The minstrel of faith

If God is on our side, why are we in such a mess? One of Bob Dylan’s best quotes runs as follows: “They said I was a prophet and I’d reply I wasn’t. They used to be convinced I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer and they’d say, ‘Bob Dylan’s no prophet.’

They just can’t handle it.” WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE (1963) Oh my name it is nothin’/My age it means less. A consummate storyteller already at age 20, that’s how Bob Dylan opens one of his most famous political songs. Set to a famous popular Irish tune in 1961, “With God on Our Side” would only be recorded a couple of years later. I’ve been taught, he sings, that the land that I live in/Has God on its side. And he draws his own conclusions, by flicking through the next five verses like a history book: the massacre of the Indians, the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War. Here he introduces a paradox much in favour with the doctrinaire Left: Though they murdered six million/ In the ovens they fried/The Germans now too/Have God on their side. Now it’s time to hate Russians, and fight them in the next war. In the last two verses his reflections take a Biblical turn: Good can spawn Evil, and vice versa. Through many 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. Only the confusion and naivety of the song’s nameless singer, rather than political clarity, suggest the last paradox: If God’s on our side/He’ll stop the next war. HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED (1965) The years pass. Bob Dylan wears dark glasses, a black leather jacket and slings an electric guitar. His songs are steeped in sarcasm, visions, the Bible. Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son” Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on” God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?” God say, “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” In the next four verses, a host of wretches, gamblers, adventurers and assorted specimens of humanity are found conversing on the same road. Highway 61 headed out of Duluth, where young Robert Zimmerman was born, and passed by the Mississippi Delta and the land of the blues. For Dylan, who at the start of his career boasted he’d learned to play as a tramp travelling the trains, this was the asphalt strip that filled all small-town dreams (inspired by Dylan, at the same time Francesco Guccini entitled his ironic hitchhiker’s blues “Statale 17” after the Italian highway that crosses the Abruzzi Apennines). One circumstance that should not be underestimated: Dylan’s father was called Abraham. I DREAMED I SAW SAINT AUGUSTINE (1969) This particular Saint Augustine that appears before him in a dream (Alive as you or me) resembles the trade unionist Joe Hill, sentenced to death for an alleged murder and celebrated in a song famous among American folk revival circles that starts with the same verse. Hill is a martyr who didn’t “die in vain”, as militant rhetoric would have it. On the contrary, Saint Augustine is Searching for the very souls/Whom already have been sold. He is a pointless apparition, outside of time. As is his preaching: No martyr is among ye now… So go on your way accordingly/But know you’re not alone. He’s meant to be seen as a crazy old fool. Until the early 1970s, Dylan tries to stir it up with his old companions. He especially tries to sully his prophetic image: he can’t bear the we stance, he doesn’t like a certain leftist righteousness and his rock star status drives him to paranoia. The martyred Saint Augustine in the song’s last verse (though not in history) could be himself. And I dreamed I was amongst the ones That put him out to death Oh, I awoke in anger So alone and terrified I put my fingers against the glass And bowed my head and cried. The martyrdom is a sarcastic reference to the motorbike accident in which the singer was almost killed in 1967. GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY (1979) “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” In Matthew (6:24), mammon refers to material wealth. It’s 1979. Dylan is now a born-again Christian and recorded a gospel album at the Muscle Shoals studios in Sheffield, Alabama, the cradle of soul music. He had learnt to write songs listening to old bluesmen’s records, so it’s a kind of Blues Brothers epiphany. You may be an ambassador to England or France/You may like to gamble, you might like to dance… But you’re gonna have to serve somebody. So says the song, lining up a whole series of unquestionably Dylanesque characters. He is 39, and most people take his conversion with a pinch of salt. John Lennon, in self-imposed exile in his New York apartment, found a little of his old mustard and dedicated the song “Serve Yourself” to Dylan that is one long chide: But if you don’t go out and serve yourself, lad, ain’t no room service here. In a recent Rolling Stone survey this song was elected Dylan’s second worst. EVERY GRAIN OF SAND (1981) According to some – including Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello – this is one of Dylan’s best songs. “To see a world in a grain of sand” is a verse by William Blake; there are many quotations from the Bible (Genesis, the psalms, the gospels). Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand. “I felt like I was just putting words down that were coming from somewhere else”, explains Dylan, who was ending his born again phase to go back to a less exasperated relationship with religion, and his Jewish faith. Without relinquishing his sarcasm: “I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists... I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity…. I believe the songs.”