The first psalmist I ever really listened to - I mean really listened to - was Bob Dylan. It was his song My Back Pages and particular its first stanza:
Crimson flames tied through my ears Rollin' high and mighty traps Pounced with fire on flaming roads Using ideas as my maps "We'll meet on edges, soon," said I Proud 'neath heated brow. Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.
I had no idea what the lines meant, but I was fascinated by the very image of crimson flames tying through someone's years, throwing mighty traps, and with the paradox of being much older then, but younger than that now. I began to wonder if he might be a poet in his own right and, for that matter, a secular psalmist. Not "secular" in the strong sense, since he does indeed have a religious side; but "secular" in the sense that the dynamics of life, not religion, are his primary frame of reference.
I've read enough of the psalms in the Bible to know that they are not about being pretty, or about presenting life in a sentimental way, or about being transported into a heavenly abode where all tears are wiped away. They are about fury and despair, hope and comfort, revenge and sadness, love and praise. They are landscapes of the human soul, presenting life as it is, as it could have been in past, and as it might be in the future, happy or sad. They are not appeals to virtue. Often they offer messages that ought not be followed. But they are honest, and there is something beautiful, something right, about being honest to life.
A psalm does not present life in doctrinal form or abstract ideas, but in images and stories. And its aim is often to dissemble habitual ways of thinking and feeling in order for people to re-assemble their lives in fresh ways, or to live with the fact that no assemblage is possible, because always their is novelty, the surprise of the future. For the past fifty years, Bob Dylan has been among the most influential of well-known psalmists. Joni Mitchell is a psalmist, too, as are so many others. Alex Petridis of the London Guardian offers us a list of Dylan's best fifty songs - ranked! He is the Guardian's head rock and pop critic. His list half playful and half serious, but it shows you the range. And he described each song in an engaging and interesting way. I've copied and pasted the article onto this page, hoping that it's alright with Alex Petridis and the Guardian.
50. Changing of the Guards (1978) Street Legal delivered fans a shock: Dylan fronting a large band, with female backing singers to the fore. The words, meanwhile, might well represent an oblique personal history, from adolescence through marriage to religious conversion: whatever they were about, they reduced Patti Smith to tears on first hearing.
49. This Wheel’s on Fire (1967) Subsequently covered by everyone from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Kylie Minogue, in every style from psychedelic to electro-glam stomp, the original Basement Tapes recording of This Wheel’s on Fire – both a great song and another of Dylan’s umpteen apocalyptic visions – has a uniquely intense, eerie quality that no one else has subsequently matched.
48. Pay in Blood (2012) Should you wonder if Dylan’s capacity for rage had been dulled by his advancing years, listen to Pay in Blood, a gentle musical backdrop for an expression of literally murderous fury: at first he’s so angry that the lyrics are incomprehensible, his voice just a phlegmy snarling noise; when they come into focus, he’s demanding vengeance on bankers and politicians “pumping out [their] piss”. Bracing.
47. My Back Pages (1964) Those upset when Dylan went electric couldn’t say he didn’t warn them something big was coming: My Back Pages spends the best part of five minutes not repudiating his protest singer past, but bidding the kind of certainties that fuelled it (“lies that life is black and white”) a sardonic farewell.
46. Make You Feel My Love (1997) No recent Dylan song has become as ubiquitous as Make You Feel My Love, its status as a modern standard largely down to Adele’s cover version. The original is noticeably darker in tone, largely because it’s sung by Dylan in his fearsome latter-day rasp, but its powerful cocktail of beautifully direct lyrics and indelible melody are irresistible.
45. Went to See the Gypsy (1970)This fabulous (perhaps imaginary) account of meeting Elvis casts Dylan in the unlikely role of awestruck fan and imbues Presley with mystical powers (“he can … drive you from your fear, bring you through the mirror”) capable of restoring another artist’s creativity: following their meeting, Dylan has “music in [his] ears”.
44. Blowin’ in the Wind (1963) Apparently written in a matter of minutes, its melody borrowed from No More Auction Block – a civil war-era spiritual performed by Dylan and Odetta – Blowin’ in the Wind may be Dylan’s most famous protest song precisely because, as he pointed out, it’s not a protest song: it deals in universalities rather than specifics, making it infinitely adaptable.
