Bob Dylan + Gospel = True!

«All my loyal and my much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road»
(Bob Dylan, «Ain´t Talkin´, 2006)

The use of religious imagery, imagery based on faith in a higher power or in the dream of a paradise,  has always been an important ingredient in both folk, blues, country & bluegrass – from time to time of course also in rock´n roll and jazz. Similarly, the same imagery has been a part of Bob Dylan´s lyrics from the start, both in his choice of cover versions and in his own lyrics, either as comments and themes or as colorful and strong metaphors when painting the pictures of the human soul, it´s troubles and possibilities, it´s hopes and dreams.

In 1961 he talked his way through «Black Cross», the story about the provoking nature of Hezekiah Jones, whose beliefs was different from the white preachers, even more human. «The son of a bitch never had no religion.» Written by Joseph Newman, but made known by the, in Bob Dylan´s word, «the hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels», Lord Buckley, which also inspired Bob Dylan´s use of the phrase «jingle, jangle» in Mr Tambourine Man.

A critical view of men and churches who used religion to enslave people in all kind of ways, was part of the message from the start, never more poignant than in «With God On Our Side».

In the same song he shows us the religions betrayal of humanity and truth in their own interest, and perfectly uses the imagery of the bible questioning the foundation for the same religion:

«Through many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.»

In the same period of time he obviously uses the image of Jesus Christ as the image of the ultimate outlaw – certainly inspired by Woody Guthrie (f.i. the song «Jesus Christ») in his song «Long Ago, Far Away»:

«To preach of peace and brotherhood
Oh, what might be the cost!
A man he did it long ago
And they hung him on a cross
Long ago, far away
These things don’t happen
No more, nowadays.»

Many of the strongest and most striking images in the Bible comes from the Old Testament, and in that way belongs equally to both judaism and christianity, never weakening the image because of that duality. The most brutal image of them all, is of course «God said to Abraham, kill me a son.» What a way to start a song. As a born jew, Bob Dylan got the stories of the bible presented from two parallel cultures – the jewish and the christian, the last supposedly mostly presented through art and music, and most of all, through the songs from all genres Dylan was diving and digging into.

What was he really thinking of when he, in the basement 1967, improvised the text to «Sign On The Cross», in his Luke The Drifter-costume? What about the first biblical rock album, «John Wesley Harding», the year after, that oozes of biblical imagery like it was written in stone, «All Along The Watchtower» the best example, with its obvious inspiration from the book of Isaiah. What we do know is that Dylan uses the imagery throughout his works like its as natural as the air that the breathes, like in the prayer of «Father of Night» and the blessings of «Forever young». Nothing human seems foreign to him. In «Shelter From The Storm» the Christ allusions are at its most unequivocally: «In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes / I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose / I offered up my innocence I got repaid with scorn /Come in, she said / I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.»

On the soul searching tracks of «Street Legal» the clues are many of the lonesome pilgrim trying to find his way through the world and through his life – finding imagery from the bible a fitting tool to describe both human nature and the human condition, as much in a existential way as a religious. If there is a hole in your soul you will be searching, even if you don´t know what it is you´re searching for. The human need for faith comes from within. Life sometimes is like a journey through dark heat.

«There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived
If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived
I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive
But without you it just doesn’t seem right
Oh, where are you tonight?» 

These are the words that ends the album «Street Legal», the last stop before what later has been labelled «The Gospel Trilogy» in Bob Dylan´s work.

Both the gospel music and the biblical themes, pictures and poetry was marinated into Dylan´s lyrics, already from the start. For every person the combination of life itself, coincidence, the people you meet, your history and your personality will make you go through smaller or greater changes and phases, even crisis. That´s human. It´s life and it´s life only. No one really knows the ingredients of another persons life. Neither do we when it comes to Bob Dylan. Even if there´s tons of biographical information about this period, and there is Dylan´s own words about experiences along the way, from picking up a cross that was thrown to the stage to a feeling of a presence in the room «that couldn´t have been anybody but Jesus», we also know the limitations of everyones ability to distill life into simple answers. On the other hand, no one does it better than the greatest poets. Nevertheless, in October 1979 Bob Dylan presented new songs of faith on «Saturday Night Live», starting his tour with gospel material in November. «Slow Train Coming» was released in August the same year, and the prologue «Gotta Serve Somebody» also gave Dylan his first «Grammy» for best male rock vocal. Well deserved.

Even if «Gotta Serve Somebody» is as much a strong reminder of the illusion of neutral ground in life, as it is an evangelical song, the message came through, strong and clear: You got to make choices.

The third song on the album appeared to be unbelieavably personal. «I Believe In You.» As a matter of fact, most of the vocals on this album was worthy a Grammy. Surely this was the case of «I Believe In You», a song of faith and of standing alone.

