“I Shall be free number 10”: why is it on the album?

By Tony Attwood

Another side of Bob Dylan is a curious album.  Apparently 14 songs were recorded in one single session, and that was the album.  The songs finally left out were “Denise” (sometimes known as “Denise Denise” – a 12 bar blues with Dylan playing piano and harmonica) “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Mama you’ve been on my mind.”

There are also references in some quarters to “New Orleans Rag” and “East Laredo Blues” also being outtakes, but neither are listed at all in Heylin, so I am not sure these really were from that same session on June 9 1964, and if they were they were not written by Dylan, but probably just used as warm up pieces or breaks between re-takes.

Dylan had undertaken a 20 day long road trip across the US with some friends earlier in the year followed by a trip to England and then on to Paris before travelling on across Europe with Christa Paffgen (Nico) ending in Greece where he wrote or finished off  songs such as “All I Really Want to Do”, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “To Ramona”, “I Shall Be Free No. 10”, “Ballad in Plain D”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, “Mama, You Been on My Mind”, “Denise Denise”, “Black Crow Blues” and “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, the last of which Nico later recorded.

If we look at the abbreviated list of songs from 1964 we can see what a fertile period this was (the order of writing is approximate, as always, with Dylan revising songs over time and the exact date of composition often a matter of dispute or difficult to pin down).

The songs marked with the asterisk are the songs that made their way onto the album -which shows that it was an intense period of writing in the first half of the year and the album was indeed made up of the songs just written.

For many who have commented on this particular song, it is just a throw away, and although the album itself is a masterpiece and would be the height of achievement for almost every other artist, the fact that it was just recorded in one session, suggests that Dylan and the producer and the record company felt that whatever he did would be ok.

But it is not just some nonsense Dylan made up, for it is a throw back to Lead Belly whose We Shall Be Free has lines just like Dylan’s.   If that link doesn’t work by the time you get there, do go and find it.  Great song, and a real insight into the blues, and the origin of this particular track. Here’s some of the lines…

I was down in the hen house other night
Awful dark, I didn’t have no light
I reached for a chicken, I got me a goose
A man come out, I had to turn him loose

Preacher an’ a rooster had a terr’ble fight
Preacher knocked the rooster clean out o’ sight
Preacher told the rooster that’ll be all right
Meet ya at the hen house tomorrow night

and so on.  There’s almost elements of Chuck Berry’s Maybellene lurking in there – you can hear them if you listen to the Lead Belly recording.

And indeed the lyrics of I shall be free number 10 suggest the same every day nature of the song.

I’m just average, common too
I’m just like him, the same as you
I’m everybody’s brother and son
I ain’t different from anyone
It ain’t no use a-talking to me
It’s just the same as talking to you

As one commentator has said, “The song is basically a lark, through and through, with a few interesting lines to pick through and puzzle over,” and it is not hard to imagine that if the album had been produced over a number of weeks this outing might have been dropped.  After all Tambourine Man was on offer and later in the same year Dylan would write “It’s all right ma”!

One of the big problems with this song on the album when it was first released was that it was a bit of a bore to listen to over and over when one played the LP.  Of course you could pick up the stylus and go back or forwards, but that meant getting up and fiddling around, rather than having the pleasure of 15 or so uninterrupted minutes of listening to a side of Dylan’s music.  It really was a bit annoying.

After all having fun at Cassius Clay’s expense over his own “poetry” is a bit too easy a target isn’t it?

I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day
I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay
I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come
26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine
Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you’d better run
99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you
14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen”

On the other hand, Dylan is just this guy travelling the States, and then around Europe, writing songs as he goes, and this is one of his songs, it relates back  to one of his blues heroes, and so he’s going to record it.

Seen this way, the album is the notebook of those two trips.  On the other hand most of us only keep the photos that actually say something or are a record of a good, memorable event.

Still it didn’t stop me pondering the greater meaning behind the lyrics when I was a teenager.  Coming from a left wing family with ancestors who actively supported the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War, there was never any doubt which side of the road I was on, but even at that young age I could appreciate the light finger poking humour of

Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! pretty scary!

So Dylan was having at the right wing press, which certainly in England at the time was getting worried about the Russians using the moon as a place to locate its missiles (although I think even I got the hang of the notion that this would be a fairly stupid idea).