43. Ain’t Talkin’ (2006) The conclusion of Modern Times brought more brooding horror – violence, plague, unending suffering – with an opening line that made it sound like an old folk ballad (“as I walked out …”) and a twist that the song’s protagonist isn’t just a dismayed observer, but potentially something much worse: his heart occupied by “an evil spirit”, he ends the song confronting a lone woman.
42. One Too Many Mornings (1964) A respite from the firebrand finger-pointing that comprises much of The Times They Are A-Changing, the moving One Too Many Mornings finds Dylan reflecting on the complex end of his relationship with Suze Rotolo: “It’s a restless hungry feeling that don’t mean no one no good/When everything I’m saying, you can say it just as good”.
41. Forever Young (1974)Written “in a minute”, there’s a strong argument that the best version of Dylan’s universal description of the emotions of fatherhood is the original demo: the reason he eventually allowed a lo-fi and incomplete recording to be released is that there is a rawness and emotional punch to it that the two takes on 1974’s Planet Waves never quite match.
40. Jokerman (1983) The Mark Knopfler-produced Infidels divided critical opinion, but everyone seemed to agree its opening track was great – a complex lyric underpinned with Sly and Robbie’s subtle reggae rhythm. The best version, however, is the scorching one Dylan performed on David Letterman’s TV show with new wave band the Plugz, a tantalising glimpse of an alternative route through the 80s he chose not to take.
39. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)The title track of Dylan’s third album was genuinely incendiary, a call to action that is more about identifying a generational divide that would turn into a gulf as the 60s progressed than any specific cause: “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticise what you can’t understand.”
38. Love Minus Zero/No Limit (1965) “That wasn’t like any pop music I’ve heard,” offered one dissenting voice amid the disappointed folkies interviewed after a 1966 Sheffield Dylan gig. The dissenter had a point: that Dylan was reshaping pop in his own image is underlined by Love Minus Zero/No Limit, a gorgeously tuneful love song with lyrics richer than any previous love song.
37. If Not For You (1970) More appealing than his hit anthem of husbandly devotion, Lay Lady Lay, If Not For You offers nothing to unravel, no mystery, nothing you could write an extended literary essay about, just directness and emotional connection. It is, to use a phrase not often appended to Dylan’s work, catchy.
36. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (1973) Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’s elevation to all-purpose air-punching rock anthem – most notably in Guns N’ Roses’ preposterously overwrought cover – was perhaps to be expected given its chorus, but there’s a sense the song itself gets trampled in the process: you are better off with the simplicity and haunted, echoey ambience of Dylan’s original.
35. Slow Train (1979)AdvertisementA complicated business: the most controversial of Dylan’s born again songs – occasionally, the lyrics sail perilously close to rightwing religious fundamentalism – also happens to be the best. There’s a tautness to the music that undercuts the slick production, real drama and conviction in the vocal delivery that shifts from rage to a kind of joy at the coming of judgment day.
34. Brownsville Girl (1986) The largely rotten Knocked Out Loaded suggested Dylan was in trouble. Yet he could, occasionally, come up with the goods: co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, Brownsville Girl offers 17 weirdly conversational sung-spoken verses that ruminate on everything from his ongoing writer’s block to Gregory Peck, and which include a poignant Dylan aphorism: “People who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.”
33. Murder Most Foul (2020) Dylan’s longest song appeared without warning, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown. Its meditation on the death of JFK, packed with enough cultural references to keep fans busy until restrictions are lifted, was more of a recitation set to music than a song, unlike anything he had previously recorded: evidence that, nearing 80, the old boy keeps pushing forward.
32. It’s All Over Now Baby Blue (1965)Bringing It All Back Home ended with a song in the vein of Another Side’s finale, It Ain’t Me Babe. Once again, it isn’t entirely clear whether Dylan is bidding farewell to a lover or the chunk of his fanbase who wanted him to stay as he was. Either way, it ends with a robust memo-to-self: “Strike another match, go start anew”.
31. Isis (1976) There’s a theory that the chorus-free Isis tells the allegorical story of Dylan’s attempts to patch up his marriage (“what drives me to you,” he glumly suggests, “is what drives me insane”), but whatever it’s about, it’s amazingly forceful, its travelogue driven relentlessly forward by Scarlet Rivera’s violin and the power of Dylan’s vocal.
