When Africa was colonised by Europe, the treatment was harsh, whole cultures and people groups were wiped out, by brute force or other means. Due to this, countless languages were lost, but there was still a want to reject the colonial language of English, specifically. So how did they do this? The dialect of “Iyaric” was created, as a way for expression despite a foreign language being imposed. The Iyaric dialect was meant as a way to take language forward, to reject the corrupt and evil society they were in. Some words in the English language were also rejected entirely, due to their connotations with devil-like or negative imagery. “I And I” is a phrase from this dialect, it is about the oneness of two people, meaning that God was in everybody, and, in fact, everybody was as one.
So what does this have to do with the song of the same name?
Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed
Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams
In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed
To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams
The opening first part of this short song discusses how a “strange woman” has not slept in the same bed as a singer, and, how, in a past life, she would have been powerful and successful. The woman is representative of God, religion or important religious figures themselves. The idea of her being faithfully wed to a king, who writes psalms is important, because:
- A king, generally, gains his position of power due to a claim of being chosen by God. They would need to be good friends with popes, priests, etc… To validate this, which is what is meant by being “faithfully wed”. It is the union between religion and state through the king and religious figures.
- The psalms are obviously religious, being a part of the hebrew bible or old Christian testament.
From all of this, we can assume that, yes, the woman in question is representative of either God, religion or religious figures, and, due to the fact she hasn’t slept in the same bed as him for a long time, that these three things have left the singers life.
I and I
In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives
So what does this chorus mean? Well, we know I and I refers to the oneness of the human race and God. What Dylan is saying therefore is they, through the oneness of all humans to each other and to god, it means they neither honour nor forgive. When the second half of the chorus comes along, it references God and how he, once seen, does not allow others to live. I am assuming that it is God because whoever it is, is powerful enough to kill anybody who looks at him.
The juxtaposition between the concept of I and I, and the scenes of death and living without honour and forgieness, I believe, is an intentional decision to reflect how this idea of I and I is a different reality to how welcoming it sounds. When everybody is living as one, they can neither be honourable or forgiving to each other. When everybody is living as one, to see God is to warrant death unto oneself.
However, there’s a lot of room for interpretation here. The man’s face can also be interpreted as meaning seeing the truth in another person, a truth they don’t want anybody to know. So this truth is their true face. The person could be anybody, it could be a random individual or it could be in reference to the church or religion itself.
Think I’ll go out and go for a walk
Not much happenin’ here, nothin’ ever does
Besides, if she wakes up now, she’ll just want me to talk
I got nothin’ to say, ’specially about whatever was
In the second part of the song, the singer thinks about going on a walk, as nothing happens there, and, if the woman from before wakes up, she’ll just want to talk about the past, which the singer doesn’t want to do.
The singer is attempting to walk away from their life of religion, as they think nothing is happening with it. This could either mean they think nothing’s happening between religion and the singer personally, or it could refer to a larger problem with the church becoming stagnant, meaning he’d want to leave.
The “was” that the singer doesn’t want to talk about, apart from being, presumably, a past relationship with the woman, could also be seen as not wanting to talk about their religious past. Something they are trying to get away from.
Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race
It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth
Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face
And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth
What’s happened in the song now, is that the singer has already been on their walk and is reflecting back on it. The walk itself, obviously, should be taken both literally and metaphorically, as both a stroll or a walk in and off itself, but also as a representation of the singer’s past.
The “untrodden path” could be a reference to Dylan making new ground where nobody else had been before, with his music. It’s untrodden because he’s the only person there yet.
When the swift can’t win the race, but the worthy who divide the truth do, it should be inferred as being about how people, like Politicians, critics, the media, etc… Will try and change the truth, which unfairly puts them ahead in life, as opposed to the people who actually do the work, who try and earn their success.
The singer then talks of how a stranger had to make him see justice, to understand it and admire it. This is not reffering to anybody specifically, but instead, to people outside of organised religion. These people who aren’t known, who are alien to the singer’s religious world, are what helped them to understand ideas like justice. Presumably, something that the religious world was not able to teach.
Outside of two men on a train platform there’s nobody in sight
They’re waiting for spring to come, smoking down the track
The world could come to an end tonight, but that’s all right
She should still be there sleepin’ when I get back
I believe the existence of two men is important, as, through I and I, they would just be one, they would be everybody. Spring is a sign of birth and new life. So, the two men, this one, is waiting for something new to come along. Something different. Everybody is waiting for something new, but the singer isn’t. It can be seen as a slow in their journey away from religion, something that becomes apparent when they talk about how the woman will be sleeping still, when they return home. This is representative of the fact that, although the singer is returning to a religious lifestyle, it’s not going to be the same as the past, they’re not going to be convening with the past.
Noontime, and I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part
Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put
Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart
I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot
Noontime is obviously about how the journey is coming to an end, how the song is coming to an end. The singer is going through the darkest part of their life, literally forcing themselves to go through it. They are constantly moving through life, exploring it to its full, which is all the narrow lanes they go down.
When the singer is talking about how somebody else is using their mouth, it means that what everybody else is seeing of them is not accurate, that it’s somebody else puppeting. Whether that’s god, the church, managers, etc… isn’t explicitly stated, but despite this, the singer doesn’t let it get in the way of hearing the truth themselves.
Finally, the song is, I believe, a direct line from Dylan himself to us, or maybe to god, where he talks about how he’s helped everybody along the way, but he still isn’t receiving any help, he’s still going through life without any assistance from anybody.
All these points are why I believe that I and I is a song about Dylan’s deviation from organised religion, that, despite returning in the end, is a much less important part of his lifestyle.