"I don't know how I got to write those songs," Dylan said in 2004, apropos of "It's Alright, Ma." "Try to sit down and write something like that. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But I can't do that."
Written in Woodstock in the summer of 1964, while his folk-scene compadres Joan Baez and Mimi and Richard Fariña were Dylan's houseguests, "It's Alright, Ma" is a transition from the politically minded lyrics that had briefly been Dylan's stock in trade to a broader vision of "life, and life only": Instead of pointing fingers at a particular flaw of culture, the song tears down the entire decrepit thing, declaring that all is vanity and hypocrisy and phony propaganda.
On a purely technical level, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is dazzling, with an incredibly complicated rhyme scheme and a melody that barrels along on two notes until the flourish at the end of each verse. The lyrics incorporate nods to Arthur Koestler (author of Darkness at Noon), the Book of Ecclesiastes and even Dylan's beloved Elvis Presley (the title is just a hair shy of Presley's line "That's all right, now, Mama"). It's always been a tricky song for Dylan to sing — a snapshot of a particular moment in his artistic development, a jewel that he's lucky enough to own rather than a machine whose workings he understands from having built it. Talking about "It's Alright, Ma" in 1980, he described the difficulty of getting "in touch with the person you were when you wrote the songs ... but I can still sing it, and I'm glad I've written it."