“I can hear a sweet voice gently calling.
Must be the Mother of Our Lord.”
— Bob Dylan, Duquesne Whistle (2012)
I first discovered Bob Dylan in 1976, while rummaging through a satchel of cassette tapes owned by my cousin, Peter Casella, who had inadvertently left it at my parents’ home. The album was Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. I was 15 years old at the time, with my music-listening habits dominated by the great pop acts of the late 1960s and mid-1970s: Wings, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, the Byrds and Elvis Presley. I was not prepared for Dylan.
Because somebody had already listened through side one, I plopped the cassette into the machine and began with side two, which starts with Mr. Tambourine Man. I had heard the Byrds’ Beatle-beat, Wrecking Crew, highly abridged version of the tune. So I expected to hear from Dylan something similar. But it wasn’t even close. His performance just knocked my socks off. It had a sound I had never heard before, but yet it seemed as familiar as Happy Birthday or God Bless America. Or as Izzy Young would put it, by “writing about contemporary ideas in traditional forms,” he sounded “current and old at the same time.” Central to Dylan’s “sound” were the words and his cadence while singing them. I could not believe that anyone could do something like that in popular music. I know that some of the old Tin Pan Alley lyricists were accomplished wordsmiths, but could any of them really have pulled off anything like this?:
Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming
After returning the satchel to my cousin, I forgot about Dylan until late August 1978, when I was driving through Utah on my way to Pocatello, Idaho. I happened to be listening to a radio station that every weekday selected an entire album to be played during the lunch hour. On that day, it was Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. As I listened, I recalled my initial hearing of the album two years earlier and wondered why I had not explored Dylan’s larger body of work. That was quickly remedied.
About a year later, Dylan released the album Slow Train Coming (1979). It was evident from the songs’ lyrics that Dylan had undergone a profound religious conversion to evangelical Christianity. This caused quite a stir in popular culture and the entertainment press. Many were scandalized, largely because of what Dylan had represented to the counterculture movement of the 1960s. He had pretty much written the songs that would become the unofficial anthems for social change in America, even though Dylan himself bristles at the “spokesman of a generation” moniker. (These songs include Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Only a Pawn in the Game, Masters of War and Chimes of Freedom.) To embrace evangelical Christianity, which by 1979 was beginning to be associated with the religious right, was a bridge too far for many of Dylan’s most devoted fans.
This, of course, was not the only time he had ticked people off (or, at least, surprised them).
In the mid-1960s, after releasing two albums that included several folk songs that were appropriated by the civil rights and anti-war movements (clumsily labeled “protest songs”), Dylan moved on to pen more abstract, surreal and “stream of consciousness” compositions, among them Mr. Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, My Back Pages and It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).
He showed up at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and “went electric,” much to the chagrin of the folk-music purists in the audience who booed him. A year after releasing the double-album masterpiece Blonde and Blonde (1966), for which Dylan used some of the finest studio musicians to help create what he would call that “thin, wild mercury sound,” he released John Wesley Harding (1967), an album that seems pared-down and basic in comparison to its predecessor. It includes many biblical and religious allusions that Dylan biographers speculate were the result of regular Bible reading he had taken up at the time.
Although often considered a man of the political left, Dylan wrote in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, that in the 1960s his favorite politician was Barry Goldwater. In 1969, he gravitated to country-western music and released Nashville Skyline. And in the past couple of years, he has released albums consisting exclusively of standards from what some call The Great American Songbook.
Behind these (and other) seemingly inscrutable transformations is a consistent theme, which I like to call “Bob Dylan’s biblical genius.” I think Izzy Young caught a glimpse of it when he first heard Dylan’s first compositions and said that they sounded both “current and old at the same time.”
There is in Dylan’s artistic journey a continual return to the sources: Scripture, the folk tradition, American standards, Great Books, etc. For Dylan, these are not merely museum pieces to be dusted off so that we can appreciate (and perhaps admire) our primitive ancestors. Rather, they are, as he said of St. Augustine, “alive as you or me.” They serve as both guidelines and raw material from which one can compose new lessons from perennial truths. This requires that one deny the modern fetishes of moral innovation and cultural debunking, while at the same time rejecting the traditionalist reflex to be skeptical of all change and dissent. This is precisely what I believe Dylan is doing in his so-called “protest songs.”
In his early days, he clearly connected the progressive cause of civil rights to a return to those biblical ideals of justice and fairness that everyone, down deep, knows are true. So much so that they are “blowin’ in the wind,” “the first one now will later be last,” and for those who suppress the truth, “like Pharaoh's tribe they'll be drownded in the tide, and like Goliath, they'll be conquered.”
Dylan’s most recent album of original material, Tempest (2012), takes its name from Shakespeare’s play and includes a song about the sinking of the Titanic (Tempest) that serves as a metaphor for the hubris of the modern world and the divine judgment that is sure to follow:
The captain, barely breathing
Kneeling at the wheel
Above him and beneath him
Fifty thousand tons of steel
He looked over at his compass
And he gazed into its face
Needle pointing downward
He knew he lost the race
In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the Book of Revelation
And he filled his cup with tears
Dylan’s genius is biblical, not simply because his art is often informed by Scripture, but because the idea of returning to the sources as a necessary condition for insight and progress is itself a biblical idea: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
On Nov. 3, Columbia Records is releasing Trouble No More (2017), a boxed set of live recordings and studio outtakes from Dylan’s so-called “Christian era” (1979-1981), the period that included Slow Train Coming and two subsequent albums in which he sings explicitly of his newfound faith. This extraordinary collection will no doubt revive questions about Dylan’s personal journey, whether or not he still identifies as a Christian.
As a Catholic, I certainly hope he does. But as a fan, I am content with sitting back and listening to his biblical genius.
Francis J. Beckwith is a professor of philosophy and Church-state Studies at Baylor University. His most recent book is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015), winner of the American Academy of Religion’s 2016 Book Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Constructive-Reflective Studies.