Bob Dylan’s ‘It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)’- an analysis- Part 1.
There can hardly be any doubt that the Dylan classic ‘It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)’, written in 1964 for the album ‘Bringing it all Back Home’, is an outstanding masterpiece that ranks among the top five of best songs Dylan has ever written.
In his 2004 CBS ‘Sixty Minutes’ interview Dylan is asked if he ever looks back at the music he’s written with surprise. Dylan answers: "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'. Then Dylan goes on to quote the first lines of ‘It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)’, and goes on to say: ‘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’’. Indeed, the penetrating cascade of words hammering down on you in rhythmic waves, in combination with the fact that, no matter how intricate the rhyme and alliteration scheme is Dylan follows, yet all the words and verses are equally meaningful; all these elements give you the feeling that indeed this song was almost magically written and that because of this Dylan had little or no conscious will power over the composition of this song and that these words were simply given to him.
This song may represent part of a new phase in Dylan’s song writing and an important departure from earlier work. Earlier work such as for instance ‘The Times They Are a-Changing’ is generally regarded as taking a clear political and social stance, supporting and giving voice to the social counter culture movement of the sixties. However, the focus of this critical counter culture movement had so far limited itself to their opponents, to “them”. So far the message had been: “They” –the establishment - are on the wrong side and “we” representing the counter culture are on the right side. But ‘It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)’ completely changes this framework of thinking. Those who criticize and protest, including the poet himself, are now also under criticism. In this song the focus has changed and the protest seems to have been taken to a new and higher level. The American culture – with its taboos: politics, sex and religion – is not spared in this song and it even goes further than that, in fact the whole human condition is under the knife and filleted in this song. It is obvious that the sixties counter culture movement was not amused by this new development. We should not forget however, that Dylan never wanted to be a spokesman for the sixties counter culture movement or for whatever other political or religious organisation: ‘it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to’. Although this song has also some humoristic aspects, the overall timbre of Dylan’s song writing had become much darker and pessimistic and therefore it is no wonder that we find some mild undercurrents of nihilism, existentialism and resignation in this song. Mild nihilism for instance in lines like: "There is no sense in trying" and "I got nothing, Ma, to live up to" and a streak of resignation, if not of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism, in a line like: ‘But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only’.(“Life and life only” was supposed to be the song’s original subtitle).
In the song and in the song’s title ‘It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)’we find the same sort of resignation as in Dylan’s song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” which recalls Arthur Crudups’ song “That’s All Right Mama” recorded by Elvis Presley. Although ‘It's Alright, Ma’ shows resignation and acceptance of the situation we are all in, the subtitle ‘’I’m only bleeding” expresses anguish and compassion as if the poet says: ‘I am bleeding, I am in great pain because of this (human) condition, but that’s all right mama, someone has to bleed and suffer, so don’t worry, it is only me who is bleeding but I will somehow survive and even if I won’t survive, life goes on’.
As said, the human condition is tackled in this song. The human condition is pictured in such a way that there can hardly be any other conclusion than that we -as mankind - are all in the same dreadful state and that there is no cure available under this sun. In some sort of a way ‘It's Alright Ma’ resembles Dylan’s 1991 song ‘Dignity’. After all the elaborate but yet fruitless efforts to find human dignity in this world, the poet concludes: “So many roads, so much at stake, so many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake, sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take, to find dignity”. The difference between ‘It’s Alright Ma' and ‘Dignity’ is that whereas in ‘Dignity’ the door to find human dignity is still ajar but in ‘It's Alright, Ma’ this door is firmly closed. In ‘Dignity’ the possibilities to find human dignity are slim but not entirely be ruled out. It will take a lot of pain to find dignity and implicitly the message is that if we are ever going to find dignity, we need interference from another –supernatural – world because in this world dignity is not available.