30. High Water (For Charlie Patton) (2001) The highlight of Love and Theft feels like a distant relation to 1983’s Blind Willie McTell – another powerful travelogue inspired by a legendary bluesman, its refrain taken from Patton’s High Water Everywhere – although the tone is noticeably more ominous, the odd flash of humour (“jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard”) deeply incongruous.
29. Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (1963) Ironically, Dylan’s paean to Suze Rotolo – away in Italy when he devised its perfectly-done balance of tenderness and acrimony – helped end their relationship for good: when Rotolo heard Joan Baez introduce it onstage as a song “about a love affair that has lasted too long”, it prompted her to leave him.
28. All Along the Watchtower (1967) Dylan thought Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All Along the Watchtower was so definitive that he subsequently started playing it live in Hendrix’s style. But there’s a lot to be said for Dylan’s humble original, its brevity and starkness capturing the same end-times intensity in a different way.
27. Most of the Time (1989) Most of the Time both demonstrates how much producer Daniel Lanois had to do with Dylan’s best 80s album Oh Mercy – the sound is rich, shimmering and atmospheric – and how Dylan himself had recovered from an artistic slump: the lyrical drawing of the emotional fallout from a failed relationship is both sharp and sensitive, his delivery perfectly judged.
26. I Want You (1966) The last song recorded for Blonde on Blonde features a parade of intriguing characters – the “dancing child” is supposedly Rolling Stone Brian Jones – but, by the standards of Dylan’s songwriting at the time, it’s straightforward: a buoyant, utterly charming declaration of love on which his Nashville band once more prove their worth. The guitar playing in particular is a joy.
25. Simple Twist of Fate (1975)Dylan professed to be horrified that people liked Blood on the Tracks (“enjoying that kind of pain,” he complained). But regardless of its backstory, who couldn’t love Simple Twist of Fate? Genius at full throttle, it’s got everything – a naggingly infectious melody, an impassioned vocal and incredible lyrics that depict his marriage collapsing in the third person.
24. Hurricane (1976) The plight of imprisoned boxer Reuben Carter drove Dylan back to writing protest songs: Hurricane is as detailed, hard-hitting and journalistic as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. There’s a real tension between his snarling voice and the song’s appealing melody, a shattering force about its lyrics: “If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street, unless you wanna draw the heat”.
23. I Shall Be Released (1967)Among the most-covered of Dylan’s songs (even the Beatles had a crack at it) I Shall Be Released ended up a rousing singalong protest anthem, but it’s the original, largely unadorned version on The Basement Tapes Raw that best captures its real power: a hymn-like song not about literal imprisonment but transcending physical existence.
22. Chimes of Freedom (1964) The title makes Chimes of Freedom sound like a protest song, but it’s something else entirely, a vivid, poetic recounting of a storm (“the sky cracked its poems in naked wonder … the rain unravelled tales”) that seems to have provoked an epiphany in its author: a dazzling signpost to where Dylan was headed.
21. I Threw It All Away (1969) Nashville Skyline’s greatest song. Exceptionally beautiful, incredibly sad and the antithesis of the Dylan of three years prior – his voice doesn’t even sound like his own – I Threw It All Away is uncluttered, straightforward, fluid: its beauty comes from its simplicity rather than its density.
20. A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall (1963)In response to the Cuban missile crisis, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall “roared right out the typewriter” in the words of a friend who watched Dylan write it. Furthermore, he recorded it in one take: a torrent of apocalyptic imagery so potent it long outlived the moment it was supposed to soundtrack.
19. The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar (1981) Dylan’s 80s were marked by some weird decisions about album track listings, which begin here: what possessed him to leave this ferocious slice of blues-rock off Shot of Love? It’s superb, its edge-of-chaos rowdiness and sheer passion in his vocal making it a counterpart to the music on Highway 61 Revisited.
18. Mr Tambourine Man (1965) A leftover from Another Side of Bob Dylan that signposted his future even more dramatically than Chimes of Freedom, Mr Tambourine Man’s tumble of free-associating imagery immediately got it pegged as a drug song, but it’s more about the act of writing itself, a joyous paean to the moment the muse takes over.
17. Ballad of a Thin Man (1965) No character in a Dylan song has inspired so much conjecture as Ballad of a Thin Man’s poor old Mr Jones: who on earth could have inspired such an unrelenting outpouring of bile? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: better not to worry about the subject and just luxuriate – if that’s the word – in its doom-laden sound and the fizzing intensity of Dylan’s delivery.
