When Bob Dylan in 1967 recorded I Shall Be Released in the basement of the Big Pink, a house rented by Rick Danko close to Woodstock, the title was elegiac and had a double meaning, naturally.

Bob Dylan on a motorcycle illustrates the song I SHALL BE RELEASED.

The previous summer, on the night of 29 July 1966, Bob almost faced his maker when he skidded off the road on route 212 and crashed the 500cc Triumph Tiger that had taken him across America to see more of the world he was writing about.

After the success of Blonde On Blonde, his seventh album, Dylan was being pushed by the publisher Macmillan to complete his novel Tarantula, ABC had paid up front for a major TV extravaganza and Albert Grossman, his indefatigable manager, had booked another tour for the winter.

Bob was wasted and worn out. If was a mixture of irony and destiny that the crash released him from the ever growing list of obligations. ‘Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race,’ Dylan wrote in Chronicles. ‘Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on.’

Dylan and the band illustrate the song I Shall Be Released.Except, that is, the members of the Band – Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson.

Having worked nonstop writing, recording, performing, travelling, getting married, having babies, buying a home and becoming what he didn’t want to be, the voice of his generation, Dylan the artist needed to take stock, stare up at the stars, ride a horse along the trail and listen to the river sing. Luckily, the accident wasn’t serious but it was serendipitous.

There was no official record of the crash and there were some who said at the time it was an elaborate ploy to take some time out. It doesn’t really matter. Garth Hudson fitted out a recording studio with two stereo mixers and a tape recorder borrowed from Grossman and got a set of microphones on loan from folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. They recorded covers, the Band found their style and Dylan sat an old typewriter and bashed out some of the most memorable songs of the sixties.

I Shall Be Released Gospel Style

When I first heard I Shall Be Released I was reminded of I’ll Fly Away, written by Albert E. Brumley.

Some glad morning when this life is o’er, 
I’ll fly away; 
To a home on God’s celestial shore, 
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away). 

The gospel hymn is upbeat with a chorus the people can roar loud enough to shake the spire on the church roof. It’s about being released from the ties of daily life into the eternal, the infinite.

Dylan’s I Shall Be Released has the same lift and thrust, the same sense of liberty and redemption. When you hear the chorus you want cry out I shall be released from the depths of your being. The release isn’t to God’s celestial shore, but the impenetrable walls of imprisonment in whatever form it takes – the cell block, the lack of purpose, the feeling of being damned, depressed, going nowhere.

The man in the lonely crowd cries out that he’s been framed. He’s not to blame. Like every man, he needs protection. Like every man he’s bound to fall. Like every man and everything, he can be replaced. 

They say everything can be replaced
They say every distance is not near
So I remember every face
Of every man who put me here

‘He (Dylan) is characteristically careful not to confuse simplicity of construction with a commensurate simplicity of meaning. The release that he is singing about … is not from mere prison bars but rather from the cage of physical existence,’ Clinton Heylin wrote in his book Revolution In The Air.

I see my light come shinin’
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

I Shall Be Released appeared On the Band’s debut album Music from Big Pink in July 1968 with Richard Manuel singing lead vocals. It wasn’t until 1991 that Dylan’s own version reached the waiting fans on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. Rolling Stone magazine ranked I Shall Be Released No 6 on a list of the 100 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs.

Now, yonder stands a man in this lonely crowd
A man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shouting so loud
Just crying out that he’s been framed

Read: Dylan, Duende, Death and Lorca

Hear: I Shall be Released, Dylan and the Band

Clifford Thurlow photo from website www.cliffordthurlow.comClifford Thurlow





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One Comment

  1. That Bootleg Volume I-III had a number of tremendous tracks on it that hadn’t seen the light of day before its release. For me, the one that shines the brightest is “Blind Willie McTell”.

    Mark Knopfler was originally producing the album Dylan released at the time the song was written (“Infidels”). But, he left before it was finished, because he had to honor a previous commitment. He said later that he could hardly believe that the track had been left off the LP.

    Leave it to Bob to be ABLE to shelve a song that other musicians would trade anything to have written … and then release it years later in an anthology !

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