I shall be released: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood


We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it

Yet ev’ry distance is not near

There must be someway out of here

Three phrases from very different sounding songs but with a linked meaning.  We are trapped inside something or other, sometimes we deny it, sometimes we are just crying our defiance, sometimes we are getting angry and ready to push on, out of it, sometimes we ain’t got a clue as to what is going on.

In Johanna you get the feeling that the prison is metaphorical, we are stranded because of his thought patterns and anyway we deny it….   I could get up out of this cold damp room, if I wanted to, it is just….

In “I shall be released” there is the belief or a desperate plea that someone else will come along and release him.  If the release is from prison then it is of course the prison authorities .  If it is mental it is perhaps the Almighty who will do it.  If the character in the song is old and dying then it is death.  But always it is someone or something else.  In Johanna the emphasis is on the fact that you could do it yourself.  It’s just your thoughts playing tricks.  In “Released” it is waiting for help.   As for the Watchtower – well that is the ultimate wasteland.  Two riders were approaching… who knows what happens next.

Certainly musically all of these songs about being trapped or caught up in a situation are quite different but represent a recurrent theme.  Johanna is ethereal, the music reflected off the mists and fog surrounding the setting.     I shall be released (at least in the original version on the Bootleg 1-3 compilation, it is painful and slow (later versions have been very different), waiting for release to come, shouting in defiance but doing nothing.  In Watchtower, something damn well is happening, but we have no idea what it is.  (Not in the same way as Mr Jones – he believed he knew what was going on – in Watchtower the singer really has no idea what is happening.)

And so the pain of waiting is reflected in the plodding chord sequence of sadness in Released.

G Am Bm Am G – you can’t get more sorrowful than that.  The preponderance of the minor chords and the fact that the whole sequence goes nowhere.  It is like taking a few very painful steps up the stairs and then giving up on the third stair and coming back down.  But still the singer asserts “I shall be released.”   But really in this version musically it is hard to believe him.

And even that chorus is painful, hanging onto the bars of the prison and crying out, “you haven’t destroyed my spirit”.

In chordal terms the chorus runs

G Am Bm D G (repeated)

Here even the D major chord which should give us a sense of achievement and dominance over the music fails because of the level of minor chords.   This is tragedy and desperation, note after note, chord after chord.

And when we come to the lyrics it is hard for me to escape the view that “I shall be released” is probably mostly about a mix of a physical prison and a confession.  “Forgive me father for I have sinned” answered by “How long since your last confession?”  (or the Jewish equivalent – and here I ask your forgiveness because I am very ignorant of the details of the practice of the Jewish faith.)    But asking for forgiveness is certainly part of the whole show – the singer can believe he will be released  through confession, or through the unexpected appeal, but it is always by an outside agency.

Dylan of course spoke elsewhere about release – I particularly liked the release from the court room in Drifter’s Escape as either divine intervention or pure chance blows the courtroom up.  A release there from prejudice and prison from without.

Physical release is in many ways a much simpler concept than the release that Louise, Johanna and Little Boy Lost are denying that they even need, and so it is in keeping with the thoughts expressed in the song that I shall be released is much simpler musically.  No extended verses, no changes of musical direction – its a slow blues, pop and gospel compilation.

And the simplicity and sheer power of the whole concept has made the song highly desirable as something worth recording.   Everyone it seems has had a go. Apparently even Elvis Presley.

The music although painful also achieves a sing-along quality that makes everyone want to join in, which is why Amnesty International and other organisations use it.  It is almost as if by singing the song everyone imprisoned unjustly can get free.  Or if not, at least believe that thy can get free.

How utterly utterly different from Little Boy Lost who  brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously.

Many have reproduced Allen Ginsberg’s recollection of Dylan’s comment around this time that he was writing shorter lines, with no wasted language and no wasted breath and we can see that here, but it’s not quite as simple as that, because Dylan’s theme here fits perfectly with the requirement and notion of the short line.  The complexity of the entrapment of Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost demands longer lines and more complex imagery.

But returning to the song in question, at this time there is something else to notice.  Everyone knows the chorus – so for a moment let us forget that, and just read the verses.

It is only when we do this that we realise that there is a profound disconnect in this song.  The three verses don’t seem to link up.   The first seems to be about the fact nothing is changing so hold on to the memories.

They say ev’rything can be replaced
Yet ev’ry distance is not near
So I remember ev’ry face
Of ev’ry man who put me here

Second time around, we get the notion that we all need something to worship, except the singer who sees his reflection above himself.  He is able to release himself – because he gets to know himself, or perhaps gets to know God.

They say ev’ry man needs protection
They say ev’ry man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above this wall

But still everyone is alone, no one takes responsibility.

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed

This can make sense if we see the chorus linking all the verses – my life is trapped but I shall ultimately be released from the stresses and strains of my entrapment.  Where ever I am whatever I am I shall be released from this cage.  I won’t do it, but something will happen from without.

Which is what belief in fate, in God or in the cavalry coming over the hill is all about.  You can wait for it and believe it will come and help out, or you can be like Johanna and the others and tie yourself up in knots trying to solve the problem you don’t acknowledge exists.

Either way, it seems, no one actually does get released.  Which is a bit odd.

By the time of the Greatest Hits 2 version, the song has changed its feel, and if you want a view of where it got to later try the Dylan and Norah Jones version   This is wistful, and was recorded at the time that Dylan was throwing a falsetto note into the end of almost every line in every song.

Here the feeling is of reflection and hope rather than desperation.  This has turned hanging onto the prison bars into a slow dance number with your girlfriend.  Just look at how Norah Jones is moving; all the pain of the song removed and the lap steel guitar playing in the instrumental break adds enormously to the new interpretation we have of the song.

It thus can be a man in isolation in prison on his own, or a celebration of the fact that we can all find a way out of here.

Which then takes us finally away from the prison of the original version, onto a resolution.  Not the resolution of Johanna nor the resolution of

There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
Can’t get no relief

But still a resolution.

Poor Johanna is still stuck.  On the moor the wind is still howling.  But the imprisoned man it seems has found his way out.  Just by waiting.

Index to all the songs on the site.

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6 Responses to I shall be released: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. James says:

    I think the release is death. The prisoner is on death row awaiting his execution which will release him from his cell, from his guilt and from his life.

  2. Robert says:

    What does it mean “from the west unto the east”?
    This is the oposite way the sun goes. Even the moon doesn’t go that way.
    Can anybody explain?

  3. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/279/I-Shall-Be-Released (Additional Information)

  4. TMQ says:

    I read an explination that talked about shadows on the floor or wall. When the sun rises in the east, a shadow would be cast to the west and vice versa.

  5. Jim Fletcher says:

    I believe when Dylan says in I Shall Be Released “I see my light come shining From the west unto the east” he is speaking of what the ancient Indian rishis (yogis) describe as the experience one has in mediative sammahdi (Kundalini awakening). This is the “light” of the sahasrara chakra at the top of the head flowing to the ajna chakra(third “eye” between the eyebrows). The ajna chakra is also known as the “star of the east” because one sees a five pointed star. When Dylan ends All Along The Watchtower with “two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl” he is aware of his involvement with duality (non-union with the divine consciousness) and the turbulence that goes with it.

  6. Janine says:

    For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Matthew 24:27

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