Bob Dylan

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

Composed by Bob Dylan

Song Review by

The seven-and-a-half-minute tirade that is "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" made its debut at a Bob Dylan concert in the summer of 1964. Dylan performed the song frequently during his fall U.S. tour, then recorded it on January 15, 1965, for his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. So, he had a firm idea of what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it by the time he got to the studio. The result is one of his most provocative works. Since Bringing It All Back Home marked the start of the singer's return to playing with rock instrumentation, the entire side of the album that remained in the acoustic mode has gotten less attention. But "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" represents a development from the protest songs Dylan was writing in 1963 and even of the post-protest philosophical statements that turned up on Another Side of Bob Dylan. Biographer Robert Shelton may be right in calling it "the ultimate protest song" because it protests against the modern world in general, not just some aspect of it. Dylan begins by evoking novelist Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, but, unlike Koestler, who was criticizing communism, Dylan's major target is capitalism, which makes "everything from toy guns that spark/To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark" and is supported by advertising, which "cons you into thinking you're the one." But he is also enraged at preachers, teachers, "the masters," those who obey authority without respecting it, political parties, social clubs, "old lady judges," and unnamed others defined by their actions; in short, the major part of conventional society. And he sees no way out: "There is no sense in trying," he declares early on, and later, "Not much is really sacred" and "all is phony." Dylan's performance of the song reinforces its broad cultural criticism. Over a repetitive guitar figure, he nearly recites the lyrics, spitting them out in a tone of voice that matches their venom. After the release of Bringing It All Back Home on March 22, 1965, Dylan continued to sing "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" frequently. When he was on tour in England in May 1965, he was filmed performing the song and the footage turned up in the documentary Don't Look Back (1967). He dropped it from his set lists when he began working with a backup group that summer, however. The first cover version of the song was the one by Roger McGuinn heard on the soundtrack of the film Easy Rider in 1969. McGuinn also played this much-shortened version with his band, the Byrds, and in 2000 the CD reissue of the group's 1970 album (Untitled), redubbed (Untitled)/(Unissued), contained a previously unreleased Byrds performance of the song from March 1, 1970. Dylan's affection for the song was demonstrated by its inclusion on his Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 album in 1971 (which is notable since the song was never a "hit" in the conventional sense). When Dylan launched his first major tour in eight years in 1974, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" had not only retained its relevance but proved surprisingly prescient. Each night as Dylan sang the song, his audiences would go wild when he sang the line "Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked." With the Watergate scandal getting worse by the day, the time Dylan had foreseen had arrived. The song was a highlight of the 1974 concert album Before the Flood. For the rest of his career, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" was a regular part of his set lists. It can be heard on Bob Dylan at Budokan, the album chronicling his 1978 Far East tour, and he can be seen singing it in Hard to Handle, the video version of the HBO special drawn from one of his 1986 Australian performances. In 1992, when Columbia Records threw a tribute concert at Madison Square Garden to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the release of his first album, Dylan followed a glittering array of stars who had performed his music, and the first song he sang was "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Bringing It All Back Home 1965 Columbia / Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 7:33
Don't Look Back 1967 Docurama
At Budokan 1979 Columbia 6:04
No Image 1986 Editora
The Genuine Basement Tapes, Vol. 1 1992 Scorpio Distribution
No Image 1993
Various Artists
Sony Legacy 7:06
Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration 1993
Various Artists
Sony Legacy / Sony Music 6:21
No Image 2001 Sony Music Distribution 7:32
Bob Dylan [Limited Edition Hybrid SACD Set] 2003 Legacy 7:33
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall 2004 Audio Fidelity 9:55
Playlist: The Very Best of Bob Dylan '60s 2008 Columbia / Legacy / Sony Music Entertainment 7:31
Tribute to Dylan [DVD] 2009
Various Artists
The Original Mono Recordings 2010 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 7:29
The Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1 2013 Columbia / Sony Legacy 6:08
Across the Borderline 2016 Sonic Boom 7:26
The Real... Columbia 7:32
blue highlight denotes editor's pick