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It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Losing Innocence.

March 30, 2012

It's Alright MaMiriam says:

I’ve heard it said that ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ is Bob Dylan’s magnum opus.  I think that may be a bit of stretch, since Dylan is pretty undeniably one of the greatest lyricists ever, and has written many many amazing songs.  This is, however, a really powerful song that is packed full of meaning.  Every line of every verse could have an essay written about it, it feels, which is why I apologize in advance for this somewhat shallow and brief interpretation of this song. It’s just that I found myself listening to it the other day and I couldn’t resist writing about it, partially because I had such a hard time understanding its meaning.  I can only offer what it means to me at the moment that I am writing this, as my interpretation is apt to change from day to day.

The first theme I see in this song is the disappointment of adulthood.  Lines like “shadows eat the silver spoon” and “The handmade blade, the child’s balloon/ eclipses both the sun and moon” makes me think of the happiness of childhood being replaced by something else, that something else being the realization “that he not busy being born is busy dying”.  I think that evoking the idea of inheritance through the use of the phrase “silver spoon” is really clever; as children, we have the assumption that we deserve the luxury we are given.  One of the biggest shocks of adulthood is learning this is not the case. The universe does not necessarily ‘owe’ us anything.

This realization is explored in the next verse (I am definitely not going to analyze every verse as this would very soon turn into a thesis paper).  “You feel to moan but unlike before, you discover that you’d just be one more person crying.” As an individual who only recently transitioned to adulthood (in theory), this really speaks to me.  I constantly struggle with what I call the ‘should’.  Life should be like this.  I should be good at that.  I should be doing this by now. The truth is there is no standard by which we can measure our life, there is only what we make of it.  I need to quote a whole verse of the song, as Dylan of course says it much better than me:

“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.”

Well, as I’ve said, I could go on much longer, but I’m going to explore only one more theme.  The problem that I see is not that our lives have no standards.  I think that this is potentially incredibly freeing.  No, the problem that occurs is that people are constantly searching for something external to create their morality for them. As Dylan puts it, “some on principles baptized to strict party platform ties”.  These people eventually end up daring “to push fake morals, insult and stare” at the people who really are trying to live independently of external moralities.  I’m especially inclined to agree with Dylan about the next line: “while money doesn’t talk, it swears obscenity”.

Dylan doesn’t end up presenting any semblance of a solution to this conundrum; the song is much more about pointing out what’s wrong rather than what can be done to make it right.  I do know that this song has made me think an awful lot about the assumptions I make on a daily basis.  Really, this song is a Jeremiad, a call for people to reexamine and reflect upon their lives and their perceptions, and in that capacity I consider it to be highly successful.  I think this song will remain with me, as a consistent reminder to not buy into the constraints put on me by external moralities.  Faun, I’m so excited to see what interpretation you’ll come up with!

Faun says:

I agree with Miriam that up until the first chorus, the lyrics seem to be following a personal narrative. I’m tempted to say ‘loss of innocence’ (mostly because of a fantastic high-school English teacher who forbade us from using it as an interpretation, and it’s now awfully hard to resist) or coming of age, etc. However, after the ‘disillusionment’ that the beginning of the song traces, the remainder of the lyrics make me feel like I do after reading Fight Club or The Catcher in the Rye. The fairly overwhelming sense of the world being fake and superficial comes through clearly, and this particular song is missing Bob Dylan’s usual optimistic overtones. I would call it a protest song, but not one that gives people something easy to sing, one that aims to move people. And considering its prevalence during its time (Jimmy Carter, for example, quoted it when accepting his nomination) I think it succeeded. It makes me more than a little bit depressed about 2012’s anthemic tunes. Comparatively speaking, we have very little to show.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. suzanne gross permalink
    March 30, 2012 3:39 pm

    What a wonderful song to resurrect. Thank you for your reflections on some of these timeless themes.

  2. March 30, 2012 3:46 pm

    way too true – thanks

  3. miriamthewalrus permalink*
    March 30, 2012 4:02 pm

    I think it’s a little problematic to criticize musicians of today for not being as amazing as Bob Dylan. First, no one is as amazing as Bob Dylan, or at least in the same way that he is. And secondly, the 60’s were a rare time in which music that was popular was music that was good. Just because the good music of today is not popular doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    • March 31, 2012 2:44 am

      I’m not criticizing all of today’s musicians, I’m criticizing the fact that our current ‘anthems’ come nowhere near the 60s in terms of social consciousness, critical content, or even thought-provoking lyrics. Of course there are good musicians today, and many of them! But what is ‘popular’ reflects what we are concerned with, collectively. More of a comment on societal preferences than existing talent.

      • miriamthewalrus permalink*
        March 31, 2012 2:37 pm

        Very true, very true. Of course, I keep coming back to Occupy Wallstreet as a symbol of the passion and non-apathy that does exist in society, even if mainstream media is not concerned with it.

        • April 1, 2012 11:53 am

          Of course! Miriam, m’dear, I am talking specifically about mainstream media (and c’mon, it does reflect a fairly prevalent mindset) which does not mean that apathy exists across the board.

          • suzanne gross permalink
            April 7, 2012 4:14 pm

            I would suggest that there is difference between the role the media played in the 60s and 70s and today. Back then, the media did in fact to a greater degree “reflect” what was happening, including in the music world. Today, the media “creates” perceptions in so many ways, and is therefore perhaps not a reliable litmus test of societal preferences. Just wondering.

            • April 11, 2012 4:05 am

              That’s a very interesting comment! I’m sure I’ve read an article about that, about signs and simulacra throughout history, and if I can remember where I shall post it somehow. A very good point.

  4. March 30, 2012 4:06 pm

    One of my personal favourites. I feel the lyrics sum up all the reasons he left the protest scene and that this was simply his confession of distaste and dissolussionment “To understand you know too soon, there is no sense in trying”. If kennedy can be assassinated then what hope does a humble folk singer have, not that dylan was ever really humbled! You notice that he doesn’t offer the confession to his audience and he seems somewhat distatesul towards the mass of society:
    For them that must obey authority
    That they do not respect in any degree
    Who despise their jobs, their destinies
    Speak jealously of them that are free
    Cultivate their flowers to be
    Nothing more than something they invest in
    maybe he feels he owes them nothing!
    Man i could write an essay on this one too, great choice. Would love to see your take on Visions of Johanna, think i got that one once when i was drunk but it slips away – a surrealistic series of small vignettes?

    • miriamthewalrus permalink*
      March 30, 2012 4:32 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion! We’ll see what we can do!!!

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