My favorite Bob Dylan song is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding.)” It’s not the one I listen to the most, and it’s not the one I’ve given the most effort to singing or playing. But it’s the one that sounds the most “Bob Dylan-y,” the one that combines all of his many influences into the most singular whole. A close runner up would be “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” but while that song has remarkable lyrics, it’s melodically pretty conventional. “It’s Alright Ma” is rivetingly strange on every level.
Steven Rings wrote this epic study of the song’s evolution over the past 45 years, and if you’re at all interested in Bob’s music, it’s a must-read. It’s the closest musical analysis of Bob I’ve ever seen. Reading Rings’ paper and doing listening with fresh ears has made me realize that “It’s Alright Ma” is stronger musically than lyrically. This is true of a lot of Bob’s songs, his literary reputation notwithstanding. On the page, he can have a dated Holden Caulfield quality. But when you hear his words sung, or better yet, when you sing them yourself, they’re as fresh as they ever were.
Rather than opening the song with specific political or social commentary, Bob launches straight into impenetrable surrealism:
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
What does any of this mean? Maybe nothing! Maybe it’s just a bunch of words that sound good together, which, after all, is mostly what song lyrics are.
The line breaks in here seem arbitrary–Bob’s phrasing defies easy metric categorization:
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
suicide remarks are torn
from the fool’s gold mouthpiece
the hollow horn plays wasted words
proves to warn that he not busy being born
is busy dying
As a teenager I found this to be very profound:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
as human gods aim for their mark
make everything from toy guns that spark
to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
it’s easy to see without looking too far
that not much is really sacred
As an adult, I’m less impressed by the social commentary, but I am impressed by the mouth feel of these lines. In the last couple of lines, Bob uses a lot of weasel words – “too far,” “not much,” “really sacred.” Hedging and qualifying like that is usually a sign of weak writing. But Bob needs those extra syllables to give the lines their satisfying rap-like flow.
The line that gets all the applause in concerts is this one:
But even the president of the United States
sometimes must have to stand naked
Rings points out that Bob stopped singing the song during the Clinton and Obama administrations.
This verse still holds up for me as social commentary, in addition to sounding great:
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
The later verses lean most heavily on the Holden Caulfield language, Bob accusing everyone else of being shallow and deluded. That may well be true, but as a grown man, it can be tiresome being lectured by a 24-year-old, no matter how brilliant a musician he may be. Cover versions of “It’s Alright Ma” tend to leave the last eight verses out. But there’s something to the sheer hypnotic intensity of verse after verse after verse after verse. They’re greater than the sum of their parts. It’s the same trancelike pleasure I get from “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” another Bob song with overrated lyrics and underrated music.
Bob’s innovations in meter and form are dazzling compared to the foursquare conservatism of his folk and rock contemporaries, but they seem tame compared to current rappers like Chance or Kendrick Lamar. The thing that makes “It’s Alright Ma” so hip after all this time is how effortlessly Bob steps out of strict 4/4 time. His phrase lengths are totally inconsistent from verse to verse. The chorus holds to a more predictable metrical structure, but that structure is a chin-scratcher once you try to count through it. I imagine that if you’re one of Bob’s backing musicians, you need to have all the lyrics memorized, because there’s no other reliable way to keep track of where you are in the groove. The harmonies in “It’s Alright Ma” are simple, but they’re similarly fascinating. The song is essentially in E major, but Bob freely mixes in E minor, showing his blues and rock roots. See Rings’ paper for a deep dive into all that.
All of Bob’s different versions of the song over the years are fascinating. Nothing will ever take the original’s place in my heart, but his various rock versions are bangers too. My favorite is the late 70s gospel arrangement.
Like all of Bob’s classics, “It’s Alright Ma” has been covered many times, mostly by folk or rock musicians trying to imitate Bob’s caustic tone. The various versions by Roger McGuinn and the Byrds fall into this category. They end up just sounding like weak solutions of Bob. I prefer the versions that take wider stylistic liberties, especially the funk one by Billy Preston.
This isn’t so much a cover as it a dramatic rewrite. Preston changes the melody and harmony, and he omits half the lyrics, including all of the choruses. He has some annoying idiosyncrasies as a vocalist, but as an instrumentalist and arranger, he slays.
Caetano Veloso offers another highly creative interpretation. He keeps the tune mostly intact, but he combines a colorful production style with laconic deadpan singing style to good effect.
Terence Trent D’Arby deserves mention too for his very uptempo soul version. I don’t find it to be totally successful, but it gets points for boldness.
I did a mashup of Bob’s original as filtered through a vocoder with his 70s gospel version together, along with the Billy Preston and Caetano Veloso versions. Get in touch if you’d like to hear it.