Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I Shall Be Released


After a long interruption, my Dylan Project continues.

The best description I ever heard of why "The Lord of the Rings" is so enchanting came from some guy who I was working in a cafeteria with, cleaning and bussing trays. I was 14 years old and he was 19, so older and wiser.

Anyway what he said was "it's as if (Tolkien) just went into an attic somewhere and found some old maps."

So too, for Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." It's hard to believe Dylan even wrote this, that it isn't a cover of some traditional jail (or slavery) ballad he found among a collection of old folk song recordings. But as far as I know it's really attributed to Dylan. All the more impressive.

With the jail theme, I can't resist speculating it's no coincidence it was written the same year "Cool Hand Luke" came out: 1967. Cool Hand Luke being one of the greatest movies ever made, though these days people get more excited about the pretty-damn-good "Shawshank Redemption."


Dylan didn't put the song out in any form (there are several) until 1971.

Simplicity, when it's pulled off well, demonstrates the greatest mastery of all.

This song's sweet melody, direct lyrics, and lazy pace combine to create the powerful emotion of a weary person longing to be released.

Above all, that twangy harmony brings in the element of pain.

"Any da-ay now, any wa-ay now."

Because on past 'Dylan Project' songs I've noticed a lot of people come to the page while searching for an interpretation of the lyrics, I'm going to oblige and break down as much as I think I understand (after the "More.")

Just hope y'all ain't high school kids robbing me for an English essay...actually what do I care? Knock yourselves out.

The executive summary: This is a deeply Christian song that operates on two levels: the profane and the sacred. It's about a man in prison / all men (people). He wants physical release / spiritual release. By recognition of his innocence / by absolution of his sins.

In addition to everything else, I have to say I love the way Dylan's frolicky picking hops its way down the guitar until the strumming starts (on the version linked above).

Version II
This version is more mournful.

I Shall Be Released

They say ev'rything can be replaced,
Yet ev'ry distance is not near.
So I remember ev'ry face
Of ev'ry man who put me here.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

The first words of the first verse are by far the hardest to interpret (and some versions don't use this verse at all, or put it in a different spot).

They say every thing can be replaced = every injustice can be set right, returned to where it was before something went wrong.
Yet every distance is not near = but some things can't be replaced: for instance, time a man has served for a crime he didn't commit.

So I remember every face of every man who put me here: for revenge, at first glance, from a false accuser or a corrupt prosecutor or judge. But on second thought: even if the jailed man is "guilty as charged," then how responsible is he or any criminal is for his actions?
His parents, his external influences _ even the God who gave him free will have conspired against him, in some sense.

I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released

The light is the light of divine justice. At sunset, and on Judgment Day, the light shines from West to East.
The release could mean release from prison or release by death and god's absolution for the things _ criminal or otherwise _ the singer has done wrong.


They say ev'ry man must need protection,
They say ev'ry man must fall.
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above the wall.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

This is the first verse on some versions.

Every man must need "protection" = Provided by God or a guard.
Every man must fall = We will all sin, and we will all die. By God's will, or the warden's.

Yet I swear I see my reflection some place so high above this wall.

This is maybe the best line in the song, so multilayered.

On the first level, the wrongly jailed man can daydream of flying free past the walls, or of his spirit at least being freed and rising toward heaven after his death.

On the second level, a guilty jailed man can imagine a reflection, perhaps of a better version of himself that didn't commit the crime _ being free.

But most importantly, man was made in god's image. So guilty or innocent, he will see his reflection in the sky: either way, god made him what he is, and put him behind bars. God will let him go when the test is over.

(maia c)

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd,
Is a man who swears he's not to blame.
All day long I hear him shout so loud,
Crying out that he been framed.
I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

The man NEXT to the singer claims to be innocent (just like the singer does).
He SWEARS he's not to blame, he's been framed (just like the singer does).

Perhaps this person next to the singer 'doth protest too much' _ his constant complaining may lend credibility or doubt to his cause.

Not like the singer: he really is innocent. Or is he really any different from the person next to him, singing out that he's been framed?

In some versions it's not clear the singer isn't the person in the crowd. Either they're the same person or they're people who are the same.

One has been framed. Both have been framed. Neither has been framed.

But the whole lonely crowd will one day be released.

(shawshank ship)

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