Some of the songs were as much an outburst of morally indignation of the state of the world, as it was a preach of salvation. This is true of the title track, where Dylan more than anything describes a world that have a need for change, both morally and politically. And that the change will come, like a slow train coming up around the bend.

Actually both the content and the temperature of some of the songs has a strong resemblance to songs from different periods of time, the indignation of «The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll» or «George Jackson», the analytic and poetic view of society in «Desolation Row» or even the moral rage of «Hurricane». Bob Dylan was in some ways the same one, but now he was on the gospel train. Gospel was the vehicle he was driving.

But of course, he was also renewed. Even if he had listened to the great gospel singers through the years, even if he sang «Just A Closer Walk With Thee» with Johnny Cash in 1969, this time it was different. When he burns like fire through «When He Returns» it is with an intensity, a hope and a desire that nearly is unmatched in his live career. He bares his soul completely, crying out the human existential need and wish to be able, just one place, to take off his mask.

«Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask
How long can you falsely and deny what is real ?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal ?
Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of his own to set up His throne
When He returns.»

The gospel singer Rance Allen have made an impressing version of the same song, bringing it home to the gospel family in arrangement, but without losing one bit of the song´s strength.

The rumors of a new volume of «Bootleg Series» focusing on the years 1979 – 1981 – «the gospel years» would surely be a blessing for all who have ears. Even for those who booed and walked out of the shows in 1979 and 1980, or the people who stayed home in 1981 because Bob Dylan supposedly had sold out to Jesus. His singing betrayed him – he was still very much true to himself, as an artist always should be. But Dylan also spoke the «Canaan language» in his lyrics, even more on the album «Saved», where many of the songs were even more deep gospel songs than on «Slow Train Coming». The songs are about a higher calling, about salvation, gratefulness to God and women and about grace, as in one of my personal favorites, «Saving Grace».

There are many artists who should be strongly advised against talking between the songs – generally this has not been a big problem for Bob Dylan. Still, some of the raps and rants during the gospel shows was not his proudest moments. Starting a quarrel with the audience might have been the lowest point: «If you want to rock and roll….you can go down and see Kiss, you can go rock and roll all the way down to the pit.» Of course, this was more Old Testament than the New.

«Saved» might have been Bob Dylan´s most provoking albums of them all, for some people even the album cover was reason enough to not buy the record. Even if «Shot of Love» is very different from «Saved» in mostly all ways, it is often and too easy lumped together with «Saved». Actually, the three «gospel» albums are three very different albums, and on «Shot of Love» Dylan lifts his eyes against the mountains again, seemingly admitting that life isn´t so easy after all. The complexity of the times, life, faith and truth, all colors are back on the palette again, the cry for love in the title song and one of the most beautiful songs Dylan ever made, «Every Grain of Sand», where insights in human nature, human conditions, psychology, faith, doubt, the impermanence of life and the language of gospel songs are melted into a perfect entirety in both vocals and lyrics.

Even if the years 1979 – 1981 alway will be known as the gospel years of Bob Dylan´s life and art, the story isn´t really so simple. Several of the songs has been used through the years after, from time to time, both «Gotta Serve Somebody», «I Believe In You», «In The Garden», «Saving Grace», even «Solid Rock» and of course «Every Grain of Sand». What more is, Dylan has, during the years been introducing a lot of hymns from the bluegrass tradition in his set, as «Hallelujah, I´m Ready To Go», «Somebody Touched Me», «I Am The Man, Thomas», «Rock of Ages», «Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Saviour», «Wait For The Light To Shine», «This World Can´t Stand Long» and more.

In 2003 a beautiful tribute album project appeared – «Gotta Serve Somebody – The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan» – a string of the greatest gospel singers took Bob Dylan´s songs and showed the world that Dylan could make a difference even in this area of music. The album was followed by a great documentary of the project, awarded as Best Music Documentary at the Park City Film Music Festival.

That Bob liked the project is obvious, he offered the video of «When He Returns» to the documentary, and he made a fresh take on «Gonna Change My Way of Thinking» in duet with Mavis Staples for the album. What more is, he showed us that even a gospel song isn´t carved in stone and made a considerable rewriting of the lyrics. He also surprisingly started the take with what seems like a comedy act. Mavis Staples interrupts the recording and then there is a rather strange, but funny dialogue between Bob and Mavis. I guess only those who know the complete works of Jimmie Rodgers understood what happened. Why? Because pretty much the same dialogue was already used in the little role play between The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, released as «The Carter Family Visits Jimmie Rodgers», recorded in 1931.

