Bob Dylan's 'It's alright Ma (I'm only bleeding) - Part 4 - final part.
Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s alright ma, (I’m only bleeding) – an analysis Part 4 by Kees de Graaf.
“Old lady judges watch people in pairs, limited in sex, they dare to push fake morals, insult and stare” exposes yet another taboo in the American society in the sixties: sex. This song dealt with this taboo only a few years before the sexual revolution in America – and in a lot of other western countries – would break lose. A taboo is said to be a ‘strong social custom forbidding an act or the naming of certain things’. Now this not openly naming but instead silently and hypocritically watching and condemning certain sexual practices, of which everybody knows that they nevertheless exist in society, is metaphorically expressed in an image of “old lady judges” who “dare to push fake morals, insult and stare”. The poet lashes out against these hypocritical elderly women who think that they are entitled to act as moral “judges” over other – younger – people. The sexual drive of these “old lady judges” has died a long time ago, the result is that they are ”limited in sex”, which makes it all the much easier for them to criticize the (sexual) behaviour of young people who are still in their sexual prime. In the attitude of these ”old lady judges” we may see a caricature of the last remaining remnants of the 19th century Victorian sexual morality. This Victorian morality – which also spread to America – preached a.o. sexual restraint, however, this kind of morality would soon be wiped away by the sexual revolution which would begin a few years after Dylan wrote this song.
These old lady judges “watch people in pairs”. In your imagination you can see these old ladies sitting on a bench in a park watching the frivolous (sexual) behaviour of young couples. “In pairs” may be just a poetical way of saying that these ladies watch young couples. From the way in which these old ladies “insult” and “stare” , they make it clear that they condemn this new sexual morale. “They dare to push fake morals” means that the Victorian moral principles which these ladies push on young couples, are only preached by the mouth. In reality however, when these ladies were in their prime themselves, they did not obey and practice these sexual principals either, be it that during the Victorian era all sexual practices were covered under ‘a cloak of decency’ .That is the reason why the morals which these old ladies push on younger couples are hypocritical and therefore called “fake morals”.
The words that now follow have become one of the most famous (Dylan) quotes: “While money doesn’t talk, it swears”. In this line “While money doesn’t talk ,it swears” money is personified. Whereas these old lady judges “insult and stare”, Mr “Money” does not do any better, on the contrary. Mr “Money” would have done better if only have he would have restricted himself to talking, however, that is not enough for him, he doesn’t talk but he “swears”. “Money talks” which means that money has a voice, that money has influence in society. Although an earlier version of the song seems to have “money screams” instead of “money talks”, “Money talks” is said to be an old financial saying, found in various printed records before the year of 1700.
However, but not so according to Michael Gray’s work ‘The Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia’ (New York, NY: Continuum Internat. Publ. 2006, Pg. 464) where Gray says that the line “ While money doesn’t talk it swears” was inspired by a 1903 Victor catalogue of “darky ditties” of which one has the title “If Money Talks, It Ain’t On Speaking Terms With Me”. Years later this resulted in a blues song called: “I can’t make a nickel, I’m flat as I can be, some people say money is talking, but it won’t say a word to me”. Anyway, when it says that money “swears”, these words tend to warn you that there is a curse on the craving for money, no wonder that I Timothy 6:10 says that “the love of money is the root of all evil”.
Although it was Pope who said that “No pardon vile obscenity should find”, the naked truth is that money rules the world and all obscenities seem to stem from the unbridled love of money and as far as sexual morality is concerned, when you peel off the Victorian layer of decency, there is nothing but obscenity below the surface and ultimately- in spite of all decent language- nobody in society really seems to care: “Obscenity who really cares?”. There is nobody you can trust and nothing is what it seems: “Propaganda, all is phony”. When Dylan wrote the words “Propaganda all is phony” you may a.o. think of the propaganda the US government used at the time Dylan wrote this song, to volunteer for recruitment to serve in the Vietnam war. All this sort of propaganda proved “phony”; you may easily be misled, because once enlisted and sent to war you may soon end up in a body-bag.
