– Apratim Mukhopadhyay
Robert Allen Zimmerman, who went on to change his name to the ubiquitously known identifier Bob Dylan, remains as relevant as ever in our lives as enthusiasts of good music. It’s been over five decades since his career began, and yet, the man keeps turning out tempestuous and extremely engaging works. This young man of seventy-one remains a darling of popular culture, having released his thirty-fifth studio album recently. As is well known, Dylan has contributed to more trees being cut and has had more e-space donated to him than anybody else, owing to the voluminous nature of his work, and also the prolific research done on all the gems that he has produced. This presentation aims to add another drop to that raging ocean by talking about how Dylan dealt with certain tenets of music and faith during his illustrious career, focusing mainly on the 60s and the late 70s to try and bring out expressly the manner in which the great man went about leaving one footprint after another in the history of popular music.
Like many other genres of music, Dylan tried his hand rather majestically at country music too. As Robert Silva has said, “…Dylan’s path has crossed many times over with country music.” That is nothing unexpected, going by the sheer numbers associated with him. However, for the purpose of this presentation, only one piece of work by Dylan, so to say, needs to be considered. The work in question, is Nashville Skyline, released in 1969. This was Dylan’s ninth studio album, and it offered a slight departure from his previous album, John Wesley Harding. This is now considered a country classic, and, as Robert Silva said, it “…convinced many of his contemporaries that country music was more than Hee Haw.” The cover featured Dylan smiling from ear to ear. In Paul Nelson’s review, he notes how The record had ventured into “…into the more modern country-and-western worlds of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and Jerry Lee Lewis.” This celebrated album reached number 3 in the USA and gifted Dylan his fourth UK number 1. Featuring ten songs, it was hailed by Paul Nelson for having achieved the “…the artistically impossible: a deep, humane, and interesting statement about being happy.” To focus on a few songs individually would bring out this point more clearly. The album opens quite spectacularly, to say the least, featuring a duet by Dylan and country superstar Johnny Cash in “Girl from the North Country”. This is a dream come true for any music fan. This song was first recorded for the 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The song, from Paul Nelson’s 1969 review, “…is a thoughtful bonus to the listener, a musical postcard to an old Minnesota love, and a reminder that Dylan has always been capable of tenderness.”
This soulful song, inspired by old, English folk tunes, is a pleasure to anyone’s ears. Some other songs on this timeless work of art include “Lay Lady Lay”, the song which opens side two of the album. Another love song on this beautiful collection, the pangs of existence and forlorn love are brought out in lines such as:
“…I long to see you in the morning light
I long to reach for you in the night
Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead.”
Dylan’s rendition of the song makes it all the more melodious and heartrending. The penultimate track, “Country Pie”, features revealing lyrics along the lines of:
“Ain’t running any race
Get me my country pie
I won’t throw it up in anybody’s face.”
The closing track, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, ends the album right on cue. To bring in Nelson again, he adroitly points out how the song “…fuses personal commitment with professional preference, and functions as a sort of very content “A Day in the Life.”” The lyrics indicate a sort of contentment carried over following “Country Pie”, a place where he is comfortable and where, he says,
“…I don’t need them anymore…”
The Black Crowes, among many other artists, famously covered this particular song. All in all, this is a beautifully crafted album which shows the levels to which Dylan’s prowess could rise, and the versatility that defines him as a musician. He continued with this style in Self Portrait, his tenth album, which contained very few original compositions, being an album of covers, mostly. “Copper Kettle”, however, was well received by many. He also sang some country in The Basement Tapes, released in 1976, as John Friedman points out. Country, hence, has acted as a discernible influence on Dylan, and his contribution to the corpus of country music can never really be underestimated.
THE BORN AGAIN PHASE
Bob Dylan’s entanglement with Christianity produced a trilogy of Christian albums in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Forays into Gospel marked this era, and, according to Paul Williams, Dylan also “…took such a personal risk and brought religion into conversation with pop culture.” This period has baffled most and divided opinion among critics ever since it was kicked off by Slow Train Coming, released in 1979. It was Dylan’s nineteenth studio album, and followed Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Critics have made mild derisive comments about this entire period, such as labeling it as a phase “…in which his music often preached to the choir and scolded everyone else.” Wilfrid Mellers says that“In this cycle the simplest songs are those closest to gospel tradition, white and black.” “Gotta Serve Somebody”, the song which opens Slow Train Coming, is one very fine example. Stating an easy binary where anyone, no matter in what station in life, has to ultimately bow down and adhere to the tenets of either the Lord or Satan, this song typifies this phase. Mellers in right in pointing out that the“… refrain is powerfully memorable, as a gospel song needs to be, but the forcefulness of the song remains if one discounts the specifically Christian message, for it is an appeal to all sorts and conditions of men.” This song won Dylan a Grammy. “Slow Train”, the song which closes side one, is another song which is a standout.
A track nearly six minutes long, it reinforces the Christian base of his intentions. This is a song where he is worried about his companions who could be foundering,
“…Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.”
