impulse, you decide to literally follow this “temptation’s page” when it “flies out the door” and before you realize the full impact of your decision you “find yourself at war” in the horrifying jungle of Vietnam. A war which will soon turn into a nightmare for you.
Some understand the words “Temptation’s page flies out the door, you follow, find yourself at war” in a more figurative sense. When you follow that interpretation, “a page” may denote an “errand boy”. In this case the “page” is the errand boy for the personified “Temptation” . Temptation entices to cheat on your husband, wife or partner, to follow “temptation’s page” and to “fly out the door” and indulge into some sexual encounter. In the end, when your cheating comes to light, war will break lose at home: you “find yourself at war”.
No matter which interpretation you follow, the result of your actions is the same: you will “Watch waterfalls of pity roar”. Repentance always follows sin but always comes too late. There is no escape, “You find yourself at war” and there is no turning back. You are out there in the Vietnam jungle and instead of enjoying the natural beauty of a roaring waterfall in the jungle, you now “watch waterfalls of pity roar” and surrounded by the stench of Napalm bombs and dead bodies buried in the mud, you regret that you ever enlisted. You end up in a valley of horror and tears and you have the same feeling Dylan would later write in his song “Mississippi”: ‘So many things we never will undo, I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”. “You feel to moan”, hear those soldiers holler hear them “moan”. In your wildest imagination you would never have expected this adventure, this war, to end up in a nightmare like this. Your only ‘consolation’ is that you are not the only one who is in this dreadful position because “unlike before, you discover that you’d just be one more person crying”. Your tears and crying will not change anything because you will find out that there so many around you who are also crying. In an ocean full of tears your personal tears are just a few teardrops and just “one more person crying” will make no difference.
When Dylan concludes: “So don’t fear if you hear, a foreign sound to your ear, it’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing” this shows resignation. When he says: “I’m only sighing” this may be seen as an attempt to soften the intensity of pity and grief of the previous verse, he is not crying but only sighing. “A foreign sound” may allude to the ongoing war in Vietnam. It is as if this sound of pity and grief comes from a “foreign” country, in this case deep down from the jungle in Vietnam.
The compact structure and build-up of this verse makes this verse a little hard to comprehend. “Some warn victory” may be those groups or individuals in society who “warn” that soon, at the end of an evolutional process, evil will be conquered by good and that “victory” in the shape of a sort of utopian socialist state is dawning upon humanity, bringing freedom, liberty and brotherhood to all men and society. This socialist, left-wing idealism was very much alive in the fifties and sixties of the last century but seems to have vanished in the 21st century. Some others however “warn downfall” . When Dylan wrote this song in 1964, the Cuba Crisis was less than two years ago, when the world was at the brink of an apocalyptic nuclear destruction. The assassination of President Kennedy was less than a year ago and the cold war was gaining momentum. If ever there was a feeling of a “downfall”, a period of great political, social and military tension it was in the sixties. For this group which “warns” for a ”downfall”, a downfall which in their eyes would result in a political and social meltdown of apocalyptic proportions, it is “doom alone that counts”.