In ‘It's Alright Ma’ the poet ostensibly operates from a more or less closed world view. The message at this stage is that in this present world all man-made political systems, philosophies, ideologies, or religions cannot offer any enduring help or solution to get ourselves out of the mess we created. In the end everything disappoints and falls short of one’s expectations and you had better accept and resign to that fact. Therefore, the song can be seen as a universal statement about the condition of man and for that reason ‘It's Alright Ma’ is never outdated and will always be up to date. It may also be one of the reasons why even today this song means a lot to Dylan and as a result it has never left his live set for any sustained period of time. If this song is almost magically written, at least partly beyond Dylan’s conscious control, then Dylan may have written down words of which the full meaning and significance were not clear to him at the time he wrote those words. The meaning and significance of these words may have become clear to him in later years. This allows the analyst some freedom of interpretation. On the one hand, one may therefore argue that a song which is indeed almost magically written cannot be interpreted or analysed ,you should just let the words do their work and overflow you and not search for any conscious or deeper meaning. On the other hand however, concentration on the words and focus on the circumstances under which Dylan wrote those words may give you help in understanding at least part of the song. Let’s now make a start and take a more detailed look at the lyrics and see what comes up.
The message of the first stanza is that there is no sense in trying to understand what cannot be understood, that there is no sense in trying to reconcile what cannot be reconciled and what is really too absurd for words. This message is worked out in a number of images. The first image “Darkness at the break of Noon” echoes the title of Arthur Koestler’s anti-Communist novel ‘’Darkness At Noon” (1940). In this novel the question is discussed whether the suffering and sacrifice of a few thousand or a few million people during the Stalin regime would be justified in order to realize the happiness of future generations in an utopian communist state. The allusion in this novel is implicitly that the idea that an utopian communist state can be created at the expense of and literal sacrifice of millions of innocent people is too absurd for words. The title of Koestler’s novel ‘’Darkness At Noon” hints at an- from a human point of view - equally absurd event and that is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Koestler’s novel ’Darkness At Noon” recalls the “Darkness at the break of noon” which occurred when Jesus Christ was crucified (Mat. 27:45). Here we find that one innocent Man died for the whole of humanity. You know too soon that there is no sense in trying to understand that the biggest crime in history is at the same time the best thing that could ever happen to humanity. Here the question of the interrelationship between human responsibility and divine predestination is hinted at but not resolved because ‘’to understand you know too soon there is no sense in trying”. The interrelationship between human responsibility and divine predestination is further explored in Dylan’s song ‘With God on our Side’ which Dylan wrote only a few years earlier.
“Darkness at the break of noon” refers to an apocalypse and there is not a single person who is not and will not be somehow affected by the global impact of this apocalypse, therefore it says that this darkness at the break of noon “shadows even the silver spoon”. Not only those mentioned in Koestler’s novel, who were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, those many nameless millions crushed by the Stalinist terror in the name of an utopian communist state, underwent the apocalyptic proportions of this Stalinist terror, but also the lucky few, the rich, the inherited wealth of established upper-class families, those ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouth’ will in the end be affected and will suffer because of the apocalypse which is proclaimed by the words “Darkness at the break of noon” . No one will escape, that is why it says that darkness at the break of noon casts a shadow even on the silver spoon.
Two groups stand out when this apocalypse occurs. The first group consists of those using extreme violence, they are denoted by and apply “the hand-made blade”. They are the masters of war who go to great length and meticulously fabricate hand-made weapons to crush the innocent. In the apocalyptic end times they will cover the earth for the battle of the end times (Gog and Magog), they come in such large numbers, like the sand of the sea( Rev. 20:8), and their numbers are so huge that it looks as if they cause a total eclipse, they “eclipse both the sun and moon”. The second group is alluded to by the words “the child’s balloon” representing the weakness, helplessness and open-mindedness of young children who nevertheless play an important spiritual part in universal ( end-time) battles like it says in Psalm 8:2 “Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger” . So “the hand-made blade “and “the child’s balloon” two opposite phenomena , are two opposing apocalyptic entities and play an important role in causing a total eclipse of both the sun and moon. It is impossible to find out how the interrelationship between these two phenomena exactly works: ‘’to understand, you know too soon that there is no sense in trying” Ostensibly minor events like a child’s balloon in the sky may cause a chain reaction, in the end causing total eclipse of both the sun and moon. The effect “The hand-made blade“ and “the child’s balloon” have, resembles the so-called ‘butterfly effect’. The meteorologist Edward Lorenz studied computer simulations of weather patterns in 1961. Later on in an article Lorenz would use the metaphor of a butterfly in Brazil which by a flap of the wing would cause a tornado in Texas: the so-called ‘butterfly effect’. In chaotic systems the slightest change in the starting conditions makes the system unpredictable.