The slow train coming around the bend in the song’s chorus is just what’s needed, with it’s reassuring connotation. There will be no respite for those “Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan.”
Saved, brought out in 1980, was declared by CCM magazine as a work which contained a “…open declaration of Dylan’s deepening faith.” A very pertinent quote from the Book of Jeremiah is found in the sleeve notes. Songs like “Covenant Woman” show Dylan’s transformation in love, as noted by Kurt Loder; he declares his love for this woman, but, in the end, he reveals how “…that among his reasons for loving this woman is the fact that she’s
“… got a contract with the Lord
Way up yonder, great will be her reward.” ”
“Saving Grace,” arguably the album’s most well-known offering, is also rooted in his Christian beliefs and ideas. He posits love, Satan and God in a three-way arrangement, and declares how the light being bestowed by the devil is “blinding”. However, at the song’s end, he affirms his belief in the Supreme Deity and lets us know how he thinks.
“The wicked know no peace and you just can’t fake it
There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary
It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it
By the saving grace that’s over me.”
Shot of Love was the third album of this phase, released in 1981. The album was given incredibly harsh reviews, such as the one from NME which called it Dylan’s worst album till then. Other reviews were more scathing, like Rolling Stone‘s which stated that in the album. “…Dylan sounds more like an irate child who’s just been spanked than a grown man who’s found the answer of answers.” This was built upon on the general derision towards his sudden Christian bent of his two past albums. This album, however, as noted by many critics, features less of a gospel sound. As Paul Nelson pointed out, Dylan’s Christian compositions abound in “… anger, rife with self-pity and so swollen with self-absorption that the singer often seems to think that he and Jesus are interchangeable on that mythic cross.” “Property of Jesus”, a notable song in the album, sets up a man who has given himself over to the Son of God and hence gets resented by someone who’s got “…a heart of stone.”
“Every Grain Of Sand”, one of the few songs on the album to have been greeted positively by the critics, features someone who is constantly present with Dylan, almost chaperoning him and leading him on through the travails of life. This phase was a strange one, as has been noted, and Kurt Loder rightly pointed out in a review that his fans were “… hoping that this, too, shall pass.” Dylan had had his entanglement with religion, but nothing could confine this great man, so he had to move on.
A PROTEST SONGWRITER
Bob Dylan still has to perform “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” at almost every concert that he goes to. Though he has done an astonishingly large volume of work, those songs that rocked the 60s and made him a reluctant spokesperson of a generation that stood at a crossroads are the ones that still strike a chord in our hearts. These are the songs that galvanise protesters the world over as inspirational compositions which call for a person to come out and take injustice head on. A look at a few such songs will bring this presentation to a close. “Oxford Town” is an early protest song from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, brought out in 1963.
In it, he derides the racist behavior towards James Meredith, a black student who had enrolled at the University of Mississipi. He is angry that
“He come in to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the color of his skin.”
As Rolling Stone quite correctly pointed out, the “… the poetry and articulate fury of his lyrics” was indeed awe-inspiring.” Another ubiquitously known protest song from the period is “With God On Our Side” from The Times They Are a-Changin’. In this song, marked by a strong harmonica and a mid-western tint, Dylan, according to Becky Sherrick Harks, gives us “…a song that addresses the notion that a higher power sides with each person and likewise opposes those who disagree with them…”, creating a binary where war always end up being justified somehow or the other.
Simple, stark lyrics like how the Americans, as a collective ‘we,’
“…forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.”
Remind us of the futility, fickle-mindedness and the pure evil at work behind wars. The protester in Dylan produced yet another classic in a song has been mentioned earlier, “The Times They Are a-Changin’ “. A part of the eponymous 1964 album, this song combined the folk protest and the civil rights movement, following up as another anthem after “Blowin’ In The Wind”.
This is probably the one Dylan song that everybody has heard. To conclude, however, another song needs to be highlighted. Dylan had decided to go electric and was much derided for this by many of his folk contemporaries, including his being labeled Judas at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. In his fifth album, Bringin’ It All back Home, he had filled side one with rock songs and declared his intent to move out of the folk protest movement which was forcing upon him the mantle of a spokesperson. “Maggie’s Farm” voices some of these feelings of his. He felt tortured and claustrophobic at these impositions, and the concerned song, with the accompaniment of the electronic band and lines like
“…Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored”
Clearly reveal Dylan’s desire to break free from the clutches of the conservative folk crowd and experts. Dylan never failed to protest for the common man or the margianlised, and when the time came to stand up for what he held hear, he wasn’t one to back down.
Bob Dylan continues to dazzle us with his genius, and this man who has become an institution unto himself has left an indelible mark on the world of music and, indeed, poetry. The above brings out the competence and mastery of Dylan over several stations that he had to occupy as a musician and a moral prophet, at times. All of it merely clarifies his status as the world’s premier songwriter and musical extraordinaire, someone who comes along and changes everything in his line of work. One can only hope that he will keep recording and giving us such brilliant material for a long time to come, so that we can get further immersed in his idiosyncratic feats of intellectual achievement.