This verse, as well as the following final verse, deals with death and the consequences thereof.
The words “While them that defend what they cannot see with a killer’s pride security, it blows the minds most bitterly” are interpreted by some as an atheistic statement. This is however not necessarily the case. It is true that when you follow this interpretation the words “What they cannot see” may refer to faith and religion. However, it seems not to be the intention of the poet to lash out against believers for having faith as such but against those who defend faith “with a killer’s pride security”. It is the very nature of faith is that you cannot see it with your natural eyes and you cannot scientifically prove to others that faith is a metaphysical reality. Otherwise faith would be no longer faith. True faith is all a matter of trust, confidence and surrender. Therefore it is also against the very nature of true faith to force faith upon others. But that is exactly what some of those preachers do: they defend their faith “with a killer’s pride security”. Some of those preachers (see for example Matt. 23:15) go to great length by forcing their faith upon people by indoctrination and they are not driven by modest wisdom – as may be expected of them - but they look more like hunters who take great pride in killing as much game as they possibly can and within the shortest period of time. They take pride in it, but it is only the cheap and shallow pride of a killer who outnumbers his victims in strength by a million to one, it is therefore only called “a killer’s pride security”. It looks as if these preachers are sure of the case they plead but the louder they shout the more they prove that deep down inside they are not so sure, because they somehow feel that this way of evangelizing- demonstrating a “killer’s pride security”- is cheap and against the very nature of the gospel. This method of proselyting only fills the human mind with repugnance and bitter resentment, that is why it says that “it blows the mind most bitterly”.
The words “For them that think death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally, life sometimes must get lonely” may be interpreted in various ways. “Death’s honesty” means that death makes no distinction. Death is irrespective of persons and may in this sense be called “honest”. Death therefore falls on every human being, no matter who or what you are. Death falls upon all of us, very much in the same way as Dylan outlines in his song “Tempest”: “The good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best”, in the end we are all going to die. Some think that this line leads us back to the battle fields of the war in Vietnam. As said earlier, at the time when Dylan wrote this song in 1964, the US were stepping up their war efforts in Vietnam. Those sent to war in Vietnam stood a great chance of being killed in combat. If that is the case, they will not die of natural causes, “death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally”, but they will suffer a violent death in combat. This knowledge can make you pretty lonely and isolated, that is why it says that for this group of people “life sometimes must get lonely”.
Another interpretation may be that Dylan uses apocalyptical language here taken from the Bible. Revelation 9: 6 says “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them' (KJV). Within the context of this passage, these people seek death to escape from extreme pain and suffering but no matter how hard they try, they are unable to find death: “death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally”. However if you follow this interpretation it is hard to explain how such dreadful circumstances would make life feel so lonely for these people.
Therefore, the most likely interpretation of the words “For them that think death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally, life sometimes must get lonely” is that these words refer to the extreme loneliness a lot of aged people in our society suffer from. Old people put away in old people’s homes or homeless people wandering about the streets in our big cities, aged people bereft of family and social contacts, full of infirmities and ailments, rotting away in loneliness, nobody looking after them, nobody caring for them, unwanted and spit out by society they feel so lonely that they long to die and put an end to it all, but death does not come and life drags on: “death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally and life must get lonely”. This verse exposes the cities of the lonesome fear and the lack of social cohesion which causes extreme loneliness in our big western cities.
This final verse takes the song to its culmination, to a head on collision with the poet’s worst nightmare of all: death and the inevitability of it. The polarity between life and death has always been on Dylan’s mind (two years earlier, in1962, Dylan wrote “Let me die in my footsteps” which elaborates on the same subject).The importance of this stanza is stressed by the fact that for the first time in the song, the poet shifts to the first person and now seems to speak from his own experience. When he says:“My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards” it is as if the poet says: ‘There is simply no escape from death, we are all heading in the same direction and that is to the grave.You may claim that all society’s anomalies, abuse and atrocities which I exposed in all the previous verses of this song are not as bad as I pictured them, you may even deny that all these anomalies and atrocities represent an integral part of our human existence, but one fact will always remain undeniable and that is that we are all going to die. We are all on a ninety miles an hour drive down a dead end street. At the end of this dead end street we will all meet death. Do you want to have proof? Look at those “stuffed graveyards”. Death is where it all ends up’.