The «covering» of this meeting has to be Dylan´s own idea. He loved both of the acts, which actually was discovered and got a record deal the same day in 1927, buy the great Ralph Peer. In 2014, Bob Dylan also gave his own review of the very interesting Peer-biography by Barry Mazor:

«This is an overwhelming book about an overwhelming character in the music field, a true visionary, who realized the potential power of common music long before anyone else – and who transformed the lives of many of those artists whom he recorded. We owe Barry Mazor a debt of gratitude for telling Peer’s incredible life story, his monumental accomplishments, putting them all in one place, and bringing them to the light.»
(Bob Dylan)

Mavis Staples and Dylan goes way back, of course, and Bob was a great fan of the gospel group, The Staple Singers, even before he made his own debut. There is no doubt that Pops Staples recordings of «Gotta Serve Somebody», both studio and live, must have touched Dylan´s heart deeply.

One of the gospel songs Dylan has made several versions of, is the beautiful Curtis Mayfield ballad, «People Get Ready». Dylan played it the first time during the Basement Tapes, the next time at the time of the Rolling Thunder Revue. This is his third take on the song, used for the soundtrack of the Dennis Hopper movie, «Flashback».

In 2012, in an interview about his newest album, «Tempest», Dylan told us that he actually planned an album of religious songs:

«It’s not the album I wanted to make, though. I had another one in mind. I wanted to make something more religious. That takes a lot more concentration – to pull that off 10 times with the same thread – than it does with a record like I ended up with, where anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense.»

You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time – can you tell me more about that?
The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during sound-checks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I’m still not sure it was the right decision.

When you say religious songs . . .
Newly written songs, but ones that are traditionally motivated.

More like «Slow Train Coming»?
No. No. Not at all. They’re more like «Just a Closer Walk With Thee.»

In 2015, during his speech after receiving the Musicares Person Of The Year Award, he also mentions gospel music:

«The Blackwood Bros. have been talking to me about making a record together. That might confound expectations, but it shouldn’t. Of course it would be a gospel album. I don’t think it would be anything out of the ordinary for me. Not a bit. One of the songs I’m thinking about singing is «Stand By Me» with the Blackwood Brothers. Not «Stand By Me» the pop song. No. The real «Stand By Me.»The real one goes like this:

«When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the world is tossing me / Like a ship upon the sea / Thou who rulest wind and water / Stand by me

In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / When the hosts of hell assail / And my strength begins to fail / Thou whomever lost a battle / Stand by me

In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / When I do the best I can / And my friends don’t understand/ Thou who knowest all about me / Stand by me»

That’s the song. I like it better than the pop song. If I record one by that name, that’s going to be the one. I’m also thinking of recording a song, not for that album, though – a song called «Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.» But I don’t know, it might be good on the gospel album too.»

Even if it´s true that Dylan would have chosen this «Stand By Me» for a record with Blackwood Brothers, he instead chose the beautiful and very touching prayer «Stay With Me» for the album that was released almost at the same time at the speech, «Shadows In The Night».

Both gospel and the gospels has been an everlasting inspiration for Dylan on his soul digging journey through life. He played «That Lucky Old Sun» live for the first time in 1985, and made the definitive recorded version on «Shadows In The Night» in 2015.

Played just a few times live after this, but it´s the perfect song and symbol of Bob Dylan´s faith in the Song with a capital S.

Despite all this, Dylan has never really been a fan of religion as such, and he has sometimes clearly focused on the difference between religion and faith, like in 1984:

«Religion is something that is mostly outward appearance. Faith is a different thing…..» «Faith doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t have a category. It’s oblique. So it’s unspeakable. We degrade faith by talking about religion.» (Rolling Stone, 1984)

“Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a PeacefulMountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.” (Newsweek, 1997)

Same year, speaking to Jon Pareles, he elaborates on the same theme:

»Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book,» he adds. »All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from ‘Let Me Rest on That Peaceful Mountain’ to ‘Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too.» Dylan says he now subscribes to no organized religion.» (New York Times, 1997)

So maybe that´s it, then – when all is said and done, that it´s all about the songs and the songs ability to give a voice to the soul, to speak the unspeakable and reach where no hand can reach – it´s not about «religion» in a strict or ortodox way, it´s more about filling your soul with the fuel that can get you through this life, more than it´s about timely matters like theology, phases in life and transitory interpretations of the old scriptures.  I really don´t know. I´m not a religious man. But still – I, too, believe the songs.  And I believe this voice, flooded with soul.

They all moved a way, said a voice of a stranger
«To that beautiful home by the bright crystal sea»
Some beautiful day I’ll meet ’em in heaven
Where no one will be a stranger to me.

Precious memories, how they linger
How they ever flood my soul.
In the stillness of the midnight,
Precious sacred scenes unfold.

Johnny Borgan

p.s. “I recently got a gift from Bob Dylan, a good old friend of mine. He gave me a gospel collection of great old American music and early country roots from old 78s. It’s the original wealth of our recorded music; it’s the cream of the crop and has the history of each recording. It’s a great old set called «Goodbye, Babylon», and it’s incredible. It’s in a wooden box and everything, and it’s just so beautiful.” (Neil Young on Weekend Edition, 2005) d.s.

p.s.2. The trailer for the project «Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan» d.s.2

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