By Tony Attwood
Dylan is on occasion brilliant at telling us all what is wrong with the world, without him saying exactly what, how, where, when, why…. The songs don’t spell it out, but allow us to see the picture even though it is not fully painted. A perfect example to my mind would be…
Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more person crying
That single set of five lines conveys so much about the inter-relationship between the individual and the world we find around us that it takes a lifetime to explore every nuance.
Take on the other hand
You got innocent men in jail, your insane asylums are filled
You got unrighteous doctors dealing drugs that’ll never cure your ills
and if you feel like me you might well think, well, yes, ok, and…
You got men who can’t hold their peace and women who can’t control their tongues
The rich seduce the poor and the old are seduced by the young
And at this point you might well think, we yes “the rich seduce the poor” is rather a good way of expressing everything that is wrong with capitalism in five words. But “the old are seduced by the young” – really? And how exactly? If I am to take other lines in the song literally (and that surely is the intention) how am I, a man of what I might perhaps describe as “mature complexion” being seduced, literally or metaphorically by my children or grandchildren, or by young people in general? I am not quite sure how.
Thus for me the problem is that “Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts” is Bob telling me how to think and what to think, and not doing it in a very exciting or interesting way; he is narrowing the focus down to a single door through which he says I have to travel. When on the other hand in the past he offered the profound message of caution against everyone who tells us what to think
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
Here, he was opening up a wave of possibilities and options rather than closing them down.
So in “When you gonna wake up” you have Dylan descending into the “private reasons” he earlier told us could be seen in the eyes of everyone who tells us how to behave.
The whole point of “It’s alright ma” is that life is about people describing the world and telling us how to behave and what to believe. Interestingly the line “Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts” could have come from the days of “Its alright ma” and the instruction not to follow leaders, along with the injunction “That it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.” But now everything is reversed. The “counterfeit philosophies” are not the ones that liberate us to think our own thoughts and follow our own lives, but rather the original thoughts that told us to do those very things.
That philosophy encoded in “Its alright ma” seems to remind us that it’s not the world that is the issue, but the way you see the world, and Dylan, it seems to me, was often making it clear that we could all see the world in many different ways – it’s up to us which world we can live in.
Now he’s telling us that there is one and only one way to see the world. And woe betide you if you see it in the wrong way.
My vision of the world, or put another way, the world in which I live, agrees that
You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules
But the rest of it, it just is (for me, and I am not saying this is how it is for anyone else) just another preacher telling me how to live my life, rather than letting me try to be a decent fellow who does a little bit of good in the world. So when Bob asks
When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?
I just want to tell him I woke up sometime in my teenage years, and I’ve been pretty much awake ever since.
Musically, there is an interesting point to note in the song, in that it is primarily built around minor chords. The verse is Am, Dm7, Am Dm7. The chorus does through in a passing G and F but mostly it is the minors, the chords mostly associated with the sad and depressing.
But it is not the music that is depressing particularly, it is just the message.
Thus there seems a disconnect between the music and the language. If one looks at the lyrics alone Bob seems angry with me, the listener. After all saying, over and over and over again, “When you gonna wake up?” is not warm or welcoming, nor is it the sort of abstract at a distance warning of “It’s alright ma” which at least ends with the “life and life only” notion that, well, that’s just how it goes.
For me there is a horrible intolerance in this song, and that is of course the problem with people who believe that they are absolutely right and that there is one thing that is going to sort out everything.
Maybe there is something in me that makes me not want to obey, something deep inside that tells me that “don’t follow leaders” is actually a pretty decent way to run the world, as opposed to the descent into a dreadful fear of what happens at the end of time, when God pulls the plug and says, “right, you didn’t believe in Me so you’ve had it,” and I suffer eternal damnation.
I am sorry that Bob felt such that he wanted to write “Sometimes I just feel so low-down and disgusted,” on Slow Train, but yes I know what he means. But then I toddle off to a dance or just remind myself that it is not the world, but the way I see the world, that makes it seem like this. And I’m ok again. Sometimes it takes a few days, but mostly just half an hour.
So for me, where a song like this gets stuck, as with where a philosophy like this gets stuck, is that it has an absolute certainty that I must have the unearthly power to sort out my life. But then if the New Testament is right, there’s no point having any debate, because the future is fixed: the Second Coming is coming, and that’s that.
While It’s alright ma leaves me (and I guess a lot of other people) thinking and pondering and questioning and hopefully wondering about their own lives and how they treat others, this song tells us how it is all going to pan out.
On the surface, It’s Alright Ma is doom laden from head to toe. But the message really is that we can come out of that and escape because we can see the world in different ways, and we can each make a difference to other people’s lives. But “When you gonna wake up” tells us only of certainty and the end. And for most of us (atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Jew) that is going to be a pretty depressing end.
- Precious Angel: an enigma inside a seemingly straightforward Bob Dylan song.
- Gonna change my Way of Thinking – twice. How Bob Dylan changed his own song
- No Man Righteous: Bob Dylan’s (almost) lost song.
- “Man Gave Names to all the Animals” – behind the Bob Dylan song