LITERARY CRITICISM

IT AIN'T ME, BABE by Bob Dylan

Go 'way from my window, Leave at your own chosen speed. I'm not the one you want, babe, I'm not the one you need. You say you're lookin' for someone Who's never weak but always strong, To protect you an' defend you Whether you are right or wrong, Someoneto open each and every door, But it ain't me, babe, No, no, no, it ain't me, babe, It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe. Go lightly from the ledge, babe, Go lightly on the ground. I'm not the one you want, babe, I will only let you down. You say you're lookin' for someone Who will promise never to part, Someone to close his eyes for you, Someone to close his heart, Someone who will die for you an' more, But it ain't me, babe, No, no, no, it ain't me, babe, It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe. Go melt back in the night, Everything inside is made of stone. There's nothing in here moving An' anyway I'm not alone. You say you're looking for someone Who'll pick you up each time you fall, To gather flowers constantly An' to come each time you call, A lover for your life an' nothing more, But it ain't me, babe, No, no, no, it ain't me, babe, It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe.


IT AIN'T THAT, BABE!

Bob DylanIn July 1992, while driving back to Hartford with a friend after the "Tribute to Woody Guthrie" concert in Central Park and listening to Bob Dylan, my companion made some comment about the song "It Ain't Me, Babe". It seems that somehow his remark and the lingering inspiration from the concert set me thinking, because a couple of days later I suddenly came to an startling insight into the meaning of the song's lyrics.

The song has been understood variously as a cynical love song or as referring to Dylan's relationship with his audience; however, it is actually a political song. It clearly refers to the war in Vietnam and to the American flag, which the poet lets go from his window ("Go 'way from my window"), subsequently falls on the ledge ("Go lightly from the ledge, babe"), and finally to the ground ("Go lightly on the ground"); the verse "Leave at your own chosen speed" is a poetic description of the swinging motion of the falling flag.

The lines "To protect you and defend you/Whether you are right of wrong" refer to actual battle situations and to the then raging dirty war; the same theme of the unjustness of the war we find again later: "Someone to close his eyes for you, Someone to close his heart" (a rather unusual, to say the least, request coming from a woman). The verse "Who'll pick you up each time you fall" should be construed literally and not metaphorically. "To come each time you call" refers to calls to arms, not to phone calls. The "promise never to part" implies court-martial, not divorce court. Only the "flowers" in the verse "To gather flowers constantly" should be understood metaphorically, as referring to military medals for bravery. The beginning of the third stanza: "Everything inside is made of stone./There's nothing in here moving" denotes the absence of patriotic sentiments in the heart of the poet, something, however, shared by draft resisters and many others with similar antiwar sentiments ("And anyway I'm not alone").

"Someone who will die for you an' more" would be perplexing referring to a lover and not to a soldier: Isn't self-sacrifice the ultimate proof of romantic love? But in an aggressive war situation it clearly refers to killing innocent civilians, including women and children, what is euphemistically called "collateral damage". And finally, the line "Go melt back in the night" seems a clear allusion to another night made forever memorable in Francis Scott Key's famous lyrics, a night when the United States was fighting for its own freedom rather than violating the sovereignty of other nations*:

… And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

When I realized that "It Ain't Me, Babe" was an antiwar and not a love song, I first imagined that I had rediscovered by myself something every young person in America in the sixties had known. But when I asked friends, and then when I checked the Dylan bibliography, I realized to my great surprise that no one before had considered the most obvious, once of course you think of it, interpretation: Anthony Scaduto thinks that Dylan "tells Suze and all women that the search for an illusory Hollywood-romantic love,... has turned him into stone" (Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, 1971, pp.110-111). Robert Shelton, the influential columnist whose report on Bob Dylan in the New York Times on Sept. 28, 1961 was a significant landmark in the singer's early career, remarks that "... this song, a rejection of the mythology of true love, could also represent Dylan's rejection of the audience's demands" (No Direction Home, 1986, p. 222). The eminent British music critic Wilfrid Mellers comments that "... he refuses to allow the girl's self-regarding love engulf him ... disarms through its lyricism" (A Darker Side of Pale, 1984, p. 133). And so on.

"It Ain't Me, Babe" first appeared in the album "Another Side of Bob Dylan" in the spring of 1964, that is long before the antiwar movement had gathered its full momentum. Now the song, already included among Dylan's greatest hits, acquires added, historical as well as literary, significance. And the fact that the artist managed to conceal its true meaning so thinly and yet so effectively from so many and for so long, is still another testimony to his well-established but still talked about creative genius: some time ago, in a BBC program they were debating whether Tennyson or Dylan is a better poet; being a poet-proper rather then a poet-songwriter, Tennyson prevailed, but it was close.

Dylan, however, purposely gave a specific clue pointing to the correct interpretation: the movement of his "babe" from the window, to the ledge, and then to the ground. The vivid imagery of the outside of a building and, furthermore, the specification that the object is falling lightly, doesn't leave, in my opinion, much room for alternate explanations.

Later Bob Dylan turned religious rather than political, and lots of the Vietnam era radicals became yuppies... No, no, no, it ain't me who is gonna stone anybody: after all, just three years before that memorable concert I had taken an oath to the American flag (and, when questioned, I had answered that yes, I would fight for the United States against Greece in the event of a war between the two countries...). But this important political statement of the greatest troubadour of our generation remains painfully relevant today; the same moral issues it deals with are raised again by the conscientious objectors of the current war; and unfortunately they will continue to haunt us in the foreseeable future.

Eustace M. Frilingos
New York, 2007

* I am obliged to fellow-netizen Gene Gnandt for suggesting this point.


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