Different Interpretations of the Song “I Shall Be Released”


  • Different ways of performing a song: opportunities for a new artistic expression.
  • Possible differences: mood, interpretation, performance tools.
  • Song to be discussed: “I Shall Be Released”.
  • Original performer: Bob Dylan; multiple covers, including Nina Simone. Target performances: 1976 and 1994 live concerts.

Song History

Bob Dylan

Written in 1967. Dylan’s version: 1967, recorded. album version (“Music from Big Pink”): 1968 Richard Manuel. Dylan’s version: is ultimately more popular.

Richard Manuel

Theme: Metaphorical Prison

“I Shall Be Released” means: reflecting a prisoner’s perspective. Metaphoric sense of being imprisoned and constrained. Urge for the ultimate release and the need for rebellion. Protest against conformity and establishment in its purest form.

Song Form

Form of the song; a very basic structure (verse-chorus). Surface problem: conflict between the rebellious nature and the conformity of the form. The underlying reason for complying with the tradition: is the need to focus on the content. Repetition is the tool for legitimizing the key statement (“I see my light come shining” (Dylan)).

Comparison: Shift of Emotions

Energetic, enthusiastic, joyful, performed alone, wistful, and performed with other musicians. Enduring Features.

Main enduring feature: difficult to identify due to the difference in performances. Lyrics and the soundtrack: the only enduring characteristics. Guitar solo: an enduring feature that characterizes the song and adds a unique flair to it. The recognizability of Dylan’s solo across all versions as contrasted with his unique voice in the 1994 performance is the main point of difference between the two versions.

Difference in Interpretation

Change in the level of energy: the main difference between the 1976 and 1994 concerts. 1976: Energetic, cheerful anticipation and optimism. 1994: Lacking energy. Protest is emphasized to a lesser extent, with a greater focus on the implied meanings of the song (prison as the limitations set by oneself).


1976 and 1994 performances of “I Shall Be Released”: drastically different despite the same lyrics and soundtrack. Focus on the different themes of the song (external as the rebellion against the system versus internal as confronting oneself). Drop-in energy of the performance in the 1994 version compared to 1976 one. Result: two entirely different interpretations of the same song. “I Shall Be Released” has gained a new meaning.

Works Cited

Dylan, Bob. “I Shall Be Released – Bob Dylan and The Band – 1976.” YouTube, uploaded by Grey Coyote.

Dylan, Bob. “BOB DYLAN – I Shall Be Released (Live in Woodstock 1994).” YouTube, uploaded by JIMBLUESROCK Vol2.

Jacobs, Jonas. Evolution of a Song — “I Shall Be Released” (Videos). PopMatters. Web.