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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Bob Dylan, His Lyrics, The Bible, Scripture and Religion

Bob Dylan, His Lyrics, The Bible, Scripture and Religion

Dylan Draws on Bible in Songs & Concerts - Piedmontstyle
The Bible sits in the centre of much of the world’s cultural heritage. So does Dylan, echoing or thundering its imagery, often in ways people don’t realise.

Folk purists who booed him when he went electric in 1965/66, serious students of the man and his canon (Dylanologists) or friends/fans who feel they know him personally (Bobheads), have to agree to disagree about the importance of the Bible/Christianity in Dylan’s writing.

Others might argue that music is the medium and words don’t work on the page anyway. Are the lyrics actually poetry? Aren’t they meant to be oral performance, not literary study?

Dylan, the Well-Read Jewish Writer

So how does a Jewish-American boy born of a father named Abram Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, come to be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996? Because he has created a catalogue of writing that is not just a backdrop to the past fifty years, but because lyrically and musically, many of his songs have been made into classics by others and his awards are legion.

Bert Cartwright, in his 1985 book about Dylan and the Bible said: “The genius… lies in his remarkable ability to meld into artistic expression the music of America’s poor whites and African-Americans with the sophistication of an informed and enquiring mind”. He argued that the Bible was “the common denominator” of both worlds. Those who sang the blues, went to church.

At the very least, young Robert Zimmerman gained a rudimentary knowledge of Jewish Torah; it’s clear he absorbed almost the entire Bible, too. Dylan described himself as a messenger; others styled him an artist-prophet. He wore that mantle somewhat reluctantly, just as he rejected the label “protest singer” about his more overtly political songs.

In his book, Tangled Up in the Bible, Michael J Gilmour, said that biblical prophets described and evaluated their contemporary worlds and their critique was often rejected. Thus Gilmour, likened Dylan to prophets of old. Stephen Webb in Dylan Redeemed said: He rose to fame so quickly because he imbued rock with something otherworldly – a supersonic rendition of the supernatural – which gave popular music enough weight to convey something of the mystery of religious faith”.

Dylan, the Born-Again Christian

Whatever he believed previously, he became an openly born-again Christian in 1978. The conversion came after the collapse of his marriage and a period of low public and critical esteem, more in the US than UK. Many turned off his music and disliked his involvement in movies. In November, at a concert in San Diego, California, somebody threw a silver cross onto the stage which he picked up and put in his pocket.

The next gig was at Tucson, Arizona. In his hotel room, feeling alone and in need of something more than he had, he picked up the cross, and felt he had a profound, life-changing vision of Christ revealed. Some of his band members and Mary Alice Artes with whom he was romantically linked, were Christians. Among other things in his life, from then, he began writing lyrics and album notes reflecting his new spirituality.

He felt compelled to attend a lengthy Bible study course at Vineyard Fellowship, where music was a fundamental part of worship. The Bible moved from being a literary source to a drive in songwriting and remarks on concert stages. His album Slow Train Coming (1979) was a direct result of his beliefs.

The songs Precious Angel, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, When You Gonna Wake Up? and When He Returns drew on the Book of Revelation, about the end-times, but include references to numerous other Bible passages. Gotta Serve Somebody is influenced by Matthew 6.24 and Luke 16.13.

His Saved album followed a year later, and is about personal faith. The title song, What Can I Do For You?, Solid Rock, Pressing On, In the Garden, Saving Grace, Are You Ready?, draw on both Testaments, from Genesis, through prophets and Psalms, to the disciples.

Dylan, the Everyman Poet for All Seasons

Connections and links to the Bible are legion in his songs. Often there are multiple references in a single song. Masters of War has: ‘lying and deceiving like Judas’ (Matt 10:4; 26:14-16; John 6:70-71 and 12:4-6). The line ‘Jesus would never/forgive what you do’, from Matt 9:2-8; Mark 2:5-12; Luke 5:20-26 and 7:48-49.

Gates of Eden from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home has traceable references to Genesis, Exodus and Revelation. Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream has the Book of John. Tombstone Blues from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, has images from, Kings, Judges and John again. Knocking on Heaven’s Door from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) links to Matthew, Luke, John and Revelation.

Gilmour’s scholarly book has an appendix of every Dylan song with each Biblical line identified, yet many Dylan studies ignore or downplay his Biblical impact. His evangelical tone alienated some fans, yet brought new ones from the Christian area.

Slow Train Coming made number 2 on the UK album charts, number 3 in the US and number 16 in CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) Magazine’s 2001: 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music. The song Gotta Serve Somebody won Dylan the Grammy for best male rock vocal performance of 1980.

Like all great writers, Dylan’s works will be debated and pored over for years to come.

First published at Suite 101, 3 July 2010.

Photo: Dylan Draws on Bible in Songs & Concerts – Piedmontstyle

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2 Responses to "Bob Dylan, His Lyrics, The Bible, Scripture and Religion"

  1. Luis says:

    Warning to Dylan haters, the foilowlng comment will make you gag.Bringing it All Back Home: that’s the chronological start of the Dylan I love. Electric Dylan. It’s the music you love when you are 17 that sticks with you all your life.I used to think that too, but not so much any more. And that’s because of Dylan. I’m a latecomer to Dylan. Which is surprising, because (as a Generation X-er) I used to fancy myself quite the music geek/ connoisseur, but for some reason never got into Dylan. Didn’t even broach him really– I guess because I had some idea of “Dylan” (the folky “political” Dylan) that put me off. It’s only in the last few years– my mid to late 30s– that I’ve delved into the Dylan canon. And have come to love his music more deeply, I think, than any music I ever loved in my youth. It’s an interesting experience, because my relationship to his music (as someone about 2 decades past 17) is one I haven’t felt for many years– something like the kind of intense intimate involvement I felt for my favorite music between the ages of (say) 14-21. I didn’t think I would ever feel like that about any musician again. And I feel like Dylan’s music is likely to be a companion to me for the rest of my life. Whereas much of the music I loved in my youth no longer speaks to me, no longer deeply moves or touches me. Let me amend that: it does move and touch me, but much of that is due to nostalgia, the Proustian rush, the poignancy of reembodying (remembering through the bodily experience of listening to that music) what it felt like to be the girl I once was (and in some sense will always be). It’s difficult to put into words what the relationship to certain music– music that serves as something like the soundtrack of one’s inner life– is like. It’s as much a meditation with/ into oneself as listening to the voice of an external other. Some verses of Wallace Stevens’s on poetry come to mind. In a way I’ve only just begun with Dylan. Started with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde: these 3 albums were pretty much all I listened to, compulsively, for almost a year. They made me a Dylanophile for life. Then I got into late 60 to mid 70s Dylan: these are the albums I probably listen to most often these days, especially John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Blood on the Tracks, Basement Tapes, Desire. But love the others too: Self Portrait, New Morning, Pat Garrett, Planet Waves, some of the concurrent live albums. And that’s as far as I’ve gotten. Late 70s and 80s and beyond, all that awaits me. Looking forward to listening to it all. (That’s such a great feeling. It’s like falling in love with a prolific novelist, poet, film maker, whatever, and having a great deal of his/ her oeuvre still before one, yet untapped.)As a longtime Althouse reader, I have to say, her love for Dylan probably played a part in my my decision to seriously check him out. That, and my love for Luigi Ghirri– one of my favorite photographers– who deeply loves Dylan too. So, thank you Althouse. Even aside from your blog (one of my favorite blogs), I owe you so much– just for playing a part in my discovery of Dylan, at a time in my life when that’s just what I needed and just what I wanted.

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