I wrote this paper for my songwriting class last semester. It’s an analysis of Bob Dylan’s song It Ain’t Me Babe. I’m putting on here because it’s an example of a close listening to a masterpiece in songwriting (I have an irrational obsession with Bob Dylan despite that he is a narcissistic asshole).I do believe that he is one of the greatest (I would say the greatest but I don’t think there is such a thing) songwriters of all time.
Anyways, I want to promote close listenings as well as close readings because I think that both are becoming a lost art. I wrote it in February. With that said:
It Ain’t Me, Babe.
Valentine’s Day was a couple days ago. For the last few weeks TV stations were littered with jewelry and flower commercials. Guys took their girlfriends on expensive dates. They spent lots of money, made lots of promises, maybe dropped the “L-bomb” for the first time, or dropped the big question. A message of love was portrayed; a message of dependency on love and on one’s own love. It makes me wonder if Bob Dylan wrote the song “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in response to this holiday, or at least in response to this sort of behavior. In this song, Dylan uses, what many people will consider to be the classic, “early Dylan” format. There are only four mediums for this song; guitar, harmonica, voice, and of course words. This is the perfect format for an anti-love song like this one as each instrument is used to accompany the voice, bringing the lyrics and the message to the forefront of the audience’s attention.
When analyzing most Bob Dylan songs, one must start with the lyrics and move to the other aspects of the song from there. Dylan, often criticized for his voice and sometimes criticized for his instrumentation (i.e. Subterranean Homesick Blues), continues to receive praise for his intelligent, and thought provoking lyrics. The lyrics for Dylan seem to be the one consistency that people can universally agree to be “good.” Dylan’s lyrics are what put the singer/songwriter over the top as a global icon and musician.
The lyrics to “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” as I previously stated, can be interpreted as an anti-love song. Dylan often wrote songs in criticism to topics and events of his time. This seems to me to be a criticism of the “you complete me” view of love. It breaks that view into a more realistic look at love. Within each verse is a line that describes what “you” as in the significant other (or insignificant other) being addressed is looking for in a relationship. For example, in the first verse, it says, “You say you’re looking for someone/Who’s never weak but always strong/To protect you and defend you/ Whether you are right or wrong.” Followed by the chorus, “It ain’t me, babe/ No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe/it ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.” To expect anyone to be able to be strong each and every time his lover is weak, is simply an unfeasible task and therefore, Dylan is admitting that fact; that he is not the answer to all of his “lover’s” problems.
One thing that really stood out to me in these lyrics, is the repetition of “babe.” This seems to add a great deal of information and meaning to the song, as it implies that the persona still has some kind of affection for the person the song is addressing. “Babe” is a pet name used by lovers to address each other. One does not call an acquaintance, or even a former lover “babe.” It portrays a sense of reassurance to the person being addressed as if to say, “I still have feelings for you, but I simply cannot fulfill these expectations that you have for me. I cannot be your answer to all of your problems. I’m only human.”
If one wishes to portray some kind of message through song, one must, in a sense, act it out. He or she must find the emotion that he or she is attempting to portray and allow it to bleed through his or her voice, whether it is from the inflection, harmony, intensity, etc. Say what one wants about Bob Dylan’s voice, but one cannot say that he has not perfected this mode of singing. For example, in this song, one can feel a certain sense of remorse through Dylan’s voice during each verse. The perfect example of this lies in the second verse on the line “I will only let you down.” While singing this line, Dylan’s voice cracks on the word “only.” This does not seem to be a crack from lack of talent, but rather a crack of emotion. One is able to clearly hear that this is not easy for the persona that Dylan is portraying to give out this information. One is also able to pick out a slight quivering in Dylan’s voice through these verses, which portrays the same message as the aforementioned voice crack. Another example, is through the attack of the chorus. A vast shift of inflection is found in Dylan’s voice as he reaches the chorus, almost wailing out the line, “No, no, no / It ain’t me babe.” The intensity rises greatly here; a reflection of the repetition of the word “no,” which implies that it is difficult for him to accept this fact as well. One repeats a word like this, not only to convince the audience of the fact, but also him or herself, which, judging by the intensity of Dylan’s voice, is what is happening here. Because of these facts, it is difficult for me to believe that this song would be quite as effective with another voice. Dylan’s ability to adapt his voice to the message of the song and, in a sense act it out, makes it extremely unique as well as affective.
Aside from his voice and lyrics, Dylan uses the simple instrumentation of an acoustic guitar, accompanied by harmonica in certain points of the song. Judging by the message of this song and how it is portrayed through Dylan’s voice, I cannot see how it would be effective with much more instrumentation. The simple strumming of the guitar causes a sort of intimacy with the audience. Just as one can easily imagine someone standing outside his lover’s window with an acoustic guitar singing a love song, one can easily imagine Dylan doing the same thing with this song. Imagine someone doing this with a full band behind them. It simply would not be near as effective because it would take the intimacy out of the picture. Dylan, through his guitar playing, also adds a great deal of emotion to the song as the guitar being played is very dynamic. It has the ability to fade to the background at times, (particularly at the beginning of each verse) as well as move to the forefront, as in the breaks between certain lines. For example, the guitar begins rather soft, but is accented in the pause between the lines, “Leave at your own chosen speed” and “I’m not the one you want, babe.”
The harmonica also serves a similar purpose. It obviously is always featured apart from the lyrics, since it is impossible to sing and play harmonica at once; however, it adds a great deal of emotion as it is featured after every chorus. It not only serves as a space-filler, but also a punch of meaning and emotion to compliment the rest of the song. At times, it even gives a similar sound to weeping, which mirror’s Dylan’s voice inflection throughout the song.
Whether one agrees that this song is a pleasant listen or not, one cannot argue with the fact that it was highly crafted. Each note and each instrument and each word adds information to the song in some way or another. Dylan portrays the message given with the lyrics through his dynamic voice inflection and guitar and harmonica playing in a way that no one else could precisely emulate. It was Dylan’s own unique presentation of the song and not the lyric itself that has possibly been the inspiration for breakups all over the country and possibly world and many ruined Valentine’s Days.