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It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) by Bob Dylan

Album: Bringing It All Back HomeReleased: 1965
  • Dylan vents about subjects such as commercialism, hypocrisy and warmongering in this song. In the book, Bob Dylan, Performing Artist, author Paul Williams states this song sees Dylan acknowledge "the possibility that the most important (and least articulated) political issue of our times is that we are all being fed a false picture of reality, and it's coming at us from every direction."

    Williams adds that Dylan portrays an "alienated individual identifying the characteristics of the world around him and thus declaring his freedom from its 'rules'."
  • This song is one of Dylan's personal favorites. In 1980, he stated: "I don't think I could sit down now and write 'It's Alright, Ma' again. I wouldn't even know where to begin, but I can still sing it."
  • The opening line, "Darkness at the break of noon," is referring to a nuclear explosion. After a nuclear explosion, the sky turns black and the sun disappears. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Jake - Sonoma, CA
  • The line, "He who is not busy being born in busy dying" is popular with politicians. Jimmy Carter used the line in his acceptance speech at the 1976 Democratic National convention, and while campaigning for President in 2000, Al Gore told talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, that it was his favorite quote. Ironically, the song also contains the line, "But even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked," which is Dylan alluding to the fact even the most powerful people will be ultimately judged.
  • The album cover shows a woman lounging by a fireplace with Dylan in the foreground holding a cat. She is Sally Grossman, the wife of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. The photo was taken in Grossman's house, and the cat belonged to Sally.
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Comments: 42

For Adam & Ralph: The origin of "do what they do..." vs. "cultivate their flowers" is unclear, but my first exposure to this song was the shorter Roger McGuinn version found in the Easy Rider soundtrack, using "do what they do..." I think it sounds better than the Dylan version, either way. Dylan also sang the lyric as "cultivate what they do..." in a live video found on YT.Jim - Usa
Regarding the lines:
You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you
I have no idea what Dylan had in mind, but to me it sounds very similar to the feelings and head space that go with depression. During an episode of depression your senses and sense of who you are evaporate like you lost yourself and when you begin to emerge
Bill - Burleson, Tx
Regarding the lines 'Darkness at the break of noon, Shadows even the silver spoon, The handmade blade, the child's balloon, Eclipses both the sun and moon' had to do with Jesus during the Crucifixion. Passages from the bible elude that as Jesus hung from the cross the day turned dark around noon due to an eclipse. I've always thought that 'silver spoon' represented the rich of the world, 'the handmade blade" represented the the street thugs of the world, and 'the child's balloon' represented the innocent of the world. Meaning that no one no matter what or who they may be can escape the judgment of God. I have never been a zealot or very absorbed in my views and beliefs in Christianity, I just came up with this notion when I was about fourteen and I'm fifty-eight now and it still seem to be a one valid notion of the lines. - Bill, Burleson, TXBill - Burleson, Tx
Even the president........etc He's a stupid human being of course, what other meaning?Rhod - Y, United Kingdom
My sense is that this is Bob's "Catcher in the Rye" ... or it's mine, anyway, so I suppose I'd like to believe it's his as well! I see it more as a poem than a song, per se (it has an intricate rhyming structure: AAAAAB CCCCCB DDDDDB in the verses and AAB in the chorus), and like all great works of art, it has many meanings (literal, figurative, metaphorical, etc.), though to my way of thinking, they're all more or less variations on the same theme: Fiat Lux - which is Latin for "let there be light!" (and by light, I am, of course, referring to its metaphoric meaning of reason, knowledge, understanding, comprehension....) There are numerous references to darkness (metaphorically) throughout, and perhaps most significantly, the first line ("Darkness at the break of noon") is a clear reference to our (and by "our," I mean North America's) blindness / willful ignorance / lack of awareness about what's going on around us - the hypocrisy, superficiality and phoniness produced by our capitalist culture, a culture that replaced art and music education in our schools with (revenue producing) sports programs ands replaced "learning" with "passing standardized tests," a culture where conservatives get their "news" from a propaganda outpost (FOX) and liberals, like me, get our "news" from comedy central, a culture that actually generates a PROFIT from our jails and prisons because, in truth, all it really costs to keep them full is the civil rights of poor people. Against this backdrop, I tend to view the line "he not busy being born is busy dying" as a reference to our culture, yes, but also to our very spirit - to a meaningful existence - to "life" (metaphorically - unless you're content to be a worker bee, in which case you're probably NOT reading this because its never occurred to you that songs... or poems... might have a meaning beyond the literal meaning of the lyrics - and why would it, if the talking points ("disillusioned words like bullets") of politicians ("human gods") have long ago replaced your innate curiosity?) Every verse contains one or more examples of superficiality and/or hypocrisy in the "rat race choir." The choruses tend to communicate both his despair over the situations he describes in the verses (where the only "light" seems to be from the sparks of toy guns and the "flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark") and his total lack of optimism that there might be a political solution to these problems -er, challenges. Those political leaders who had tried to alter the status quo ("the wise") prior to this being written (Lincoln, JFK) were assassinated ("I got nothing, Ma, to live up to"), as were the political leaders who tried to change the status quo after 1965 (Bobby, Martin, Malcolm, John Lennon, etc.) which explains "to understand you know too soon there is no sense in trying." [It may also help explain why Dylan so desperately wanted to avoid being labeled "the voice of his generation" as early as 1964.]

