“It’s all good”. The meaning of the music and the lyrics in Dylan’s song.

By Tony Attwood

I have to say I’ve had a great time reviewing this song, not least because no one that I know says, “it’s all good”.  But I recalled a song from around 2007 by Seasick Steve called “It’s all good”.  It is nothing like Dylan’s song and apparently of no relevance.  But it is just wonderful where these reviews lead, even when they are blind allies.

But back to the phrase, just ‘cos I don’t know anyone that says it, that doesn’t mean no one in Britain says it, and a couple of requests for help from younger people of my acquaintance told me it was used widely.  So there we are – just me utterly out of date.

Writing a song based on one chord with the band playing a series of catch phrases sounds easy but to make it work is incredibly hard, as is playing such songs.  I remember Bo Diddley doing it and getting away with it, but not that many can.

Here the musicians do, because of the way the accordion plays and carries them through (this guy knows his Cajun bounce).   Just listen to the two chords at the end of each line of Dylan’s singing in the first lines.  He’s playing the chord that the whole piece is based on, and then a second chord that moves away (to the sub-dominant, if you want to know).   That is exactly the opposite way around from what you would expect.

Then in verse 3 (starting “Wives are leaving their husbands”) he stops and does the reverse.    This hidden effect that you won’t notice normally is the heart of what makes this piece beat along and stay so interesting.

Anyway, I have now consulted the urban dictionaries and it seems that “It’s all good” means “No worries,” in Australia, and “No problem” in England.   Or perhaps as one commentator said, what people who are a little too old say to sound cool.”  Fortunately I don’t think I ever try to sound cool.

Actually, once I started looking I found loads of interesting definitions to the phrase.  I particularly liked “a lame response to adverse conditions which shows no concern to others.”  In other words it is a platitude which allows the speaker to get past the world without raising a concern, a thought, or any emotions at all.  As one writer said, “a favourite with inarticulate teens.”

It was, I am told, popularised by MC Hammer, and like all platitudes it is there to avoid debate or discussion.

Dylan said in one interview that the song started, “Probably from hearing the phrase one too many times,” and one can imagine that being the case.

The world is falling apart, you are being pulled to bits, and all you can say is “It’s All Good,” which is a pretty poor reflection on humanity.  “Brick by brick they tear you down, and a teacup of water, is enough to drown,” and we are drowning in this overwhelming flood of pointlessness and political humdrum.

Can we do anything about it?  Well, in the old days, Bob might have said “rebel”, then he might have said “worship” and now?   Even the Resistance is scuppered, there’s nothing we can do.  “Its all right ma, it’s life and life only.”

Suffering no longer brings about good; it is rather as if we are in our own version of the heat death of the universe, when the galaxies have torn themselves apart and there is no longer anything any more…except the echo of some idiot saying “it’s all good”.

This pointlessness is not a consequence of sin; it is just what happens when society becomes this complex, it is just what we did, what we have done, and what we are doing, and is as natural as a thunder storm.  Of course if you want to, you can still believe, for as the Psalmist says

even the darkness is not too dark for you to see,
and the night is as bright as day;
darkness and light are the same to you.

And I guess you can interpret this song as being a part of the line from Isaiah to the effect that “Those who call evil good and good evil are as good as dead,” but when I listen to the music, I must admit it doesn’t say that to me.  However I’m just one guy.  What do I know?

What I love about this song is the contrasts.  The singer is no better than anyone else…

Talk about me babe, if you must
Throw on the dirt, pile on the dust
I’d do the same thing if I could

Everything is reduced to the ridiculous, the awful, the polluted, the corrupt…

Big politician telling lies
Restaurant kitchen, all full of flies

All the traditions have gone, the whole concept of family that we built civilisations on for 5000 years have crumbled, but that’s fine, that’s just how civilisation ends…

Wives are leaving their husbands, they beginning to roam
They leave the party and they never get home
I wouldn’t change it, even if I could

We tried to build a society built on the laws of God, built on the concept of the family, built on the notion of politics and look where it got us

The widow’s cry, the orphan’s plea
Everywhere you look, more misery

And then as the song moves towards an end, the enigma that I have never quite resolved…

I’ll pluck off your beard and blow it in your face
This time tomorrow I’ll be rolling in your place
I wouldn’t change a thing even if I could

Just where has Bob got to at that point?  To whom is he talking?  Who has a beard?