The magic words “Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn” have turned out to be prophetic and could therefore just as easily have been written today (2014).These words take us into the sinister world of terrorism and the actions of terrorist groups. Nowadays it takes us to the kind of terrorism to which the world has become familiar ever since 9/11. Just look at a terrorist movement such as IS and their militant videos and see how they spread their ideology in such a way that “they bluff with scorn”. They carry out their pointed threats with scorn and behead innocent people. They are so proud of it that they show these beheadings to the world with bluff and scorn, with no other intentions to spread worldwide fear. When Dylan wrote these words these words turned out to be prophetic but that does not mean that there were no “pointed threats” when Dylan first wrote this song. On the contrary. This song was written during the summer of 1964. In 1964 the US was still reeling from the blow caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. 1964 was also the year when the USA began to step up its war efforts in Vietnam, in spite of mounting resistance in the US. History has shown that in order to justify a war, most of the time threats are exaggerated. In the eyes of warmongers, the Masters of War, “threats” easily become “pointed threats” and your enemy’s “bluff” and “scorn” can easily become an excuse to declare a “justified” war.
The words “Suicide remarks are torn” can be understood as belonging to the words that follow: “from the fool’s gold mouthpiece”, in this way you get the line: “Suicide remarks are torn from the fool’s gold mouthpiece”. When in 1964 the poet wrote “Suicide remarks are torn from the fool’s gold mouthpiece” it has appeared that these words were equally prescient as the words “Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn”. Six years later in 1970 a group called “The Mash” would release a hit single glorifying suicide called “Suicide is Painless”: “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please”. But also in this century some people, in the name of some ideology or religion, are prepared to ‘sacrifice’ their lives and to commit suicide, to blow themselves up and expect to be glorified in heaven for that. Just think of today’s Jihadist Muslim suicide terrorists. Although this kind of sacrificial suicide in the name of religion or ideology has been of all times and ages, nevertheless, the allusion in this song seems to be that when you propagandize, when you are the “mouthpiece” of this kind of sacrificial suicide, tearing and absorbing, these “suicide remarks from the fool’s gold mouthpiece”, you are not only deceived but you will also become no less than the “mouthpiece” of a “fool”, you will be the spokesman of a fool. You are convinced that you will be rewarded in paradise because the mouthpiece seems to be of “gold” ,but it will appear that it is only fool’s gold, fool’s gold like iron or copper pyrites, resembling gold in colour but in fact fake and in the end you will be disappointed and deceived because you will find out that you have followed a “fool”. This “fool” who promises you paradise but it will turn out to be a “fool’s paradise”. This fool is someone who promises you heaven but will lead you to hell. A “fool” is pictured in the Scriptures as a person who acts contrary to moral and religious wisdom, a wicked person, like it says in Psalm 14:1 “The fool says in his heart, there is no God”.
In this verse there is some great pun which results in really fantastic poetry. Great poetry, because it is not only possible to read: “Suicide remarks are torn from the fool’s gold mouthpiece” like we did and discussed above but one may also start reading at a later point in this line and then you may read: “From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn plays wasted words”. If you follow the latter reading, the focus of attention shifts. The focus shifts from a figurative meaning of “mouthpiece”, “mouthpiece” meaning “being a spokesman for” for a fool to a more literal meaning of the word “mouthpiece” meaning ‘the part of a musical or other instrument to which the mouth is applied in using it”. Here we are dealing with the “gold mouthpiece” of “the hollow horn”. Nowadays a horn is usually a brass instrument played in a brass-band but originally it was a wind instrument made of a horn of an ox or a ram, the so-called ram’s horn. In ancient times the horn was e.g. blown as a warning signal for public gatherings to or it was blown as a warning signal to launch an attack in a war (e.g. Joshua 6:5).
