With its simple, evocative tale of a prisoner yearning for freedom, this rock hymn was part of a conscious effort by Dylan to move away from the sprawling imagery of his mid-Sixties masterpieces. "In '68 [Dylan told] . . . me how he was writing shorter lines, with every line meaning something," Allen Ginsberg once said. "And from that time came some of the stuff ... like 'I Shall Be Released'.... There was to be no wasted language, no wasted breath."
The result was one of Dylan's best-loved songs, first cut during the 1967 Basement Tapes sessions with the Band. The rough church of the organ and guitar frame Dylan's urgent nasal prayer, until Richard Manuel's keening harmony illuminates the chorus, like sunlight pouring through a stained-glass window. Years later, in the mid-Eighties, David Crosby sang that chorus to himself — "Any day now, any day now/I shall be released" — in his Texas prison cell, as he served nine months on drug and weapon charges. "I wrote it on the wall," he recalls. "It took me hours. But I did it. And I remember taking heart from it."