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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Consistent Song of Faith from an Inconsistent Son of God

I sometimes joke with people by telling them that I am a follower of “the Jewish carpenter who renounced his father’s name to sing the blues out on Highway 61.” Those who know that I’m a minister usually assume that I’m making some sort of oblique reference to Jesus of Nazareth.  Most people think I’m just being weird.  It’s actually a little of both. I think it’s a humorous way to refer to my favorite singer songwriter, Bob Dylan, who was born Robert Zimmerman.  “Zimmerman,” in German, means “Carpenter.” He dropped his father’s name, legally changed his name to Bob Dylan and became modern music’s iconic (and often iconoclastic) figure.

This comparison of Dylan to Jesus is a little hyperbolic, of course.  Though often hailed as prophet, and poet, and musical messiah, Bob Dylan has been only an inconsistent “son of God.”  Born into a Jewish family in Duluth, and raised in the tight knit Jewish community of Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan grew up with the Hebrew Scriptures, and participated in the traditions of his heritage, but never said much about being a follower of the Jewish faith. In 1979 he famously converted to Christianity and offended many of his fans by turning his “finger pointing” songs on them.  In the years after, however, Dylan has downplayed his conversion to Christianity – though never quite renouncing it.  Careful listeners can still hear in his lyrics the words and themes of the Christian faith.  Bob Dylan, this inconsistent son of God, has consistently, through the years of his career, sung a song of faith, even in the years before he came to the Christian faith.

In 1961 CBS studios released Bob Dylan’s eponymously titled first recording, a collection of mostly traditional and folk songs, with only two original compositions.  It was on his 1962 sophomore album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that he stepped into the role of singer-songwriter.  And not only that, he embraced the role of political activist and prophet.  In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets developed from a group of mystic seers into moralistic preachers whose function was to critique the kings and leaders of Israel; the prophets were a check against the potential of despotism and tyranny (Fritsch 1096). Dylan took on that role with a number of “finger pointing songs” like “Oxford Town” and “Masters of War”.

In the song “Masters of War” Dylan delivers an acerbic attack on warmongers and war-profiteers.  It is an unflinchingly bitter song, a curse and imprecatory psalm.  “Like Judas of old,” he sings, “you lie and deceive.”  In the final verse of the song he sings:

                And I hope that you die
                And your death will come soon
                I’ll follow your casket
                In the pale afternoon
                And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
                Down to your deathbed
                And I’ll stand over your grave
                ‘TIl I’m sure that you’re dead (Dylan “Masters”)

It might seem that he’s gone too far when Dylan says of these Masters of War that “Even Jesus would never / Forgive what you do,” (Ibid) until it is recalled that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “…alas for that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born!” (New Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 26: 24).   This comparison of those who would lead us into war with Judas Iscariot shows up again in Dylan’s 1964 song “With God on our Side” (Dylan “With God”).

By 1965 Dylan had grown tired of the role of prophet and had given up the “finger pointing,” political activist songs that brought him such notoriety. He’d also abandoned the acoustic folk styling of his early work, trading it for an electrified and amplified rock and roll band.  His songs during this period often demonstrated a rapid fire stream of consciousness, a progression of images rather than a sustained narrative.

The title song from Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited begins with an image of his own life and family overlaid with a biblical story:

          God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son,”
          Abe says, “Man you must be puttin’ me on”
          God says “No.” Abe says, “What?”
          God says, “You can do what you want Abe, but
          The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
          Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
          God says, “Out on Highway 61” (Dylan “Highway”).

The later verses of the song describe a series of fantastic events, culminating in World War III, that all take place along Highway 61.  The lyrics of the first verse refer to the story told in Genesis 22 wherein God instructed Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, to offer his beloved son, Isaac, as a sacrificial offering.  “Abraham” was Bob Dylan’s father’s name, and Highway 61 runs from Duluth, Minnesota (where Dylan grew up) down to New Orleans, Louisiana.  It is something like an autobiographical reference, but stretched by Dylan’s poetic imagination into the mythically surreal.

Bob Dylan has continually reinvented and reinterpreted himself through the years, changing musical styles, altering lyrics and adopting new personas.  In 1967 Dylan released his sixth studio album John Wesley Harding; he dropped the rock sound and returned to his acoustic roots.  In a 1976 interview Dylan described this album as “the first biblical rock album” (Hickey “Interview”).  It is an apt description; most of its songs have at least one reference or allusion to the Bible, many have more. 
In the song “All Along the Watchtower” Dylan sings, “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view”.  At the end of the song those on the watchtower see “Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl” (Dylan “Watchtower”).   These lines are drawn from the book of Isaiah, from a proclamation by the prophet concerning the imminent fall of Babylon:

                                For this is what the Lord has said told me,
                                “Go, post a look-out, let him report what he sees.
                                He will see cavalry, horsemen two by two,
                                men mounted on donkeys, men mounted on camels;
                                let him watch alertly, be very alert indeed!”
                                Then the look-out shouted,
                                “On the watchtower, Lord,
                                I stay all day
                                and at my post
                                I stand all night.
                                Now the cavalry is coming,
                                horsemen two by two.”
                                He shouted again and said,
                                “Babylon has fallen, has fallen…” (New Jerusalem Bible, Isaiah 21: 7 – 9).

The “Joker” in the song is confused and ill at ease by what is going on, but his compatriot, “the Thief” encourages him to be at ease, “No reason to get excited;” life is not a joke.  However, the thief continues, “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late” (Dylan “Watchtower”).  This seems to be an allusion to another biblical warning – this time from the New Testament book Revelation, wherein Jesus says, “Look, I shall come like a thief.  Blessed is anyone who has kept watch, and has kept  his clothes on, so that he does not go out naked and expose his shame” (New Jerusalem Bible, Revelation 16: 15).  Though he had mostly given up the political songs years earlier, in “All Along the Watchtower” Dylan is singing out a warning from the top of the watchtower, a warning, drawn from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

For each of the examples detailed here another ten or fifteen could be supplied; with 35 studio albums, 11 live albums, innumerable bootleg recordings (not to mention all the films about Dylan, and several more movies in which he starred...), there is too much to cover here.  Bob Dylan has turned to the scriptures of the both the Hebrew and Christian faiths over and over again, drawing up from their deep wells the words and images that fill his songs.  He has used the language and rhetoric of the prophets in both direct “finger pointing” type songs as well more idiosyncratic, poetic ways. He has also used biblical narratives as a way to write about his own personal life, overlaying the stories onto his own life as a way of describing the universal themes in his own voice. 

Both Bob Dylan and the Bible are complex and multifaceted; both resist simplistic interpretations.  Even in the years before his conversion from an apparently non-practicing Jew to ardent evangelical Christian, Dylan was drawing upon the scriptures of not only the Hebrew faith of his heritage, but also the Christian New Testament writings.  Bob Dylan, that inconsistent “son of God” has consistently used scripture in his music to express himself and to defy expectations. 

Works Cited      
Dylan, Bob.  “All along the Watchtower” John Wesley Harding. Columbia Records, 1967.
Dylan, Bob. “Highway 61 Revisited” Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia Records, 1965.
Dylan, Bob. “Masters of War” The Freewheelin Bob Dylan.  Columbia Records, 1962.
Dylan, Bob. “With God on our Side” The Times they Are a Changin’. Columbia Records, 1964.
Fritsch, Charles T. “The Prophetic Literature.” The Interpreter’s One Volume on the Bible Nashville,
        TN. Abingdon Press, 1980.
Hickey, Neil. “TV Guide Interview” TV Guide, September 11, 1976.
New Jerusalem Bible, New York, NY, Doubleday. 1998.

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