I shall be free: Bob Dylan ends Freewheelin by playing with the themes of the talking blues

By Tony Attwood

It is interesting playing the Freewheelin version of “I shall be free” and then the outtake version.  Same key, sometimes the same lyrics, but somehow the Freewheelin version feels so much more accomplished.   I guess Bob was still fresh when he made that recording; by the time he got to the later versions I suppose he was just too familiar with what he was doing.

Now I must admit in coming to this review, I hadn’t listened to this song for many more years than I recall, until I came to write this review.  I’m not going to go on playing it over and over (I don’t think it is a song that you can do that with in the way that I can with, for example “Where are you tonight?”), but coming back to it after all this time it really does seem fresh and fun.

The song derives from “We shall be free” and fortunately we have a recording of that song by Lead Belly with Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.

Here’s a sample from the lyrics

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

Going back further there is also quite a bit of something from Lead Belly’s “Take a whiff on me” lurking somewhere within the whole concept (and just to reassure you, I am not trying to suggest too many listens to “vintage songs about cocaine and heroin” as the label suggests.

But back to Bob.  Apparently this song was recorded five times, and the one on the album was the second of these five, with the outtake version with the link above being the last.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

As for the lyrics printed on the official site – they don’t quite match what we hear – apparently Dylan re-wrote them later.

Obviously you can read the lyrics published on the official Dylan site and see the differences throughout from the LP version but here’s one that interested me

Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”
I said, “My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
Anita Ekberg
Sophia Loren”
(Put ’em all in the same room with Ernest Borgnine!)

The last line is quite different from what we hear.  But having seen it I got a wondering about the character mentioned – and not for the first time was I puzzled by a lyric of Bob’s, what with me being English and not American.   Here’s what Wiki says in relation to Ernest Borgnine’s work before Freewheelin’.

“An appearance as the villain on TV’s Captain Video led to Borgnine’s casting in the motion picture The Whistle at Eaton Falls  (1951) for Columbia Pictures.  That year, Borgnine moved to Los Angeles, California, where he eventually received his big break in Columbia’s From Here to Eternity (1953), playing the sadistic Sergeant “Fatso” Judson, who beats a stockade prisoner in his charge, Angelo Maggio (played by Frank Sinatra). Borgnine built a reputation as a dependable character actor and played villains in early films, including movies such as Johnny GuitarVera Cruz, and Bad Day at Black Rock.

“In 1955, the actor starred as a warmhearted butcher in Marty, the film version of the television play of the same name. He gained an Academy Award for Best Actor over Frank Sinatra, James Dean (who had died by the time of the ceremony), and former Best Actor winners Spencer Tracy and James Cagney.”

Why Ernest Borgnine?  I still don’t know.  If you know, please do write in.

The album lines about “I got a woman five feet short, she yells and hollers and screams and snorts” is replaced in the given text as

Well, I got a woman sleeps on a cot
She yells and hollers and squeals a lot
Licks my face and tickles my ear
Bends me over and buys me beer

Very popular in the talking blues before Freewheelin was the notion of the six feet tall woman – she’s “six feet tall, sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall.”  It turned up in skiffle songs as well – Lonnie Donegan made it popular in Britain in the 1950s.

So what we have is Dylan playing around with a whole tradition of silly talking blues, as a way of finishing off the album and (I suspect) showing the world that he is not just leading the youth of the nation in terms of new ways of thinking, but part of the long running tradition of folk and blues music that progressed throughout the century.

Hours can be taken up going through alternative versions.  I am not sure it leads anywhere, but it is all rather amusing.  Here’s the alternative take that’s widely available.


What else is on the site

1: Over 460 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


  1. In the early 1970s I taught *Marty*, for which Ernest Borgnine won his academy award, to a general English class. Marty, at 34, is the only one of his large family who is unmarried. He hangs out with his buddies who tell him to ditch the plain girl with whom he has been developing a relationship. I can’t find my old teaching copy but Wikipedia gives a decent synopsis of the movie and quotes the Borgnine character’s self-evaluation at the end of the play: “I’m a fat, ugly man!” Ernest Borgnine was the male antithesis of Bridget Bardot, Anita Ekberg, and Sophia Loren who were incredibly statuesque movie stars. Every insecure randy young man with a poor self-concept would instantly identify with Bob Dylan’s fantasy to have a foursome with these three. I know, when hearing the song then, I did.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *