A Few Remarks on Bob Dylan’s Amusing “I Shall Be Free № 10”

“He’s a weird monkey, very funky.”

Photo credit: Michael Anderson. May 2019, author finally gets an opportunity to interview Bob.

Last week as I read about JFK and the space race, various thoughts fluttered through my head like butterflies, which I often feel obligated to capture and pin down. In the same way, there’s a Dylan line for nearly every situation and the line, “what if the Russians get up there first” from “I Shall Be Free №10” got me scurrying to find the rest of that stanza.

Well, turns out he sang about the streets of heaven being lined with gold, and
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! pretty scary!

It’s actually a mixed metaphor. No one at that time was worried about Russians getting to heaven first. On the other hand, plenty of people, ever since Sputnik, were anxious about the Russians being the first to land men on the moon.

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Relevant Magazine cover. Photo by the author.

If you’re not familiar with “I Shall Be Free №10,” the fifth track on Another Side of Bob Dylan, you really should give it a listen.

One of my favorite sources for insights on Dylan’s songs is Tony Attwood’s Untold Dylan blog/website. In his entry on “I Shall Be Free №10” he notes how Dylan recorded several additional songs at that time that didn’t appear on the album, which has been a custom of his. What I recall, from another source, is how he recorded most of the songs here in one take.

A friend once commented to me that there were always a few throwaway songs on Dylan’s albums. I found this a curious statement and can’t say I ever bought into that. I mean, there were songs that didn’t move me or that I didn’t connect to, but I couldn’t call them throwaways. Or at least I never gave them that terse of a dismissal.

And as for this song, I don’t see it that way at all. It’s perfectly in line with a number of other amusing pieces. Such as “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and his “Bear Mountain Picnic.” And what’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” if it’s not a comedic mix of silliness and satire?

When I hear “I Shall Be Free #10” I’m immediately curious what #9, #8, #7 and the rest were like. Without doubt it’s a sequel to I Shall Be Free of sorts.

Tony Attwood points out echoes of Lead Belly and Chuck Berry in the song.

As much fun as the song is, I understand where Attwood is coming from when he he says “it was a bit of a bore to listen to over and over when one played the LP.” That is, after the first few listens, you already get all the punch lines and want to move on. For some reason I haven’t tired of it.

I am that way with “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” on Bringing It All Back Home sometimes.

With “I Shall Be Free №10” each stanza has its own comedic feature. The first stanza plays off being common. The second springboards off heavyweight champ Cassius Clay’s celebrity. Stanza three is our light-hearted Cold War scenario spoof. “Wowee! Pretty scary!” Stanza four is a playful reversal of the usual quip about who can and can’t live in the house next door.

Stanzas five and six are just plain hilarious, playful and weird. And like the song, it’s another side of Bob Dylan. Comin’ to think about it, so’s the rest. And guess what? It is what it is.

Author Tim Cain, in his 2006 article Bob Dylan is a funny, funny man: XM radio reveals humor in unexpected places, also cites I Shall Be Free, among other things. The article was written in response to Dylan’s radio hour along with the release of Modern Times.

The late John Bushey, host of the KUMD radio show Highway 61 Revisited, loved Dylan’s sense of humor also. On one occasion when I was a guest on his show, John wanted to play a song from a live concert in France in which Dylan spends the first four minutes tuning his guitar. John asked me with a grin, “Do you think I can get away with this?”

There’s humor woven all through Dylan’s lyrics. Just listening to the dialogue between God and Abraham on “Highway 61 Revisited” ought to be a clue. A bit later, “Howard just pointed with his gun. That way, down Highway 61.” Who are all those crazy characters anyways?

Maggie’s Farm has some hilarious characters, too. Maggie’s pa is one of them. “Well, he puts his cigar out in your face just for kicks,
His bedroom window it is made out of bricks.
The National Guard stands around his door — “

What makes his comic side work so well is that it serves as comic relief from the sobering nature of much of his content. Find me one example of Dylan singing, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” with a cheerful tone. Yet right in the middle of that song we have a line that continued to get laughs decades later. “Sometimes even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”

That last humorous image brings to mind (for me) Kevin Kline’s interrupted shower in the movie Dave when the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) confronts him, perfectly demonstrating the double meaning of the word “exposed.”

Louie Kemp, in his book Dylan & Me, has more than a few comic anecdotes in it revealing this other side of Bob Dylan. Kemp insists that the Bob Dylan everyone knows publicly is just a persona. Where one ends and the other begins — the person and the persona — is not my problem.

Here’s the song. You can find an outtake on YouTube in the links at the bottom of the page.

I Shall Be Free №10

I’m just average, common too
I’m just like him, the same as you
I’m everybody’s brother and son
I ain’t different from anyone
It ain’t no use a-talking to me
It’s just the same as talking to you

I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day
I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay
I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come
26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine
Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you’d better run
99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you
14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen”

Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! pretty scary!

Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba

Well, I set my monkey on the log
And ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head
And he went and did the Cat instead
He’s a weird monkey, very funky

I sat with my high-heeled sneakers on
Waiting to play tennis in the noonday sun
I had my white shorts rolled up past my waist
And my wig-hat was falling in my face
But they wouldn’t let me on the tennis court

I got a woman, she’s so mean
She sticks my boots in the washing machine
Sticks me with buckshot when I’m nude
Puts bubblegum in my food
She’s funny, wants my money, calls me “honey”

Now I got a friend who spends his life
Stabbing my picture with a bowie knife
Dreams of strangling me with a scarf
When my name comes up he pretends to barf
I’ve got a million friends!

Now they asked me to read a poem
At the sorority sisters’ home
I got knocked down and my head was swimmin’
I wound up with the Dean of Women
Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it
Hope I don’t blow it

I’m gonna grow my hair down to my feet so strange
So I look like a walking mountain range
And I’m gonna ride into Omaha on a horse
Out to the country club and the golf course
Carry The New York Times, shoot a few holes, blow their minds

Now you’re probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about
What’s probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for
It’s nothing
It’s something I learned over in England

Copyright © 1971 by Special Rider Music; renewed 1999 by Special Rider Music

Related Links

Humorous Bob Dylan Lyrics
Jokerman: The Humor of Bob Dylan
Tony Attwood’s tak on this song.
And this Outtake you can find on YouTube

And the beat goes on.

Originally published earlier today at https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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