You tell me.

Index to all the songs reviewed on Untold Dylan

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7 Responses to “It’s all good”. The meaning of the music and the lyrics in Dylan’s song.

  1. Kimberly says:

    Hipsters. Hipsters have beards. 😛 Even Dylan and his band members have beards sometimes. Not that THAT means anything.

    As always, I love your commentary on the song. This song – like all GREAT Dylan songs, and I do think this one, while deceptively simple, belongs among the list of the GREATS – is bottomless. I think your comparison to It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) is apropos. I think this is the 21st century update – the tired and worn version, the old man’s version of that song.

  2. Anthony says:

    You may have known this already, but if it’s any help, “pluck off your beard and blow it in your face” is nearly the same (it just changes the pronouns) as what Hamlet says in Act 2, Scene 2: “Am I a coward?
    Who calls me “villain”? Breaks my pate across?
    Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
    Tweaks me by the nose? Gives me the lie i’ th’ throat
    As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

    A quick google search also reveals something in Isaiah 50:6 that mentions plucking off the hairs of one’s cheeks: “I gave My back to the smiters and My cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not My face from shame and spitting.”

  3. Ed McEowen says:

    I get a some kind of strange kick out of this song every time I hear it. Its author is now past moralizing or pronouncing judgement. It’s all so hopeless. One can only observe the present-day disintegration of values, the prevailing ethos, and perhaps, like Dylan, squeeze some sardonic humor from it. To waste breath trying to differentiate good from bad to people who should already know – well, it’s just too painful. This song is a guilty pleasure for me. What it represents is sad, but it’s a statement of where we are in time in the “developed” world.

  4. Vinnie NYC says:

    I told my sister in law to stop using the term “it’s all good” because it has now taken on the opposite meaning: “it’s all bad”. I even have to catch myself sometimes from saying it. Bob is a master of the English language.

  5. Joey says:

    Always thought it was a reference to Genesis 1:31, piped through an overused saying…

  6. carl mosk says:

    “Its All Good” is a classic Dylanesque irony song. The sentiment in the title of the song is undercut by the lyrics of the song proper and by the music.

    Irony runs through Dylan’s entire body of work. “Hattie Carroll” plays with it, at least in the final verse. Perhaps “Positively Fourth Street” is the best example from the pre-motorcycle accident period: the irony in the lyrics undercuts the music. The final verse is a triumphant of irony piled on top of irony.

    Irony continued even in the country period. Was “Lay Lady Lay” about chickens, women or what? The “la la la” was set off against ironic lyrical interpretations. That said it came back with a vengeance with “Wedding Song” and “Idiot Wind.” A lot of the songs on “Blood on the Tracks” play with irony. Indeed the twist of fate theme that builds suspense through irony prevades “Blood” and its successor album “Desire: that references Conradesque irony throughout, especially in “Joey” and “Black Diamond Bay.”

    Even in the Christian period irony lurks. Consider “Lenny Bruce” and “Property of Jesus.” An even better example is the second version of “Gpnna Change My Way of Thinking” that turns the Golden Rule into “he whose got the gold rules.”

    The problem with irony is simple: what is meant to be taken as irony and what is meant to be taken as literal? Irony as the potential to undercut itself.

    An artist like Bob Dylan who excels at irony – “Tempest” is loaded with it – runs the risk of being misinterpreted. Or rather understood in two very opposite ways.

    I myself have no problem with this fact but I think it drives many of his fans crazy.

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Anthony, thank you very much for that. I ought to have remembered the Hamlet one, so thank you particularly for picking that up. I wouldn’t know Isaiah, as my knowledge of the Bible is very selective, so thanks for that too.

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