These graveyards are “stuffed”,which means that they are full of dead bodies and bones, death is all around the place. But “stuffed graveyards” may have another connotation. You may think of a “stuffed” animal, for instance a stuffed bird. If this stuffing is carried out professionally, the stuffed bird very much looks like a real bird. But it is all fake because there is no life in this bird. You see some of this same phenomenon to disguise the harsh reality of death when you enter a graveyard. All these beautifully decorated tomb-stones, all the flowers and bouquets, all these well-written epitaphs for beloved ones, are in the end unable to take away the sadness and misery of death’s ugly face. The poet wants us to realize that this is what all these “stuffed graveyards” are all about and the poet’s eyes collide head on with them, there is simply no escape.
His eyes not only collide head on with stuffed graveyards, but also with “false gods”. The official release on ‘Bringing it all back Home’ and some live renditions seem to have “false goals”, instead of “false gods”. The world is full of those “false gods”, idols which promise you instant inner peace and riches but in the end will leave you empty handed. “False gods” may also be linked to the words that follow: “I scuff” making it into “false gods I scuff” .To “scuff” has various meanings. Within the context “to scuff” may mean the shuffling of your feet in embarrassment or contempt. The poet is full of contempt for those “false gods” who promise but do not deliver. To “scuff” also has the meaning “to poke at with the foot or toe”. It reminds us of some comic stock footage from Stan Laurel’s Vintage Silent 1920s movie called “Not a well built house”. When in this footage somebody pokes at a newly built house, when somebody “scuffs” at that house, we see this house immediately collapse. When you poke at those “false gods”, when you “scuff” those gods, it immediately is apparent that they are nothing but empty idols which collapse and turn into dust the minute you touch them. However, the words “I scuff” may also be linked to the following words “at pettiness which plays so rough”, making it into “I scuff at pettiness which plays so rough”. No doubt, “pettiness” refers to the bourgeois narrow-mindedness of the American public opinion in the sixties. This pettiness “plays so rough” which means that if you do not accommodate to these narrow minded prevailing opinions and stand up for your free way of thinking, they will play it rough, society will stone you, and in this respect the poet speaks from his own experience.
As outlined in the introductory remarks, Dylan once said about this song: ‘Try to sit down and write something like that. There's a magic to that’. It seems impossible to compose a song like this in ‘ordinary’ way. This song was not composed in an ordinary way, but was ‘magically’ written. “Walk upside-down inside handcuffs, kick my legs to crash it off” is likewise an attempt to try and do the impossible to come to terms with the dreadful state of the human condition of which the poet himself represents an integral part. “Walk upside down” which means walking on your hands with your legs up, is by no means an easy thing to do. However, “Walk upside down inside handcuffs” is simply impossible because these handcuffs make forward movement impossible and yet the poet makes an attempt. “Walk upside down inside handcuffs” may be a metaphor to express the absurdity of the world we live in. In this world it looks as if there is no distance at all between right and wrong. ”Walk upside down inside handcuffs”, absurd as it sounds, is in this world regarded as legitimate a way of walking, as walking in the ‘’ordinary’ way with your feet on the ground. As outlined in all the previous verses of this song, in this world all moral standards are easily turned “upside down” for political purposes ,to suit those in power and often just for financial gain. But the poet is honest about himself. He is not only “handcuffed”, misunderstood, silenced, ridiculed by the press, hampered to express his free mind. He admits that he too represents an integral part of the political and social system which he criticizes and is unable to escape, he is not only handcuffed, muzzled, by others but he also handcuffs himself , he has himself “locked in tight” just like anybody else .“If my hands are tied, must I not wonder within who tied and why and where must I have been” he would quite rightly admit much later in 1989 in his song “What good am I?”.The absurdity of life Dylan portrays here comes close to the absurdity of life he describes in his concert stalwart “Things have changed”. What is more absurd and preposterous than “falling in love with the first woman I meet, putting her in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street?”.
