You cannot be a Dylan fan without knowing this song inside out, and all the way round again. But perhaps what many of us have not done is listened to the version on “Before the Flood” and the original on “Bringing it all back home”. Yes it is the same song, but… but…
And this is what I suggest that is worthwhile because only in this way can we clean out the mind and visit one more time the incredible tower that Dylan erected with the original recording of this song.
Even the key is slightly different between the two recordings (D minor and D on Before the Flood, E minor and E on the original – or there abouts – the tuning is not quite right on Before the Flood).
But that’s just a passing point – what we have here is a much darker original which owes so much to its blues origins. The sound of both guitar and voice are much sharper, Dylan singing to an audience for whom this would all be so new on “Bringing it all back home” but singing to an audience ready to cheer with the line about the President, and for whom most of the metaphors are now so well known that they cannot wrap themselves around our brains any more.
The original is now (2013) so incredibly sharp and refreshing. And hearing the original allows us to hear the words and the elements of restraint in the voice. Each word is perfectly stated, each note is sung spot on, as not a single moment of the guitar’s accompaniment is flawed.
Even the couple of suddenly unexpected breaths in the original recording are breaths of relief, something we have forgotten if all we have heard for years are the live versions.
Dylan wants every word to count in this original merging of the surreal and the overt protest, the symbolic movement away from the protest movement and the rock of Maggie’s Farm, (the third track of “Bringing it all back home”). This is the statement we had a feeling that was coming, but we never believed it could be delivered with this much power, this much style, this much vigour, this much totality.
We can protest for ever, the master says, but “There is no sense in trying” because all the words are wasted. Why? Well you have to wait until the last line to find out, but of course we now know why. Because this is how it is.
But, and this is the key, Dylan is very much with the blues in the three section verses of this song – each verse takes its all from the blues, only relieved at first as each fourth section ending with the title, offers a much more melodic, saddened farewell to the protest. Just listen to Dylan’s voice in those three line sections, in the early verses, and compare
So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing
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
And then again
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
That last line followed by the plaintive single note of the harmonica is utterly plaintive, sad, looking back, regretting, saying, “Hell I wanted to protest, I wanted to make the world better, yes, I did, but there is nothing I can do. It has all gone too far. Everything’s just everything, because everything just is,” as Roy Harper once said.
And what better music than the blues for the six line verses, and melody and chord changes that you would rarely find sung anywhere so regretfully.
…at least until
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to
For then the voice gathers an extra edge.
Now the passing note of the harmonica is missing. I am just doing what I can in this world, Dylan says. You go your way I go mine. (Most likely).
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
And as he says, as we all felt, you don’t know what I am thinking. The thought police may be here in one sense, telling us what is and what is not acceptable, but in the end you still can’t get inside my head. Thank God.
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
And so the harmonica has been put away, it was only there for the first verses, it now serves no purpose, there is no need to end each verse with its plaintive sound, because we are beyond plaintiveness. It is just life. I was just reflecting and sighing, but now I have to admit, this is how it is, and there is nothing I can do about it.
It is the masterpiece of the era, a song so utterly incredible and brilliant that by and large it can be misunderstood as far less than it is. The transition from alternative visions through protest to alternative visions through alternative visions. Johanna, get ready.
Here’s an electric version
The Discussion Group
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The Chronology Files
These files put Dylan’s work in the order written. You can link to the files here