16. One of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) (1966) A postmatch analysis of a love affair gone wrong, One of Us Must Know is the negative image of the “nasty” songs in which Dylan had come to specialise: he sounds apologetic (at least most of the time) rather than apoplectic; its fantastic chorus, driven by Al Kooper’s organ, feels somewhere between a surge of energy and a sigh.
15. It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (1965) A song containing a plethora of justly celebrated Dylan aphorisms – “He not busy being born is busy dying” is perhaps the greatest – It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) is a gripping, furious explosion of apocalyptic imagery that posits the timeless theory that politicians and the media offer a false sense of reality.
14. Things Have Changed (1997)Dylan’s superb, Oscar-winning contribution to the soundtrack of Wonder Boys finds him – not for the first or last time – casting a jaundiced eye over a world he feels out of step with, its insistent, shuffling music a backdrop for a series of vibrant portents of impending doom, all dismissed with a grouchy shrug: “I used to care but things have changed.”
13. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964) Arguably the most powerful of all Dylan’s protest songs, Hattie Carroll occasionally plays fast and loose with the facts of the racist murder it describes, but its combination of journalistic reportage and poetic technique is astonishing: the fact that it’s measured, unhysterical and unsentimental in tone makes it all the more impactful.
12. Tangled Up in Blue (1975) You could include anything or everything from Blood on the Tracks in a list such as this: spurred by the failure of his marriage, his muse was working overtime, as evidenced by its astonishing opening track, a fragmentary, unreliably narrated recollection of a failed relationship that shifts erratically from one scene to another, like a dream.
11. Girl From the North Country (1963) Perhaps the loveliest of Dylan’s early love songs, Girl From the North County is a remembrance of an old girlfriend – exactly which one is the subject of a quite insane level of debate – suffused with nostalgia and regret, on which the starkness of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s sound is transformed into hushed, small-hours reflection.
10. It Ain’t Me Babe (1964) In which another kiss-off to Suze Rotolo – who frankly receives a bit of a raw deal in the lyrics – gets mixed up with Dylan waving his voice of a generation tag goodbye. It’s unclear throughout whether he is addressing his ex or his audience, although the fact it concludes his last acoustic album lends strength to the latter interpretation.
9. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (1966)Dylan considered Sad Eyed Lady important enough to devote a whole side of rock’s first double album to it, as if it needed to stand alone. He subsequently couldn’t decide if it was an 11-minute masterpiece, or him “just [getting] carried away”: listening to its understated sound, cyclical melody and devotional lyrics, it’s hard not to cleave to the former interpretation.
8. Not Dark Yet (1997) The sound of a 56-year-old man facing up to mortality, Not Dark Yet developed a chilling prescience when its author nearly died of pericarditis before it was released. But Not Dark Yet doesn’t need a spooky backstory. It succeeds entirely on its own merits: gloomy, thoughtful and occasionally blackly comic, it was one reason why Time Out of Mind was acclaimed as a masterpiece.
7. Positively Fourth Street (1965) Boasting one of the great stop-you-in-your-tracks opening lines – “You’ve got a lot of nerve …” – Positively Fourth Street’s sneering excoriation of the Greenwich Village folk scene feels like eavesdropping on a particularly savage argument: so vicious you feel guilty for listening in, so compelling you can’t help yourself.
6. Blind Willie McTell (1983)Another track Dylan bafflingly discarded, this aching, vivid, unflinching acoustic conjuring of the old South the titular bluesman inhabited – equal parts beauty and injustice – was instantly and rightly acclaimed as one of his greatest songs when it finally appeared on the 1991 Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 box set.
5. Desolation Row (1965) In the mid-60s Dylan complained that he had never written anything as “far out” as the strangest folk ballads, but on Desolation Row, he succeeded in taking the ballad form to a completely new place. It’s a cliche to compare it to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, but it fits: 11 stark minutes of oppressive, absurd imagery that never slackens its grip on the listener despite its length.
4. Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965) Everyone knows that the release of Subterranean Homesick Blues was a pivotal moment in rock history. More startling is how explosive it still sounds, 55 years away from the furore about Dylan “going electric” and the emergent counterculture the song seemed to embody: the relentless staccato vocal barrage, the lyrical fireworks, the chaotic racket kicked up by the backing musicians. Endlessly imitated, never equalled.