“Private reasons” are reasons which are not publicly known but deliberately kept secret to the public. These “reasons” are supposed to give a ground for justification of certain political or military actions. These actions may be interpreted by the public at large as evil, that is why – for political reasons – the real intentions behind these actions are kept secret to the public and are only known in the inner circles of certain politicians, dictators and usurpers. These reasons “private reasons” may be “great or small”. A reason may be “great” when there is comprehensive plan of action to effectuate a certain policy or ideology. For instance Hitler’s wicked scheme to murder all the Jews, the holocaust. The details of this wicked scheme called the “Endlösung” were only known by confidants in Hitler’s inner circles. But also on a lower organisational level, or even on an individual level there may be such wicked schemes, that is why such “reasons” can be called “small”. These “private reasons”, the real intentions of those usurpers and dictators can only be revealed when you carefully study their doctrines, when you look into the eyes of these oppressors and dictators, you have to look them squarely in the eye and confront them with the consequences, that is the reason why it says that these reasons ‘can be seen in the eyes of those that call” .This is what they call: “make all that should be killed to crawl”. They not only practice the Machiavellian “I’m gonna do whatever circumstances require”, they go much further than that. Because for them it is not enough just to kill their political opponents, they want to add insult to injury and humiliate their enemies by not only killing them but also to make them “crawl”. Before killing their opponents, they make them “crawl”, that is force them to publicly confess all sort of “crimes” in so-called show trials. Just think of the practices of the Stalinist and Nazi show trials. They force their political adversaries to insinuate themselves, to bereave themselves of their human dignity and sometimes this humiliation goes so far that they have their innocent victims literally “crawl” on their belly and beg for mercy. The purpose of “make all that should be killed to crawl” is to spread fear and terror in society so that other opponents also start to show “crawling” behaviour, start to insinuate themselves and show servile and obsequious conduct. This is how dictators like Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot have strengthened their power basis. This seems to be an important part of their survival tactics: “make all that should be killed to crawl”. In fact their whole ideology and power is based on nothing but hatred. It is as if the first line of this verse “some warn victory some downfall” is somehow related to the words “make all that should be killed to crawl” because when totalitarian states are “victorious” they try to turn this statement “that all that should be killed to crawl” into reality, stepping up oppression to the highest level. Those totalitarian states which are on the brink of defeat, which are in a “downfall”, do the same in a scorched earth policy and also “make all that should be killed to crawl”.
This verse also reflects Dylan’s somewhat hesitant and ambivalent view on the increasingly militant politics in the USA in the sixties. As said, the war in Vietnam was gaining momentum, advocates of the Black Power movement began stirring up trouble against the pacifists in the civil rights movement supporting Martin Luther King. Some fractions on the ultra-Left began to hint that the use of extreme violence to combat those in power was justified, while the pacifists in the civil rights movement and others in the New Left and anti-war movements felt that that resorting to violence is not only wrong but also self-destructive.
Therefore ,in contrast to those who are full of hatred and say “make all that should be killed to crawl" there are others - pacifists -who at the same time say: “don’t hate nothing at all, except hatred”. Some have argued that “don’t hate nothing at all, except hatred” is a double negative and therefore contradictory, if hate is wrong how can you hate hatred? How should we define “hatred”? One of the problems for those who advocate the slogan “don’t hate nothing at all except hatred” seems to be that what by totalitarian states is classified as “hatred” against the state and as revisionism and for that reason prosecuted, can in fact not be called “hatred” but may be justified criticism on the state or the system. Another problem is that is quite easy for this group to shout “don’t hate nothing at all except hatred” but in practice it is much harder to build a moral and responsible society on this slogan when evil is so deeply rooted in society and when sometimes you have no alternative but to resort to violence to defend and restore democratic rights. Therefore in the eyes of many, this slogan “don’t hate nothing at all except hatred” may be quite rightly classified as cheap and unrealistic.
“Disillusioned words like bullets bark” may refer to the disillusion which soon dawns upon you when the idealistic picture you had in mind does not come true. We’re still very much in the atmosphere of war and antagonism, therefore the words “Disillusioned words like bullets bark” may bring back to mind the previous verses where it appeared that temptation can easily lure you into a war, a war in which bullets bark but where you will soon be disillusioned and watch waterfalls of pity roar. At the same time the words “Disillusioned words like bullets bark” refer to the ”human gods” in the following line: “As human gods aim for their mark”. The “human god” that is portrayed in this verse, is the human god of capitalism and greed. In this respect there is similarity with this other “human god”, the human god of communism which is portrayed in the first verse of this song. In this first verse the title of Arthur Koestler’s novel ‘Darkness at Noon’ echoes the atrocities of the Stalin’s communist repressive regime and the disillusion that follows. However, this verse “proves to warn” that not only communism disillusions you, but also capitalism with its extravagant consumerism is a “human god” who will do us no good either and who will throw us in the same hole communism is in. The high priest representing this “human god” of this extravagant consumerism is Corporate America and its Madison Avenue advertising industry. They are as good at brainwashing you as any of those communists ever were. They manipulate your brain and psyche and create all sorts of “needs” which must be fulfilled. They successfully influence your spending behaviour only to meet their demands.They“aim for their mark” and their mark, their goal, is nothing but money and power. Money and power is their goal, “they make everything”, even if this implies exhausting at high speed all natural resources of this earth. To reach their targets they appeal to the basic human instincts, there are many of these basic human instincts (a.o. sex) but here the basic instinct of power and religion is dealt with. “Toy guns that spark” in the hands of young children give children the illusion that they will once become as powerful and destructive as all those militant “heroes” on television, and in this way violence and militarism is fed at an early age. At the time when Dylan wrote this song in 1964 this “toy gun” industry was still in its infancy and little did he realize that nowadays there are extremely violent computer games in the market, imitating war and cruel blood shedding in the most extreme and realistic fashion.
