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Friday, April 29, 2016

"Do Right to Me" Doesn't Get it Right

Bob Dylan has always incorporated various parts of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures into his music. Sometimes he’s done this well, and other times not so well. Dylan, that "inconsistent son of God” hasn’t always understood his source material.

On December 16, 178 in Miami, Florida Dylan premiered a song that would soon be recorded at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama for his Slow Train Coming album: “Do Right to Me, Baby (Do Unto Others)" (Heylin). Ostensibly the song is based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12 :

“So, always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the Law and the Prophets.” (NJB)

The verses of “Do Right to Me, Baby” are basically a list of things that Dylan doesn’t want to do to other people because he doesn’t want them done to him:

Don’t wanna judge nobody, don’t wanna be judged
Don’t wanna touch nobody, don’t wanna be touched
Don’t wanna hurt nobody, don’t wanna be hurt
Don’t wanna treat nobody like they was dirt

Don't wanna shoot nobody, don't want to be shot
Don't wanna buy nobody, don't want to be bought
Don't wanna bury nobody, don't want to be buried
Don't wanna marry nobody if they're already married

Don’t wanna burn nobody, don’t wanna be burned
Don’t wanna learn from nobody what I gotta unlearn
Don’t wanna cheat nobody, don’t wanna be cheated
Don’t wanna defeat nobody if they already been defeated

But this isn’t what Jesus said. Though it’s certainly not bad advice at all, Jesus didn’t say –Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. What he said went further than a negative prescription. He said: Treat others the way that you would want them to treat you. Do for/to them what you would want them to do for/to you.

This, however, is a relatively minor quibble. I could almost let it pass.  But the real problem, the glaring error is in the repeated chorus of Dylan’s song:

But if you do right to me, baby
I’ll do right to you, too
Ya got to do unto others
Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you

It’s that word “If” and the implied “then” that follows. “If” you do right to me, “then” I will do right to you… This is not Jesus’ golden rule. The golden rule is not a conditional statement. The golden rule is not a transactional exchange. Note that word “always” in Jesus’ instruction.  We’re to do right to each other, baby, always – not only when they do right to us.

Heylin, Clinton. Still on the Road: the Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2 1974 – 2008. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd. 2010. Print.

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