This was written at a time that a large portion of our population was in a struggle for civil liberties here at home, complete with race riots in urban centers, while our government was deliberately refusing to disclose (even to congress) our escalating involvement in the political unrest of southeast Asia and fed us "misinformation" about the "cold war" with Russia, China, and, of course, Cuba. The times may have been "a-changing," but it took a revolution (the counter-culture) and watergate to make it happen. True to form, we learned NOTHING from this, and because history has a sick sense of humor, the song is just as apropos today as it was 50 years ago. After 9/11, the government realized they could write a bill to DENY civil liberties and, so long as they called it "The Patriot Act," neither the public nor the politicians would bother to read it before enacting it. And why should they... "it's life, and life only." If only we could convince Bob to re-mix it.... and then re-release it as a hip hop tune!
Michael Winner - Atlanta, Ga
Please consider that the truth you feel you suddenly see clearly in evocative songs like this one, represents something in you own life you now feel you understand better. Thats why there's no sense in disputing for instance Al Gore's take on it. It's better to just present your own, equally valid, fresh angle on it...Paul - Kristiansand, Norway
My take on some of it:
A young soldier catches "temptations page" (a flyer perhaps about serving his country gloriously in battle only to find a completely different reality: "waterfalls of pity" roaring (Napalm perhaps?),"unlike before ("before perhaps being when he was at home with his mom)here (in Vietnam perhaps?) he's just "one more person crying" (He's growing up REAL fast. His sighing and crying is now quite unlike the time when he was a spoiled teenager at home dreaming of glorious feats and sighing over little stuff. (because of the "advertising signs" who "con you into thinking that you're THE ONE" he followed and "found himself at war" In other words: 'Boy ma, I see now that life has a hell of a lot of horrors to offer, and I was being naive before'
Paul - Kristiansand, Norway
I also have to say I really love this song! To all those who "fight" about what the meaning might be, consider this: the best poetry is written to have expanding meaning (it has layers of possible meaning depending on individual situations)so nobody has the "right" understanding of it (not even the author).Also: the open structure of poetry and the fact that it often focuses on intense experiences, causes a strange phenomenon: individual sentences suddenly define sharply (and brings into focus)something you only had figured out vaguely before...Paul - Kristiansand, Norway
We had a resignation party when Nixon resigned. Listened to WMMS in Cleveland, OH, and they played this song during their coverage. Very appropriate. It took a LONG time to get the image of Richard Nixon standing naked out of my mind.Tom - Akron, Oh
dylan has given me 42 years of amazement --how could one mans brain create so much genius--from the first time i really listened in 1967 until now has been one wonderful magical journey --god gave the power to listen and it has not been wasted --thanks bobOliver - Londonderry, United Kingdom
Dylan changed lines around on many occasions. There seems to be two camps on one of the verses here. Allow me to add a third...
For them that must obey authority, That they do not respect in any degree, Who despise their jobs, their destinies Speak jealously of them that are free, Raise what they grow up to be, Nothing more than something They invest in.
Taken from the live '64 bootleg album - only the second live performance of the album and before the studio version. To me he is talking about the people's children being raised to do nothing but behave, get good grades and a good job and have more children of their own. Perhaps he felt later "Cultivate their flowers" was more poetic.
Mike - Ocala, Fl
Personally, I think this song is all about the life of a Tabby Cat. I think Dylan is trying to point out how tough it is for cats to get the attention of humans, and how humans get all caught up in their work and busy lives, and how silly that looks to cats. Cats just see us walk passed them see our ankles, as we walk by with our brief cases. It's also about some of the other difficulties of just being a cat in general. For instance, cats really like to drink milk, but it makes them sick. Although there is that substitute cat milk, its just not the same. I personally think that's what Dylan meant.Dan - Pottstown, Pa
Aside from years ago acquiring a screenname from it and decades ago a band name, I was working a midnight shift in a convenience store in Atco, NJ, c. 1989 and a regular customer came in ashen-faced and said "I just heard the most haunting song ever on the radio . . " I said "WMMR?" He said , "Yeah. I wish I knew what it was!" I taped the whole BIABH album for him the next day.

