Analyzing the songs of Bob Dylan is not for the timid. Few do it well. Michael Gray, Clinton Heylin, John Hinchey, Greil Marcus, Tim Riley and Robert Shelton are among those who’ve succeeded. Their insights may not be in line with Dylan’s, but they enlighten and entertain.
“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is a landmark Dylan song, scrutinized by critics and Dylanologists. Included on the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album, it has remained in Dylan’s concert repertoire through the years. The song still fascinates. All at once it’s a jeremiad and an affirmation.
In his book, Behind The Shades, Heylin gets right to a key element of “It’s Alright Ma.” He says it “opened up a whole new genre of finger-pointing songs, not just for Dylan but for the entire panoply of pop.” With this song, he asserts Dylan produced a “damning roster of America’s malaise.” He goes on to observe that before “It’s Alright Ma,” a popular song was not a medium for critiquing society, only for isolating specific injustices.”
In Hard Rain, Riley says the song is “less an indictment of the system than a coil of imagery that spells out how the system hangs itself with the rope it’s so proud of.”
In summer ’64, when Dylan wrote “It’s Alright Ma,” America’s youth had just recently discovered and wildly embraced the Beatles. The country was also still hurting from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was well qualified for the office but did not have the youthful appeal that spoke to Americans “born of this century,” as JFK put it in his inaugural address. Still Johnson was expected to win election in his own right that November.
Johnson won big. He carried 45 states, losing only his opponent Barry Goldwater’s Arizona and 4 Southern states resisting the civil rights legislation Johnson advocated. The president worked to keep the war in Vietnam from becoming a big issue prior to the election. Unless people were paying close attention, Vietnam didn’t register. From ’56 through ’64, only 401 American servicemen had been killed in the war. Widespread protests against American involvement in Vietnam were still a year off. Yet there was the Tonkin Resolution in August ’64. Rumblings were felt. People were beginning to lose trust in the country’s leaders, be they in government, business, or religion.
“It’s Alright Ma” reflected the change in American sensibilities.
While Preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.
Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the war in Vietnam diminished his domestic achievements. Richard M. Nixon would succeed Johnson in ’69 and find his presidency impeded by the war also. But he would win reelection in ’72 as Americans came to believe he was bringing “peace with honor” to Vietnam. Although there was little honor associated with Nixon, rank and file Americans were tired of the war and even more tired of the conflict it created in their country. Despite the “credibility gap” of Johnson’s years, then Kent State, and a recent break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, Americans, perhaps knowing better, opted to trust in the established order again.
But it all depends on how one defines order. The Watergate break-in emanated from the corrupt apparatus in the Nixon White House. Corruption and indifference to legalities would lead to Nixon resigning in August ’74. The better part of his last year in office was spent determining how to stay in office. The President of The United States was dealing with unwelcome exposure.
On January 21, 1974, no doubt one of the days Nixon and his enablers worked on ways to avoid impeachment, Bob Dylan and The Band played the first of two concerts in Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum. Both shows were sold out. The city’s rock community was buzzing. Since Atlanta was the ninth city in the twenty-four city tour information on what to expect at the concert had spread.
Widely reported was how audiences erupted with cheers when Dylan sang “It’s Alright Ma,” declaring that “even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” The audience in Atlanta cheered loudly. If the line now served as a dig at Nixon, so be it.
Amazingly, that night, as fans expressed their disfavor with the 37th President of The United States, among them was the man who three years to that day would spend his first full day at work as the 39th President. In the sixth row of The Omni was Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.
Having learned about Dylan through his sons, Carter became a fan and attended the concert. He also invited Dylan, The Band and several others to the Governor’s Mansion after the show for food and drink. It was an example of southern hospitality but it was more than that. Carter’s term as Governor would end the following January. He was in pursuit of a new job: President of the United States. Only trusted insiders knew of his plans. Still, people would soon learn of his hosting a rock legend at the Governor’s Mansion. Now that was interesting, newsworthy even. It wasn’t what people expected from southern politicians. But Carter aimed to be different. His late night party certainly proved that and it was likely the first thing many Americans learned about Jimmy Carter.
Soon Carter was on the road and talking about himself. He also mentioned Bob Dylan. In his famous Law Day speech at the University of Georgia later that year, Carter went a step further and explained himself and what influenced him.
The Governor was rolling, “I listen a lot and I read a lot. One of the sources of my understanding about the proper application of criminal justice and the system of equities is from Reinhold Niebuhr. The other source of my understanding of what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. Listening to his records about ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changing,’ I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.”
Jimmy Carter’s Law Day speech on May 1, 1974, amazed a lot of people, particularly those who previously paid him little attention. Journalist Hunter S. Thompson, in Rolling Stone, wrote that he asked Carter later that day for a copy of the speech, declaring it was “one of the damndest things I’ve ever heard.”
In the latter part of ’75, Bob Dylan kicked off his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It was a rock and roll road trip that served as the polar opposite of the tightly packaged coliseum tour with The Band nearly two years before. Performing mostly in towns by the northeastern seaboard, Dylan led a caravan of musicians featuring T-Bone Burnett, Steven Soles, Scarlett Rivera, Joan Baez, Mick Ronson and Roger McGuinn. “Take Me Away,” a song on McGuinn’s ’76 album, Cardiff Rose, described the tour’s vitality and carnival atmosphere with the musicians “Flashin’ up New England skies like the fires of the revolutionary war.”
Jimmy Carter and his caravan also hit the road. The race for the Democratic Presidential nomination was on. Caucuses and primaries filled the calendar from January 19 through June 8 of ’76. According to Kandy Stroud in her book, How Jimmy Won, Carter proved an energetic and personable campaigner. Stroud wrote “He could roll up his sleeves, stalk through farmers’ markets, slog through mines or fox-trot with senior citizens with as much ease as he could mingle with the stars of Hollywood or the millionaires of Manhattan.”
Carter also continued to quote from Bob Dylan’s songs. On the night he was nominated President by the Democratic party, he referred to a line from “It’s Alright Ma.” Of course he didn’t recite the aphorism about the President sometimes having to stand naked. What he did as he drew to a close was declare that “We have an America that in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying.”
That November Jimmy Carter was elected President of The United States. His one term in office was not easy for him or the country, though he served honorably. In the years since leaving The White House, he’s been involved with numerous humanitarian causes and has won the Nobel Peace Prize. Whatever one thinks of his politics, he has set a new standard for ex-Presidents. Thinking of the history he has made and been part of, it’s interesting to think back on that Atlanta night in January ’74, unbeknownst to any of us there, when his chances of becoming President improved considerably.