52b555db9e20e4fcd3da216a438ef9d6_large

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) ~ Bob Dylan

bob-dylanBob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter, author, poet, and disc jockey who has been a major figure in popular music for five decades. Much of Dylan’s most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when he became an informal chronicler and a reluctant figurehead of American unrest. A number of his songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, became anthems of the anti-war and civil rights movements.

Dylan’s early lyrics incorporated politics, social commentary, philosophy and literary influences, defying existing pop music conventions and appealing widely to the counterculture. While expanding and personalizing musical styles, he has shown steadfast devotion to many traditions of American song, from folk and country/blues to gospel, rock and roll and rockabilly, to English, Scottish and Irish folk music, and even jazz and swing.

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is a song written and performed by Bob Dylan and first released on his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home. It was written in the summer of 1964, first performed live on October 10, 1964, and recorded on January 15, 1965. Described by Dylan biographer Howard Sounes as a “grim masterpiece,” the song features some of Dylan’s most memorable lyrical images. Among the well-known lines sung in the song are “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” “Although the masters make the rules, for the wise men and the fools” and “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” The lyrics express Dylan’s anger at hypocrisy, commercialism, consumerism, warmongers and contemporary American culture, but unlike his earlier protest songs, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” does not express optimism in the possibility of political solutions.

Dylan has stated that “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is one of his songs that means the most to him, and he has played the song often in live concerts.

Dylan wrote “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in the summer of 1964. Although he was prepared to take his time developing the song, as he did with “Mr. Tambourine Man”, he finished it in time for inclusion on the Bringing It All Back Home album, which was recorded in January 1965. Dylan first performed “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” live on October 10, 1964 at Philadelphia Town Hall. The version included on Bringing It All Back Home was recorded on January 15, 1965, the same day that the other three songs on side 2 of the album (“Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Gates of Eden” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”) were recorded, with Tom Wilson in the role of producer.  It was long thought that each of the four songs that make up side 2 of Bringing It All Back Home were recorded in one long take.  However, there was actually one false take of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.

Dylan biographer Howard Sounes described “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” as a “grim masterpiece.”   The only accompaniment is Dylan’s guitar, playing folk-blues riffs and up and down chord progressions.   Author Sean Wilentz has noted that the song’s chord structure is similar to that used by the Everly Brothers’ in their hit recording of “Wake Up Little Susie”.  The lyrics of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” express Dylan’s anger at hypocrisy, commercialism, consumerism, warmongers and contemporary American culture.  In his book Bob Dylan, Performing Artist, author Paul Williams has suggested that the song addresses “the possibility that the most important (and least articulated) political issue of our times is that we are all being fed a false picture of reality, and it’s coming at us from every direction.”  Williams goes on to say that the song successfully paints a portrait of an “alienated individual identifying the characteristics of the world around him and thus declaring his freedom from its ‘rules’.”  As such, a major target in the song is the old, established concepts which give a false picture of reality and hinder new worldviews from being accepted.

While it shares a sense of prevailing entropy with the previous song on the album, “Gates of Eden”, the critique in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is more direct and less allusive.  Author Michael Gray has commented that although the vitriol Dylan unleashes towards his targets is similar to his earlier political protest songs, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is a transitionary song in that it does not express optimism in the possibility of political solutions.

Instead, Dylan sings in a new prophetic voice that would later become his trademark. However, with the political pessimism comes a more poetic vision than in his earlier protest songs, along with a more complex figurative language.  Howard Sounes notes that the song features some of Dylan’s most memorable images.  The opening lines begin the song’s torrent of apocalyptic images:

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

This opening echoes the Book of Ecclesiastes, where the author states (1:17) “I observed all deeds beneath the sun, and behold all is futile.  There are echoes of Ecclesiastes throughout the song. Another example is:

The masters make the rules
For the wise man and the fools.

The author of Ecclesiastes laments (2:15–16) “The fate of the fool will befall me also; to what advantage, then, have I become wise? But I come to the conclusion that this, too, was futility, because the wise man and the fool are both forgotten. The wise man dies, just like the fool.”

One of the most famous lines from the song reminds listeners that even the most powerful people will ultimately be judged:

But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

These lines seemed particularly prescient when Dylan performed the song on his 1974 tour with The Band, a few months before Richard Nixon’s resignation as a result of the Watergate crisis. The final lines are also powerful:

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

Dylan has cited “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” as one of his songs that means the most to him.  In 1980 he stated that “I don’t think I could sit down now and write ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ again. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, but I can still sing it.” In 1997, Dylan told The New York Times, “I’ve written some songs that I look at, and they just give me a sense of awe. Stuff like, ‘It’s Alright, Ma,’ just the alliteration in that blows me away.”

In a 2005 reader’s poll reported in Mojo, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was listed as the #8 all-time greatest Bob Dylan song, and a similar poll of artists ranked the song #21. In 2002, Uncut listed it as the #5 all-time Dylan song.

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) – Bob Dylan

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.

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fools gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proved to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover
That you’d just be
One more person crying.

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to you ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred.

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Made everything from toy guns that sparks
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it.

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.

You loose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand without nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despite their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something
They invest in.

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platforms ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God Bless him.

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in.

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him.

Old lady judges, watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes
Must get lonely.

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me ?

And if my thought-dreams could been seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

  • Audio from the 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home:

Bob_Dylan_-_Bringing_It_All_Back_Home

Play It's Alright - by Bob Dylan