3. Idiot Wind (1975) On one level an outpouring of fury to rival anything his amphetamine-fuelled younger self came up with, yet Idiot Wind differs from Ballad of a Thin Man or Positively Fourth Street in that its author isn’t just hurling bitter accusations, he’s writhing in agony: “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like.” The end result is extraordinary, harrowing listening.
2 Visions of Johanna (1966) Like a Rolling Stone may have been more revolutionary, but Visions of Johanna has a strong claim to be Dylan’s greatest song, a parade of luminous symbolism that manages to be both mystifying and incredibly potent (“The ghost of electricity howls through the bones of her face”). His Nashville backing band, meanwhile, sounds perfect: subtle but insistent, the small-hours setting of the lyrics seeping into the sound.
1. Like a Rolling Stone (1965) Let it be known that ranking Bob Dylan’s 50 best songs is not a relaxing diversion to pass one’s lockdown time. It’s a supremely frustrating exercise that can only end with you looking agog at the songs you have left out, your face crumpling into a WTF? expression. As for No 1, sometimes you have to bow to the inevitable. In its author’s own words, Like a Rolling Stone changed it all: six minutes of “steady hatred”, its chorus melody loosely based on Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba, its musicians – as writer Greil Marcus has pointed out – just clinging on to the song by their fingernails, it was a boundary-breaking single that permanently altered the face of music. Entire books have been written about it, unravelling meanings from its dense lyrics, but Marcus’s point is key: along with the sheer venom of Dylan’s delivery, it’s the sense that the journey into uncharted territory is permanently on the brink of collapse that makes it so eternally thrilling.
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I don’t think Bob Dylan would like to be described as wise. It's too simple and bland a word.. He is prone to disagree with any labels that are overly adulatory, that suggest all of his music is about ‘message,’ or that even hint at putting him in a pedestal. So let’s add that his wisdom is that of a psalmist or troubadour. His wisdom is being a conduit for ideas, images, and feelings that present the human condition in all its variety, without rose-colored glasses. I once heard Arlo Guthrie say that his songwriting is like going fishing; you never know if you’ll catch anything. Dylan’s is like cloud catching. He seems to lie on the ground, see many clouds, and catch them easily. Or let then catch him.
Dylan’s best fifty songs? The Guardian offers a thoughtful proposal, listing them in rank order from last to first, offering a paragraph on each. You can hear them on Spotify by clicking here. Don’t have time to listen but would like to see the list of fifty? Click here to see the list and see how they are described? Here are the top ten:
10. It Ain’t Me Babe (1964) 9. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (1966) 8. Not Dark Yet (1997) 7. Positively Fourth Street (1965) 6. Blind Willie McTell (1983) 5. Desolation Row (1965) 4. Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965) 3. Idiot Wind (1975) 2. Visions of Johanna (1966) 1. Like a Rolling Stone (1965)
There are so many Dylans in the fifty songs. There’s the tender Dylan (To Make You Feel My Love), the angry Dylan (Like a Rolling Stone), the apocalyptic Dylan (A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall), the parental Dylan (Forever Young), the socially engaged Dylan (Blowin’ in the Wind), the retrospective Dylan (My Back Pages), the existential, being-toward-death Dylan (Not Dark Yet), the precursor-to-rap Dylan (Subterranean Homesick Blues), the lovesick Dylan (I Threw It All Away), the anti-middle-class Dylan (Ballad of a Thin Man), the furious Dylan (Pay in Blood), the storytelling Dylan (Simple Twist of Fate), the devoted Dylan (If Not for You), the dystopian Dylan (Desperation Row), and, throughout, the poetic Dylan who won the Nobel Prize for literature. The poetry is in all of them but, as I see things, a listen to Desolation Row will make the point for skeptics.
Not Like Any Pop Music I Know
The Guardian tells us that when a folk purist first heard Love Minus Zero/No Limit he (or she) said: “That wasn’t like any pop music I’ve heard.” I think that’s what first drew me to Dylan. For me, the game-changer was his album Blonde on Blonde, from which the photo above is taken. I grew up with, and thoroughly enjoyed, traditional pop music. What drew me to early pop were the melodies and harmonies of, say, the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, and Doo Wop.