This “horn” here does not do what it is supposed to do and that is to warn, that is why it is said to be “hollow” which means that the sound of this horn is deceitful, the sound of this horn wrong foots and misleads you, much in is the same way as the futile horn from the one-eyed undertaker from Dylan’s song ‘Shelter from the Storm’. The hollow horn plays “wasted words”, words never meant to be spoken, empty words without any valuable result. However, the ‘’the hollow horn plays wasted words”, the fool who blows this hollow horn does not give society any wise or valuable information or warnings, on the contrary, this fool, like a pied piper, leads society to the brink of disaster, to self-destruction and suicide.
Though against his will, the fool’s wasted words “prove” something else and that is that it is necessary to send out the warning “that he not busy being born is busy dying”. This warning is taken to heart only by wise men, wise men will learn from the fool and “prove” that the following warning represents a universally true and valuable lesson, the lesson “that he not busy being born is busy dying”. Funny that this quote “he not busy being born is busy dying” was once used by (the born again) former US President Jimmy Carter in his acceptance speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. At the time (in 1964) the thought behind the quote “he not busy being born is busy dying” may be the same as Dylan once expressed in his song ‘Let me die in my footsteps’ written two years earlier in 1962: “There’s been rumours of war and wars that have been, the meaning of life has been lost in the wind. And some people thinking’ that the end is close by, ’Stead of learning to live they are learning to die, let me die in my footsteps, before I go down under the ground”.
In this quote “he not busy being born is busy dying” we may see the further awakening of a moral ground pattern, a pattern of a world view which would become more and more outspoken as Dylan’s artistic career progresses. In this worldview humanity is divided into two camps and there is a constant moral battle going on between those two camps: “there’s a battle outside and it’s raging”. Now the moral question Dylan raises again and again is: “Which side are you on?”. (Desolation Row 1965). Neutralism seems never to have been an option in Dylan’s worldview. It is true, Dylan has always rejected false human claims of authority over him, no matter whether these claims come from individuals or from organisations, whether religious or not, and this is the reason why he would later on in this song state “that it is not he or she or them or it, that you belong to”. No human being or (religious)organisation owns him. But that does not mean that the quote: “There ain’t no neutral ground” ( from Dylan’s 1979 ‘Precious Angel’) represents a moral thesis which has to be confined to what is generally regarded as Dylan’s Christian phase. On the contrary, in Dylan’s view each human being has to make a personal and moral decision as to which camp he or she wants to belong. There has always been a sharp dividing-line – a polarity - between those two camps in Dylan’s oeuvre. The one camp represents life and the other death, the one camp represents good and the other evil, the one camp represents right and the other wrong. Some examples at random which show this phenomenon: From “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine” (1966): “I’m gonna let you pass. And I’ll go last, then time will tell just who fell, and who’s been left behind, when you go your way and I go mine”. Or from “Can’t Wait” (1997): “there are people all around, some on their way up, some on their way down”. Even in Dylan’s 2012 Rolling Stone interview this decision seems to shine through when Dylan says: “You have to change your heart if you want change,” and “No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed.”. So the radical message seems to be that only those who are on the road that leads to life are “ busy being born” and if not, if you are on the road that leads to death, you are “busy dying”. It is either one or the other road and this seems to be the lesson which wise men can draw from the fool’s gold mouthpiece. These words seem to be contradicted by the words “the more I die, the more I live” from 2012 Tempest’s “Pay in Blood” but within the context of “Pay in Blood” these words are not contradictory. For more details on this we refer to my analysis of 'Pay in Blood'' - Part 2.
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