But I puzzled over

Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba

I got the left wing references of course, but surely, I reasoned, that “but” in the first line, should have been an “and”.   And that really, looking back at it, shows what a muddle one can get into, trying to sort out Dylan’s lyrics as if every line means something.  It can be done, but I am not sure it is necessary.  I fancy writing a whole article on this issue of the overall meaning behind Dylan’s writings, and will come back to it shortly.

So this is a weird upside world where Dylan has a monkey for a pet and tried to teach it to dance, where he goes to play tennis is wild fancy dress, and a woman who treats him bad in order to get her hands on his bank account.

He’s got a friend who wants to kill him, and who also taught me an Americanism that we have never had in England (“barf” = to vomit) – how I could have done with an American English dictionary in those pre-google days.

I think that overall Dylan is laughing at himself mostly, but also laughing at those of us who like to analyse his songs, remembering the Lead Belly who sang of some of the most important things in life, did a song like this.  Indeed it is the throwaway lines at the end of this song that have always influenced my view that many of the songs are made up of abstract images created from words.  They are not pointing us to the word of God, nor at every turn commenting on political events (although both do happen at times), but are often just interesting images.

Now you’re probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about
What’s probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for
It’s nothing
It’s something I learned over in England

One commentator wrote, “As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” and I do agree – that’s where we are at.  Certainly here, but quite often in other places too.

So maybe Dylan was commenting on harmonica playing by the Beatles, whose early music it appears that he very much admired.  Or maybe not.  Does it matter?

Alphabetical index to all the songs on this site

Dylan’s songs in chronological order


  1. I really love I Shall Be Free. In my opinion it suits the album too, especially as the ending. I think the lyrics are mesmerizing, loveable and fun. They drag me in. I really like the part where he’s describing his girl, it paints such a great picture. English is not my first language though, so I may be precieving the song in a different way.

  2. You DO understand that by Dylan saying ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ would ruin the entire point of the verse, which is to point out the liberals hypocrisy.

  3. After “Subterranean Homesick Blues” I always felt this was his greatest tune. there is a verse for every situation in life. I’ve been quoting this tune for many MANY years. the so called “serious tunes” are the boring ones. I couldn’t listen to “Mr Tamborine Man” today. BUT this IS a VERY serious tune. In its deep cutting sarcasm. Wowie! Pretty scary!

  4. “Now I’m liberal, but to a degree” taken as a stand-alone, not a run-on, sentence makes the conjunction just fine

  5. To me it’s obvious that he was not interested in just cramming his albums with heavy-weight songs as if he were assembling a ‘Greatest Hits” package. He wanted his albums to have texture, balance, and to be somewhat varied, and to be an expression of where his mind was at the time. This is why I don’t understand people who always go on about “Why didn’t he put Blind Willie McTell or Series of Dreams on the album?? blah blah blah” Why? Because he had a certain vision of the album of how it should sound overall and certain songs don’t necessarily fit into that regardless of how “good” they are. (FTR I think both those songs are greatly over-rated, but that’s another story…) This is a fun and funny song and he wanted it to contribute to the overall impact, some comic relief. I love the song, in its own way it’s as enjoyable as any of his heavyweights, I always put it, along with Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream from BIABH, on any compilation CD of my favourite Dylan songs. It was also obviously part of his attempt to say to the folkies that he was not just this solemn, self-righteous bore, that his art was not just about finger-pointing. To me it works very well.

  6. Surprised that no one has pointed this out yet, the entire ‘liberal’ stanza is a reference to the Phil Ochs song “Love Me I’m a Liberal”

    >I’m glad that the Commies were thrown out
    Of the A.F.L. C.I.O. board
    And I love Puerto Ricans and Negros
    As long as they don’t move next door
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

    Etc. Dylan’s just having fun, that was the fairest interpretation – that it’s all just a lark. He’s just playing the trickster. He pays homage to several American musical heroes – maybe to reminisce or ground himself while he was very far from home – and jokes at the end that he got the whole song from England. Sort of playfully rebuking Europe’s attempts at popular music at the time. He goes on to play the trickster in more intelligent and vicious ways by the mid 60s, but here he really is just poking fun. You see that goofy side of his personality coming through.

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