It’s all right ma: life really is ok despite everything. The lyrics and the music


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which sets out to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.

If there were to be a competition to find a Dylan song which really has what one might describe “not much of a melody” and “an awful lot of depression” then surely “It’s all right ma” would surely be one of the songs up for discussion.

Which would suggest that there are not many good reasons for discussing the song in a series about the music and the lyrics.   For although the melody is not the only element on the musical side of a song it is not generally considered an important point.   And if we go back to the original album version of this song in 1965, we can appreciate yet again that Bob emphasises the tedium of life not just in the repeated “It’s alright ma” line, but also in that lack of melody which pervades all the song, except those three lines that make up the chorus

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

And to be truthful there’s not much melody even there.  It just seems like there is because of the way the previous 18 lines are sung with only the tiniest occasional nod at the end of every sixth line that there is anything other than a single note available.

That’s the song that we know.  Intriguing words of desperation and despair and a monotone melody which holds us gripped because the lyrics are so intriguing and having heard it before we now know that relief, of sorts, comes at the end of each chorus, and particularly in that final line.

And it works.   Although as it turns out there is much, much more and this song is not just about the lyrics, although that is what virtually every review focuses on.

And by way of example of what else is in the song, I would cite this performance from 2013 which Mike highlighted in the Never Ending Tour series from the first article for that year, Shedding old Favourites: A Roman Farewell.

This is not the only amazing version of this song, but it is a fine example of just what can be done even when there is no melody:

My view is that such a version could not have existed without the original   To fully appreciate what is happening here we need to be familiar with the album version – and we do have to be able to recall what the song was originally.    For what are actually getting here is the bit that is so easy to miss if one just knows the original version on the album and in terms of early performances.

The fact is that life is in many regards tedious and depressing, especially when one considers what is going on in terms of political and religious acts around the world, or indeed even when one considers everything from family feuds, lost loves and mental health issues.  And that is what the original version does.

But it is also possible to hear the song as an exposition of getting through life despite all that.   That descending guitar line that runs through line after line in the verses, beyond Bob’s vocals, tells us that yes life is repetitive.  But combined with the beat it also tells us that yes, it can all be ok.  We can get through because in between the tedium, we can work to make things better.   With this upbeat version “I can make it” becomes a key line.

The brief musical break between each verse aids this as well.   OK that background musical line is endless descending, but after each run of 24 or so notes in that descending scale we can still be bouncing along.   Just listen to the percussion and those guitars in the background.

So now the message is, life’s shit, but really we can still make something of it, especially as we now have nothing to live up to.   It don’t really matter.  It’s life and life only.

And sing the word “only” with an upturn of the melody, as in the last verse of the live performance, and yes, it really is all right.

It is almost as if Bob is saying of himself, his music, his band, and all of us in the audience, really, the fact that we are all still here proves it.  It’s all fine.  It’s just life.

And my point at bringing this commentary into the “lyrics and the music” series, is that that notion that despite everything, life is ok, is there in the original version.  It is just that it gets a bit lost because of the lack of a beat.  As a result the negative overwhelms us, and that probably was exactly what Bob intended.  But tucked away in the lyrics is the thought that despite all this, we can make it.   We can survive.   And by changing the music in this live performance Bob brought that second, but equally important thought to the fore.

It is there in the original album version, so it was always there.  It is just that with this live performance it was made that bit clearer so we can all get it.  It’s the music that tells us…

It’s alright ma.   I can make it.

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