The Mystical Theology of Bob Dylan @DawnofMercy

Dawn Eden has a theologically astute review of the Bob Dylan box set Trouble No More over at Angelus. Here’s a taste:

It is a long way from the almost pugilistic attitude of the opening track of “Slow Train Coming,” in which he announces in his best Bobby Zimmerman sneer, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody,” to the heart-wrenching introspection of the final track of “Shot of Love,” “Every Grain of Sand”: “There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere / Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair … I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”

“Trouble No More,” in showcasing versions of those songs and dozens more from Dylan’s gospel period, affords a wealth of insights into what took place between those two moments. It is a moving chronicle of the believer’s journey toward the virtue of true Christian hope, in the sense that Aquinas means when he defines hope as desiring an unimpeded union with God in the manner of “a future good, difficult but possible to obtain.”

And so it was that, for a few years at the cusp of the 1980s, Woodstock Nation’s greatest revolutionary rebelled against rebellion itself, against the old enemy whom Saul Alinsky in “Rules for Radicals” admired as “the very first radical.” Although he afterward returned to secular music, he never disavowed it. In fact, in 2015, when receiving the MusiCares Person of the Year Award, he even indicated a desire to record another gospel album.

The only footnote to her analysis that I would add would be to argue that the subsequent track “Ring Them Bells” from Oh Mercy (1989) is one of Dylan’s best songs ever, right up there with the aforementioned “Every Grain of Sand,” because it epitomizes what Dylan learned in his Gospel period, and yet also signals a shift beyond his Vineyard theological training, both with its explicit mention of “St. Peter” and also its intensely mystical mode of vision.

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series: Trouble No More, Volume 13 / 1979-1981

by Rick Krueger

I’m not a hardcore Bob Dylan fan, but I admire quite a bit of his work: the early folk music, leading into the groundbreaking electric stuff (basically what’s in The Original Mono Recordings box set); Blood on the Tracks and Desire; the recent run of “old guy plays the blues” albums that started with Time Out of Mind.  I’m also grateful that Dylan’s music has midwifed some of the most resonant work by highbrow rock writers like Greil Marcus, Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray, along with poet Christopher Ricks’ masterful Dylan’s Visions of Sin.

To top all that off, Dylan’s Bootleg Series is, in my mind, one of the best-curated rarities/reissue series from a major artist.  Every volume has been at least an interesting listen for me, and I consider the last two releases, The Basement Tapes Complete and The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 (as well as Volume 4, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert) downright essential.

I also remember, as a college freshman, reading Jann Wenner’s review of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming in Rolling Stone.  Wenner knotted himself into a human pretzel trying to reconcile the free-spirited, hippie picture of Dylan he had built up for himself with a new album of — shudder — “born-again Christian” music.  It was unintentionally hilarious.

I’d argue that Slow Train Coming was really more of an “lost Old Testament prophet” kind of record — and thus in line with Dylan’s long-term aesthetic.  It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was quite good — and there were occasional fine songs on the other “Christian” albums, especially “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love.

Thus, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Volume 13 /1979-1981 is definitely on my want list.  8 CDs plus 1 DVD of live and unreleased studio material, to be issued (like King Crimson’s Sailor’s Tales) on my birthday, November 3.  I really need to find some long-lost rich relatives!

More info here.

soundstreamsunday: “High Water (for Charley Patton)” by Bob Dylan

bob-dylan-plays-first-show-of-2016-in-japan-639x400Bob Dylan is the rare artist who, at 75, retains the power, energy, and restlessness that distinguished his early work.  As both a recording and performing artist, his electricity is unabated, and he continues to make vibrant contributions to the post-folk culture he virtually created.  That he has achieved this is astounding; for those of us who have followed his career and know something of its roots and evolution, it is not surprising.  He constantly recasts his song catalogue, the depth of which by 1965 (let alone 2016) was unrivaled in the rock/folk/singer-songwriter genre he invented, to match his current sound, and commands a fluidity of vision in his writing that sees beyond the trees and perhaps the forest as well.  Witness “High Water,” a tribute to Charley Patton (whose “High Water Everywhere” is a stone cold delta blues barking, howling, classic), from 2001’s Love and Theft. This is a blues about love and the water that rises, that has picked up some oldtime, some drone, shaking and breaking and name-checking muscle cars and evolutionary philosophers.  The thing is that it works because when Dylan sings “the cuckoo is a pretty bird” that’s a kind of referenced code that he’s hollering back to Patton.  He’s writing a blank check to freely associate (find and listen to a version of “The Cuckoo” and you’ll get what I mean), to make the rhyme work and throw meaning to the wind and to the listener.  Harder than it sounds because it’s about the sound, what music is, what makes its power inexplicable.  To make that warble on the 5th day of July, and trace your absurd and beautiful melody: it takes courage and a resolution that comes at a price only Dylan, and maybe Patton, knows.

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive

Bob Dylan: Poet Laureate


If you have not heard the news by now, Bob Dylan, an American icon, became the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The decision, not surprisingly, ignited a firestorm of debate. Is Dylan worthy of the honor? I am curious to hear what fellow Progarchists and others have to say.