The “Flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark” may take our mind to the well-known pilgrim site Lourdes in the South West of France. An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine in Lourdes since 1860. In Lourdes you can buy all sorts of souvenirs: images of Christ and the Virgin Mary and other saints. These souvenirs are sold there by the millions and a lot of money is drawn from the pilgrim’s pockets. This is the place where the “sacred” meets and mingles with the mundane and if you take a good look, it is obvious that what these “human gods” sell as “sacred” artefacts, in reality is all about making money and profit, that is why it says: “It’s easy to see without looking too far, that not much is really sacred”. It is easy to see that Dylan classifies this whole practice of this commercialized pseudo religion as nothing else but the utmost form of hypocrisy and idolatry. Later on in 1983, in his song “Jokerman” Dylan would declare the whole nation to be under the influence of idolatry, when he alludes to the “Statue of Liberty” as an idol: “standing on the water, the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing”.
Instead of the ‘official’ lyrics: “While preachers preach of evil fates, teachers teach that knowledge waits, can lead to hundred dollar plates” a 1964 rendition of the song has alternative lyrics: “While teachers teach evil fates, preachers preach that knowledge waits, can lead to hundred dollar plates”. This latter rendition emphasizes the role of the mass media evangelists who promise you earthly prosperity and riches if you follow them. If you follow them they will lead you to “hundred dollar plates”. Today, the television evangelist Joel Osteen may be seen as an example of a preacher who preaches this kind of religious philosophy which promises you earthly wealth and prosperity.
The ‘official’ lyrics: “While preachers preach of evil fates” portrays a quite different kind of preacher with an opposite message. For this kind of preacher it is (like Dylan wrote in his song “Shelter from the storm’) “doom alone that counts”. It is the same kind of preacher described in Dylan’s 1964 song ‘My Back Pages’:” Flung down by corpse evangelists, unthought-of , though, somehow” or the preacher in Dylan’s 1989 “The Man in the Long Black Coat”, the preacher who says that: “every man’s conscience is vile and depraved”.
“While preachers preach of evil fates” there are at the same time others who“teach that knowledge waits”.Two different meanings of the verb to “wait” may be alluded to here. The first meaning of to “wait” alluded to here is in the sense of “to wait patiently for an opportunity to occur”. These teachers teach that real knowledge always patiently “waits” for the best opportunity to get into an affluent, beneficial, or even influential position, a position in the upper echelon where “hundred dollar plates” are served. The second meaning of the verb to “wait “alluded to here is a sort of word pun and makes you think of a “waiter” who “waits” upon guests in a restaurant and serves them “hundred dollar plates”, plates for which you have to pay a hundred dollar . It is noteworthy that the word “knowledge” is chosen here instead of what one would expect here, the alliterating word “wisdom”. We already have the alliterating pairs “preachers preach” and “teachers teach” and therefore it would only be obvious if the alliterating “wisdom waits” would have been chosen here instead of “knowledge waits”. The point is that “wisdom” may not lead to the kind of “hundred dollar plates” which are meant here.The fact is that “wisdom” – unlike “knowledge”- does not lead you to earthly fame or riches but only to spiritual riches and blessings, pretty much in the same way like Ecclesiastes 7:12 says: “Wisdom and money can get you almost anything, but only wisdom can save your life”(NLT). This does not mean that “knowledge” is not desirable, because it is like Shakespeare once said: “Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge, the wing wherewith we fly to heaven”.
