Comparing recordings of Dylan performing his own compositions, across the years.
In this series we look back at recordings presented by Mike Johnson in the Never Ending Tour series of articles (there is an index to that series here). Links to previous articles in this “Extended” series are given at the end. The selections and comments are by Tony Attwood.
It’s Alright Ma (I’m only bleeding) was performed 772 times between 1 September 1964 and 12 October 2013.
We can pick it up in 1999: Inside the museum.
Of course everyone knows what song we are about to get from the opening guitar solo. There are a few variations with the melody (or indeed the lack of it), and there is percussion between each sung line, which to me sounds interesting at first but after a while gets a bit obvious and repetitive. And let us not forget that the audience very much did appreciate at this time that the President of the United States has to stand naked.
But I really do like what the guitars are doing, especially with the instrumental break after the six minute mark – although that’s where the entry of the drums each time seems a bit over done. Everything else is varied and inventive but the percussionist has nowhere else to go.
Now onto 2000 Back to Bedrock I
We benefit by a better recording here, and I was surprised by the way Dylan has really changed the way he sings here – but then equally depressed by the fact that the percussion seems to be emphasised once again. In fact at times even more.
It is now clear through the improved quality of the recording that the percussion (or maybe it is because of a change in the way the drums are being played) is indeed taking a dominant part in the interpretation all the way through. And hearing it this way it makes more sense, and if the percussionist had kept his volume down all the way through it would be ok – it would have made sense of the pounding inexorability of this being life and life only going on and on. But taking up and down – I just don’t get it.
But dragging myself away from that annoyance the rest of the instrumentation along with the changes in the way Dylan sings are superb. There is also a great instrumental break around 4 minutes 30 seconds, where the percussionist shows he really can do some interesting things as Bob finds more and more variations in how to sing the song. I love it. And don’t miss the instrumental break around six minutes 30 either.
There is by now a real vigour in Bob’s approach to this song, which I must admit I had forgotten across the years. And now just listen to what the percussionist is doing around the 1 minute mark and thereafter. Now that to me really fits.
And at the same time, please do listen to Bob’s voice (which I am sure you are doing without me saying). This is not a man going through the process of performance; he is still finding new ways of exploring his masterwork. Indeed it has a real bounce to it now – the emphasis is on the fact that it really is all right ma and this life is actually ok. It’s got bad stuff yes, but it also has vigour and vim and excitement – and come to that Bob Dylan concerts.
Also consider, if you will, the way the instrumental breaks have evolved – this really takes things forward.
Indeed I think this whole evolution of performance should be fully commemorated as something far beyond yet another set of repeated runs through of a famous old song (it was 36 years old by now). This is a song that has travelled a long distance and evolved its message through the way the music has changed. And that’s my point. The song is the song, but oh how the song has changed.
Now I am going to leave this here, rather than going on with more and more performances of this masterwork, because I really do want to emphasise what a triumph this 2001 version is. Bob is putting ever more vigour and interest into the way he sings, and the instrumentation has now ultimately been utterly sorted out.
Of course, we all know the song inside out, but with this performance, the notion that it is life and life only takes on an additional meaning. And if I haven’t convinced you yet, listen to the instrumental break at seven minutes. The guitars are utterly entangled: if that isn’t a musical symbol of life and life only, I really don’t know what could be.
Yes, this is a staggering rendition, and a suitable place to pause, until the next time.
Other articles in this series…
- Absolutely Sweet Marie
- Blind Willie McTell. 1997-2006
- Blowing in the Wind. 1991-2001
- Don’t think twice it’s alright 1993-1997
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- Highway 61 1989-2003
- It Ain’t me Babe from 1994-1998.
- It’s all over now baby blue
- Like a Rolling Stone 1988 to 2002
- Love sick from the very start to 2000
- Masters of War 1978 to 2000.
- One too many mornings.
- Rainy day women, from push to stroke
- Summer Days
- Tambourine Man 1964-1995
- Tangled up in Blue 1988 to 1993
- The Drifters’ Escape. 1996-2005.
- The Hard Rain of 1988, 2003 and 2015
- Things have changed 2000-2007
- Visions of Johanna