I've been lucky enough to see him do it live a number of times, but one of the highlights was when I went to 'BobFest' where dozens of stars paid tribute to his (then) 30 years at Columbia, and first he, at his own tirbute concert, came out and sang 'Song To Woody,' his tribute song to Woody Guthrie, which I thought earned him additional cool points, and then he followed it with 'Bleeding.' Awesome.

Just a couple of many fond memories associated with this song.:)
Societys Pliers - Philadelphia, Pa
Get rid of "Cultavate their flowers" and replace it with "Do what they do just to be" It's Dylan for God sake, get it right.Ralph - Seattle, Wa
William from pensacola, time is spelled TIME and I've listened many times, most likely unlike yourself. Obviously you are always coming closer to death but the quote means that once you have gotten born and accomplished your goals, established yourself, then you can die at peace and your life will have served a purpose. The fake intellectualism lies in people like you who dissect songs in the wrong way and think that they can rise above people like Dylan. All you morons talking about democratic politicains using the quote the wrong way need to understand that regardless of the message Dylan was trying to convey, the quote is incredible and it has nothing to do with politics, just inspiration. Therefore Dylan didnt have to know anything about politics and it could still be great. Quarks that's the easiest verse in the song to understand and you are obviously one of those people. Martijn that is the stupidest thing I have ever read, my brain hurt a little bit afterwards. Have you listened to the song? The song breaks apart society step by step, in front of your face. It's literally not possible for it not to mean anything. If Dylan did say that, it was a joke and a funny one at that. People like you bother me and I made an account just to comment on all your idiocracy. Listen to Dylan and take him as the messiah or as just a good musician. Either way he's got something to appreciate.Tim Brooks - Pensacola, Fl
Maybe it's just because I have the "Bringing it All Back Home" version, but where there should be "Cultivate their flowers to be" it says "Do what they do to be"
Can someone clear this up?
Adam - Everytown, United States
And the name of the cat on the album cover is Stoney, name after like a rolling.....
I used to have a cat bearing that name
Greg - Alsip, Il
The best version of the song is the live one from the Before the Flood LIVE album recorded sometime in '74. When Bob (performing the song with just a guitar and a harmonica) sings the president line the crowd goes "woooh" ala take that mister Nixon.
"Captain" Greg, IL
Greg - Alsip, Il
I gotta say this, it has always bothered me. The quote "He not busy being born is busy dying" is actually the wasted words that the fool's gold mouth piece is proving to warn. It is a stupid idea, you have to be constantly emerging as something new, or else you are dying? How dumb is that? It is a poke at trendiness and fake intellectualism and mysticism. Listen One Tiem!!!!!!!!!!!!William - Pensacola, Fl
Hi Jake in Sonoma..I think this is a class example of Dylans Multi layered approach to song writing..it is the gift of Great Poets...........Darkness at the Break of noon can indeed conjure the image of Nuclear Holacaust....but it is also the Title of Arthur Koestlers fictionalised experiences in Soviet Russia under Stalin....and that also ties in with the entirety of the song which is a CXRY for freedom of the individual to escape from SociaL cOntrol and societies chains. In this, a timeless song, Dylan brings a formiddable intellect and intuitive intelligence to bear upon a dissection of Capitalist Society...it is ruthless, slicing,angry and superb.Jimmy - Glasgow, Scotland
Ah...what to say...the lyrics on this song are the best ever written. Dylan speaks of the realities of human nature, thoughts, opinions, feelings, but mainly I think he's speaking of society. The song is actually very timeless. How society has formed, beliefs, religions, conformity, control and on and on. He speaks of the reality of society and life. You start to question but you know there's no answer, but just remember you do not belong to anyone or anything, you are you're own person. He also speaks of the government and how they try to contol, be this way not that way, do this not that. Money does swear, it screams power and control. Old Lady Justice does judge doesn't she?Justin - Minneapolis, Mn
Oops, I missed Tom's comment, but I feel the same way. I'm only 18 and still have a lot to learn, but as an aspiring writer, the more I get into Dylan's work, the more I wonder, and I'm sure he does too, how he wrote such perfect, beautiful, cutting, witty songs. It truly is like some greater power just blew it out of his ass.Joe - San Diego, Ca
For them that must obey authority That they do not respect in any degree Who despise their jobs, their destinies Speak jealously of them that are free Cultivate their flowers to be Nothing more than something They invest in. ----- can ne1 explain the meaning of these lines---
- quarks, mountain view, CA