However, he tries to get away from the absurdities of life which on the one hand he criticizes and of which on the other hand he cannot deny that he is yet a part of. That is why he “kicks his legs to crash it off”, he tries to get away from those absurdities but he knows that his attempt is doomed to fail. You may stand in a handcuffed position, on your hands with your legs up, in that position you may kick your legs as long as you please but you will never be able to crash off your handcuffs and free yourself.
The only possible conclusion therefore must be: “Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?”. This final line shows resignation and has an ironic undercurrent. The poet has reached the end of his trail. Like once Ecclesiastes, he draws the conclusion that there is simply no cure under the sun for the hopeless condition the human condition is in, everything is vanity. When Dylan wrote this song in 1964,the sixties cultural counter movement was not amused by the dark mood of resignation Dylan’s song writing had adopted. The message of his song writing is clear: nobody under the sun has an answer, not even the cultural counter movement from the sixties, and as far as he himself is concerned, he admits that he too represents a part of the human condition and that he himself does not have a comprehensive solution either. But he has now reached a point where he says: ‘Stop, there is no sense in arguing any further, enough is enough’. “What else can you show me?” is therefore an ironic rhetorical question as if he says: ‘there is nothing else you can show me’. Basically the poet delivers here the same message he would deliver 33 years later in his song “Mississippi”: “I got nothing for you, I had nothing before, don’t even have anything for myself anymore and “There is nothing you can sell me”.
The final chorus: “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” is the most personal and therefore at the same the most revealing statement of all. It may be called a blessing in disguise that fallen mankind does not have the ability to read thoughts, because if people could read each other’s thoughts, any enduring social life on this fallen planet would be impossible. If thoughts or “thought-dreams could be seen” a cesspit full of dirt would open up and all the dirt would flow out into the open. If “thought dreams could be seen” it would appear how selfish, vicious and murderous a creature we all have become, nobody excepted. What we praise to be benevolence and goodness is nothing else but restrained evil, and if there were no such restraint we would kill each other instantly and life would end. “That’s how it is when things disintegrate” Dylan wrote in ‘Can’t Wait’ in 1997 and that is how it is when the poet’s “thought-dreams could be seen”. But there is another, personal side to this. If the poet’s “thought-dreams could be seen” the public would a.o. immediately have found out that he never wanted to be a spokesman, neither for the sixties cultural counter movement, nor for any political or religious organization. The public would have seen that he is not is not a puppet on a string and that he is prepared to swim against any popular stream or whim. If you are prepared and have the courage to do that – and the poet speaks from his own experience, not only in the sixties but also later when he ‘emerged to find Jesus’ in 1979 - you will pay the price and they will publicly behead you, that is why he says: "they’d probably put my head in a guillotine”. The guillotine ,a sort of machine for beheading a person by one stroke of a heavy ax or blade, is well known for its use during the French Revolution (1789) when thousands of contra-revolutionaries were beheaded by it. For that reason, the method of killing by a “guillotine” may be deliberately chosen here because during the French Revolution is was the typical instrument to kill contra-revolutionaries and as the sixties progressed Dylan’s song writing more and more took distance from the silent revolution as expressed by the cultural counter movement.
To wrap things up, this is what the poet has done in this song: on the one hand he criticizes society for its inherent failures but on the other hand he admits that he too represents an integral part of the very society he criticizes and for that reason he is under the knife himself. The awareness of this twofold reality may very well be the beginning of a process which can ultimately set a man free, but that horizon is not further explored in this song. Although those who see in the final words “but it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only” a streak of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism and a sort of mild resignation, may have a point. However, the words “but it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only” may at the same time herald an awakening of the idea that if for life there is ever going to be a decisive turn for the better, it cannot come from life as it is here and now but it has to come from somewhere else. For the moment the poet resigns to this status quo and that is why he concludes by saying: “but it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only”.
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