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All the people referenced in the Bob Dylan song 'I Shall Be Free'

Bob Dylan‘s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963 to widespread acclaim. It features classic after classic and is rightly hailed as one of Dylan’s most iconic body of works and one of the best records ever released. The number of iconic songs included on the masterpiece is dizzying. They include: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Masters of War’, ‘Girl from the North Country’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’. 

Although his first record, the eponymous 1962 album Bob Dylan, is also a classic in its own right, The Freewheelin’ was the first time that Bob Dylan announced his true self as a master of the songwriting craft. His lyrics on his second studio offering are nothing short of incredible. A well-read and cerebral artist, Dylan’s lyrics drew from news headlines regarding the Civil Rights Movement, and articulated society’s anxieties about the threat of nuclear destruction, given that the Cold War was at its height around the time of writing.

Alongside the deeply political themes, Dylan also included love songs that ranged from the sugary to the bitter, and typically, all of his lyrics were drenched in his signature surreal humour. The album propelled him to real stardom, and it was the start of him cultivating such a degree of respect that he became widely hailed as the ‘Spokesman of a Generation’.

One of the highlights of the album is the overlooked closer, ‘I Shall Be Free’. It is actually a rework of Lead Belly’s 1944 song ‘We Shall Be Free’, from his compilation Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs. In addition to Lead Belly, the original also featured some of Dylan‘s other folk heroes, Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry. Credited to Lead Belly on The Freewheelin’, the inspiration for the original has widely been taken as a 19th-century African-Ameican spiritual. 

Dylan’s version is in the form of a talking blues, the style of song that he would often use around this period and become renowned for. Furthermore, it features lyrical nods to the hilarious classic American folk standard, the cocaine loving ‘Take a Whiff on Me’, Chris Bouchillon’s ‘Talkin’s Blues’, and Hank Williams’ 1933 classic ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It’. 

However, the most memorable part of the song is the list of the contemporary pop culture icons that Dylan references in the song. Of course, a surrealist list, it features some of the biggest names of the day, and some more niche ones. Memorably, halfway through the song, Dylan receives a phone call from the incumbent President, JFK. The late President asks, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?” to which Dylan responds, “I said my friend, John, Brigitte Bardot/ Anita Ekberg/ Sophia Loren/ Country’ll grow”.

At another point, Dylan sings: “Out of the shower comes a football man/ With a bottle of oil in his hand/ Greasy kid stuff/ What I want to know, Mr. Football Man, is/ What do you do about Willy Mays/ Martin Luther King/ Olatunji”. For anyone wondering, ‘Mr. Football Man’ is a reference to Joe Namath, an American quarterback who made his name as part of an iconic New York Jets team in the ’60s; he is one of the most celebrated American football players of all time.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t all real characters that Dylan included in his song. Out of the 15 references, two are for fictional characters. One is a reference to the nursery rhyme character ‘Little Bo-Peep’, “Eyes were closed, I was half asleep/ I chased me a woman up the hill”. Another is Mr. Clean, the brand name and mascot of Procter and Gamble’s ubiquitous all-purpose cleaner. 

An underrated song, taking cues from the wacky nature of ‘Take a Whiff on Me’, ‘I Shall Be Free’ provides a humorous end to the often serious, political nature that concerns the vast majority of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. For this reason, it is always worth a revisit. Below, we’ve listed all the characters that make an appearance, either direct or tacit. 

All the people referenced in ‘I Shall Be Free’:

  • President Kennedy
  • Brigitte Bardot
  • Anita Ekberg
  • Sophia Loren
  • Willy Mays
  • Mr. Clean
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Richard Burton
  • Olatunji
  • Yul Brynner
  • Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Charles de Gaulle
  • Ernest Borgnine
  • Little Bo Peep
  • Joe Namath

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