First off since this is a Dylan lyric, my interpretation of this verse is my own opinion, perhaps different from many others and Dylan's himself.
However, to me, it is a representation of a certain symbolic person who questions their lifestyle, fate and success inwardly but fails to act outwardly to change it. Furthermore they are bitter in realizing that there are those out there whom "are free" of this conflict in that they do/say what they please, and their version of success is a simple and relative but unique and important commodity. "Cultivate their flowers" meaning increasing their monetary worth, size and amount of posessions and social status "to be nothing more than something they invest in" -the summation of all their material/unfulfilling posessions. Although I am young and completely and resentfully missed out on this generation/era, I think this person is typical to any society or time. The "quiet majority," the proleteriat, the apathetic citizens whom posess rebellous or revolutionary thought, but instead of the motivation for action are replaced with a bitter conservatism.
Joe - San Diego, Ca
There's some obscure movie whose name I don't recall about a long awaited rock band reunion in which Lou Reed plays an eccentric folky, and in his first scene in which his character is getting the call inviting him to perform at the reunion show, a woman is lounging in the background in direct reference to the Dylan album cover! It was pretty funny...Fyodor - Denver, Co
I agree with Kyle...I hate when politicians use quotes from songs, especially those Democrats. Thank God no Republican (like Ronald Reagan) has ever misintrepreted song lyrics in a quote.Jim - Troy, Ny
"HE not busy being born is busy dying" could possibly be the best song quote ever.Emily - Abingdon, Va
i cant stand politicians (democrats mostly in this instance) who think that bob dylan sang of their issues because anybody who decently know what bob dylan sang about would know that dylan did not know enough about politics to say he leaned on a certain side of the spectrumKyle - Eglewood, Co
I like the Roger McGuinn version ALOT better.Cameron - Irvine, Ca
i always thought this song was about growing up as a teenager and about paranoid parents(it's alright ma, i can make it)(its alright ma, it's life and life only). A lot of times mothers are paranoid about their children growing up and moving away and it starts as a teenager. It's also about the extreme loneliness and depression you can feel a lot of times as a teenager, which can sometimes lead to suicide:
"Suicide remarks are torn" and

"While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer's pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death's honesty
Won't fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes
Must get lonely."

That last line(Life sometimes must get lonely) always made me realize feeling alone is normal and also made me feel that i wasn't alone because someone else(Bob Dylan) feels or felt the same way.

