Singin With the Word
When The Wall Street Journal announced last year that Bob Dylan had lifted lyrics in his most recent album from an obscure Japanese author, it came as no surprise to generations of Dylan fans who had long recognized him as music’s most prolific borrower. When “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a sensation 40 years ago, it was whispered to have been stolen from Dave Van Ronk or a New Jersey high school student, among other possible sources. Every one of Dylan’s more than 40 albums since has been filled with lines and verses from Virgil to Shakespeare to Nietzsche, some subtle, some not. In the 1960’s, the main source was Woody Guthrie; in the 70’s, it was arguably Rimbaud; in the 80’s, many wondered if it wasn’t men from Mars.
Of all Dylan’s primary sources, however, nothing compares to Scripture. In Tangled Up in The Bible: Bob Dylan and Scripture, Michael J. Gilmour gives the most comprehensive analysis to date of Dylan’s long love affair with the characters, themes and lyrical possibilities of both the Old and New Testaments. To say the issue is complicated by Dylan’s flirtations over the years with Christianity, Judaism, atheism and, most recently, a kind of cryptic agnosticism is a vast understatement. For those who find in Dylan a secular sage, these biblical signposts offend and dismay; for those who seek in him a definitive religious identity, they frustrate and intrigue. Dylan may have acknowledged, “I know I ain’t no prophet, and I ain’t no prophet’s son,” but no one will ever believe him.
Dylan’s influence on American musical expression has made him the nation’s de facto poet laureate, and allusions to his work are made by everyone from alt-country critical darlings Wilco to hapless frat-rockers Hootie and the Blowfish. Dylan’s famed aloofness and cryptic public persona have also made him an increasingly popular subject for academic and popular analysis, because anything can be said concerning a man about whom almost nothing is known. “I couldn’t believe after all these years/ you didn’t know me any better than that,” Dylan sang a quarter-century ago, and yet we still need to ask him where it was at.
Gilmour’s slim book is essentially a monograph on a subject that has long deserved academic treatment. But Gilmour’s credentials extend beyond academe. A professor of New Testament at Providence College in Otterburne, Canada, he also draws upon more than 20 years as a self-professed Dylan fanatic.
Gilmour approaches Dylan’s use of Scripture with four themes in mind: Dylan’s identification with biblical prophets; his varied takes on the Sermon on the Mount throughout his music; his apocalyptic visions and musings on death and judgment; and the theme of redemption in Dylan’s most recent album, “Love and Theft.” Gilmour does his finest work with “Love and Theft,” sussing out a complex interplay of biblical images of redemption within songs that are ostensibly about American blues and folk traditions.
The author also includes a valuable 28-page index of biblical references and parallels in Dylan’s work. Though the list is not exhaustive, Gilmour’s close familiarity with Scripture proves crucial. No listener misses the allusion when Dylan sings “she took my crown of thorns,” but how many would recognize Mt 22:1-14 in the gun-toting father of the groom in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”?
Gilmour’s work is not without its flaws: he approaches a huge body of work synchronically, and so sometimes treats these biblical themes as a static constant rather than as an evolving, dynamic artistic strategy. Several of Dylan’s albums are overtly biblical in theme and imagery (following his conversion to Christianity in 1978) and thus present a serious anomaly. In addition, this synchronic approach also neglects an important theme in Dylan’s work: use of famous biblical stories to interpret and embellish his personal struggles.
A good example can be found in “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan’s famous ode, which begins “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’.” Dylan released the song in 1965 while still a young man, and it is hard to deny that these opening lyrics refer at least obliquely to his estrangement from his own family (Dylan’s father was named Abraham; Dylan’s son Jakob is the namesake of Isaac’s biblical offspring). Almost half a century later, Dylan’s biblical references in “Time Out of Mind” conjure up Job, as befits an aging protagonist looking back with a mingling of pride and regret on a long and eventful life. To read these allusions without reference to time pretends that there is no growth or alteration in the artist’s perspective—a dangerous conceit indeed with so notorious a shape-shifter as Dylan.
The thrust of Gilmour’s message, of course, is not only that Bob Dylan employed Scripture a certain number of times in a certain sequence of songs to achieve the desired rhetorical effects. Gilmour, who calls Dylan “my favorite theologian,” finds in Dylan a companion for his own faith journey. Dylan’s audience has always felt this explicit religious connection, even if it rarely showed publicly. The most famous insult Dylan endured when he “went electric” is a telling example. An angry devotee at a concert shouted a single word: “Judas!”
At the core of Dylan’s music is a solitary individual in search of truth, love and fulfillment, and he endears himself to the listener in a precisely religious way. More than a protest singer or a bluesman or a minstrel or a preacher or a prophet, Dylan has always been a pilgrim, disaffected and disillusioned but still seeking. It is a stance and a journey that brings many other pilgrims on many other quests to connect with him emotionally, from presidential candidates to Jesuit novices. Dylan may be a Jew, he may be a Christian, he may be agnostic, he may be an atheist, but his musical career has always signaled a constant search for the transcendent, what his scriptural sources call God.