By Gary Berton, President of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association
The only reference to Thomas Paine made by Bob Dylan is the 1967 “As I Went Out One Morning”, on the John Wesley Harding album. I started reading Paine after I heard that song. However, every analysis I read about the song only confused me. After researching Paine for 50 years, I can shed some light on it. And the reviews of the song are making even less sense now than then.
The woman in the song is America, and he took responsibility for her. He apologized for her, he was “sorry for what she’s done”. This was in the height of the Vietnam War, also the height of the civil rights upsurge. Paine prophesized later in life that if America loses its morals of equality and justice, that it would be a sad day for all of humanity.
The heart of Paine was equality and justice; he also condemned offensive war as the most heinous crime that can be committed. I commend Dylan for grasping Paine’s essence, and for putting it to use. He did a much better job than most historians in that time.
Here are the full lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning”:
As I went out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains
I offer’d her my hand
She took me by the arm
I knew that very instant
She meant to do me harm
“Depart from me this moment”
I told her with my voice
Said she, “But I don’t wish to”
Said I, “But you have no choice”
“I beg you, sir,” she pleaded
From the corners of her mouth
“I will secretly accept you
And together we’ll fly south”
Just then Tom Paine, himself
Came running from across the field
Shouting at this lovely girl
And commanding her to yield
And as she was letting go her grip
Up Tom Paine did run,
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said to me
“I’m sorry for what she’s done”
Learn more about Thomas Paine at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association.