Lyrics are so meaningful. Think about it!
Bill - Cool, Ca
this is an incredible song. not many people can just sit down with only a guitar and just throw their soul out into lyrics. bob dylan is an underappreciated genius.Matt - Millbrae, Ca
Hello, I just wana let you all know that this song is one of the best songs ever written. I am still young but I saw dylan not to long ago at louville slugger field and it was the best concert I have ever been to, except for the fact that the tickets were 50 dollars, but I heard he was doing it all for charity, so why so much? It doesn't matter to me as long as I saw dylan with my own two eyes up there playing on stage and mostly all his old stuff.Tyler - Cincinnati, Oh
"bob dylan is the greatest songwriter ever, hands down, and this is one of the most amazing songs ever written"

Right on, in Spades(highest card suit-topTrump)

"For them that must obey authority That they do not respect in any degree Who despise their jobs, their destinies Speak jealously of them that are free Cultivate their flowers to be Nothing more than something They invest in. ----- can ne1 explain the meaning of these lines---"

pointing out that many "must obey an authority they do not respect" - kinda sad - always better to respect those whose orders we must follow...
... at least a little bit/to some degree ...
..who despise their jobs, their destiny ---these same guys don't like their jobs, do not have self respect for their destiny.... and THEY "speak jealously" -"i wish I COULD": be free - they put down those who practice freedom - the cultivate their flowers NOT for pleasure of their garden's beauty, but ONLY FOR INVESTMENT - giving no appreciation beyond the material.

.... fits right in, leading up to:
"And i mean no harm, nor put fault on anyone who lives in a vault ...
...but it's alright, ma //if my way doesn't// if i can't PLEASE him.

THis is frankly a song that i have breathed, shouted, cried, sat with, memorized and learned with my heart. There is no better song that i can name. -- (there ARE many other perfect songs, of course. but NONE better - it is perfect art as itself. - of course it is not sunshine and laughter.) TomM
Tom - Los Angeles, Ca
For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something
They invest in.

----- can ne1 explain the meaning of these lines---
Quarks - Mountain View, Ca
Roger McGuinn sand this song for the movie "Easy Rider".Julian - Oakland, Ar
Before the line "even the president must have to stand naked" was used in the literal sense against Clinton, it was used by Nixon's attackers in the Watergate era as his crimes were being exposed. Those are the most prominent uses against the president. But, I'm sure it has been used for everyone from LBJ to GWB. Clinton should have used the line in his defense. Imagine that glorious rascal saying "Hey, you know what they say, even the president has to stand naked." If only I was his speechwriter.Craig - Madison, Wi
sorry i tried to write * to write downNeil - Sunderland, Dc
to write down what Bob Dylan has done to music in the last 40 years is impossible twie down jus listn to some of these great sometimes funny lyrics. listen to on the road again its hilariousNeil - Sunderland, Dc
Martijn: Your sources are quite incorrect. Dylan said on '60 Minutes' that this was one of the best songs he ever wrote.Cameron - Pittsburgh, Pa
I think it is kind of sad that Dylan has so few entries on here. He is obviusly the greatest songwritter of all time and yet a song like this one has three entries while crap filler from other bands have pages. I love the guitar part here. He is playing in dropped D. It is almost like he is playing the guitar as a drum.John - Shelby, Nv
I think Dylan actually did intend this song to mean something, regardless of what he may or may not have said in the past. He has been known to give reporters and such all kinds of hell. And speaking of reporters, Dylan appeared on 60 Minutes recently and said that he couldn't write as good as he did in his early days. When pushed to elaborate, he quoted the first couple lines from this song, looked at the reporter and said something along the lines of "Hey, you try and write something like that." You kick ass Bob!Blind Boy Grunt - Anywhere, La
Dylan said he wrote this song as a filler because he didn't have enough material for the album. According to him it doesn't mean anything.Martijn - Helmond, Netherlands
bob dylan is the greatest songwriter ever, hands down, and this is one of the most amazing songs ever writtenMason - San Antonio, Tx
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