So according to those teachers “knowledge” may lead you to the rich echelons of our society, enabling you to attend expensive and luxurious dinners, to attend “hundred dollar plates” dinners. When this song was written in 1964, compared to the value of the dollar at the time, to spend a hundred dollar for a plate in a restaurant must have been a huge amount to spend, affordable only for the upper echelons of society. When this song was written- back in the sixties - “hundred dollar plates” were also offered to the public as a party fundraiser for the Democratic Party. William F. Thompson in his book called : “Continuity and Change 1940-1965: History of Wisconsin” writes on page 661 of his book that in 1962 the ticket price for the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner was increased from twenty-five to one hundred dollar a plate. The decision persuaded John F. Kennedy to be the main speaker at the 1962 dinner, which raised $ 150.000 for the party. A decision which very much antagonized less affluent party members.
Somewhere we found an alternative interpretation of the words “hundred dollar plates” which is worth mentioning here. According to this interpretation “hundred dollar plates” would refer to the very source, the device by which American dollar banknotes are printed. These plates are in the hands of The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) which is a government agency within the United States Department of the Treasury. “A plate” is the metal cast on which the dollar is engraved for the purpose of being printed. So if you possess these “plates” you are able to print banknotes. So if you would follow this interpretation, “knowledge” would lead you to the very source of money, real “knowledge” would lead you to the “hundred dollar plates” and give you total control over the financial system and if you control the financial system, you control the State.
“Goodness hides behind its gates” means that it often looks as if love, tenderness, kindness, benevolence, righteousness, compassion and solidarity have pulled back from our society and that the only law which is still valid is the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest. “Goodness” –here used in its personified form- is brutally violated in our society. It looks as if “Goodness” “offered up her innocence and got repaid with scorn”. It is a general rule that “Goodness” will never accept such bad treatment and if this behaviour continues “Goodness” will pull back from civilised society and, disappointed and disillusioned, she hides herself behind gates. And when she is hidden it takes much more pains to find “goodness”. In this context the meaning of the word “goodness” comes close to the meaning of the word “dignity” as used in Dylan’s song “Dignity”: “Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity”. Now that “goodness hides behind its gates” one might as well say “Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find “goodness”. In a society where “goodness hides behind its gates”,where goodness is forced to hide itself, those in power are easily tempted to believe that they have power and influence enough to hide their evil schemes from the public eye. They are wrong. Ultimately nobody will escape judgement, not even the President of the United States. In the end even the President of the United States is as vulnerable as anybody else, cover-up actions to hide wicked schemes will fail, that is why it now says: “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”.This one liner once again proves the universality and the prophetic value of this song. As times went by, under various administrations, these words rang true. This happened for the first time when Dylan hit the road with the Band in 1974. The Watergate scandal was about to reach its climax and President Nixon was forced to resign later that year. A shiver and an audible grim glee went through the audience each time Dylan spat out the words “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”.
More or less the same happened almost a quarter of a century later during the Clinton-Lewinski affair and also later when President Bush JR involved America in the second Gulf War.
“The rules of the road” in the line “And though the rules of the road have been lodged” may have different connotations. In slang language “the rules of the road” expresses certain “payment” rules which may be applied when you do someone a favour by giving him or her a ride in your vehicle. They say that you have the option “to pay” for this favour by cash, by soft drugs or by sex.They say that these three options are called “the rules of the road”. Nowadays “the rules of the road” stand for the ‘International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea ’issued by the International Maritime Organization or simply for the various traffic regulations in various states and countries. Anyway when, Dylan speaks of “the rules of the road have been lodged” he may have had in mind that there is a certain consensus in society about certain social standards of how we should behave and what is regarded as right or wrong in this respect. This consensus is sometimes sustained by written but most of the time sustained by unwritten laws, social codes and customs. These rules also constitute a certain structure of power and responsibilities on which a society is built. These rules “have been lodged”, which means that these rules are fixed. Therefore it is not the “the rules of the road” on their own which pose a problem and which you have to dodge but the wicked way in which people deal with these rules. People tend to play games with these rules and you have to watch out for these people. It is the reason why it says: “It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge”. Not only all kinds of political and social organisations but also ordinary people may drag you into their hidden agendas – called here “people’s games”- and they lure you into believing or doing things which you never intended to believe or do in the first place. But the poet sees through all of this, therefore he now says: “And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it”. It is as if he says: “I can see through their games, I know what they are up against, don’t worry I can handle this problem, I can make it through”.
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