Then came Dylan. At first, I didn’t like his (then nasal) voice but it gradually grew on me. I also liked the smoke-filled raspy voice of the later Dylan (Blonde on Blonde), the crooning voice of the middle Dylan (Nashville Skyline), just as now I like the growl of his newer material. I’m guessing the cigarettes got the best of him.
None of these voices were ‘beautiful’ by conventional western standards. On this a Zen friend helped me. He reminded me that there’s not a perfect voice but there are authentic voices, and that Dylan’s various voices are authentic to him and to his songs. I feel that today. I like his many voices and find myself (like so many) imitating some of them in a playful way. I also like the way that in some songs he will experiment with different voices in the same song: sometimes crooning and sometimes growling. You’ll hear this in “Murder Most Foul.” There’s something interesting, funny, and serious about it, as if he’s resurrecting ghosts of the past from old jukeboxes. Which he is.
No Need to Understand
I liked and still like Dylan’s lyrics when you can’t understand them in a linear way. They were like good modern and post-modern poetry. Or, for that matter, like much of the Bible, which jumps from topic to topic in ways that only rabbis than think. (Dylan’s ancestry is Jewish.) The meaning is in the associations and contrasts, not the linearity. And the sounds. Dylan Thomas, his namesake, would get this.
As a teenager, Dylan’s lyrics could make me think as well as feel, to philosophize in my own adolescent way. And so many were counter-cultural, but not in a peace-and-love way. In their sharpness and their hardness, they stretched my horizons beyond my middle-class, adolescent preoccupations with peer approval and romantic love, taking me into place deeper and wider, and more in touch with life in its variety. They also introduced me to the shadow side of life, into which so many are unfortunately born, but from which I was protected by suburbia and loving parents.
When I say “then came Dylan” I really mean the persona Dylan, not the man. I have no idea what he’s like as a person, but I hear he’s a little cranky. I fear he doesn’t treat people kindly, the way I think they should be treated. But that doesn’t matter so much. It’s the image I know and his image for so many is like a Rorschach test. People see it in different ways, relative to their life and circumstances.
Dylan’s persona was part of what grabbed me. I liked the wildness and the weirdness (by middle class crewcut standards) of the uncombed hair. Sometimes I looked at the image of Dylan on the cover of Blonde on Blonde and think: “That’s me, too, except nobody knows it.” I still think that way. In me, and I suspect in many, there’s an inner Dylan, weird and uncombed, introvertedly wild and counter cultural. Which takes me to Dylan now. He looks different, but he still doesn’t comb his hair and he’s still weird, at least in his persona.
And prophetic. His wisdom is not that of an academic philosopher who argues his way (and so often they are male) with points to be made in a sterile classroom. It’s much more Nietzchean and Whiteheadian, rabbinic and shamanic. And, yes, unabashedly ‘spiritual.’ At least this is the case if by ‘spirituality’ we mean embodied wisdom in daily life. That’s how I understand it. The spiritual alphabet of Spirituality and Practice helps me recognize the embodied wisdom of Dylan. In his music I hear Yearning and Questing. I hear Shadow and Meaning (or lamentation concerning its absence.) I hear Love and Wonder. In lots of them I hear Mystery. I would like to teach a course taking some of the fifty songs above and analyzing them with help from the alphabet. Dylan’s songs and “Dylan” the persona can indeed be a shaman, yes, and also a priest.
But one letter I don’t hear a lot from him, as least these days and with his latest album, Murder Most Foul, is Hope. I hope you’ll listen to the album; the Guardian calls it a ‘dark, dense ballad for the end time.” It you don’t have time for all of it, just listen to the song Murder Most Foul. It’s an incantation that invites you to consider the many songs and voices that constitute 20th century American history, almost as if they were in a jukebox. In the song Dylan pulls from each to provide context for the assassination of John Kennedy: a context which leaves the listener nostalgic but not hopeful. Yes, there’s Meaning in the context, but No, there’s no silver lining. We are in the end times, the song seems to say, and we can only remember a few of the beginnings.
Is there spirituality in such a recognition? Well, yes, but it’s a spirituality of shadow. It’s a recognition that we Americans, and maybe even we human beings, have dug ourselves into a hole from which there is no escape except to live within the hole, with nostalgia for the past.
As a Christian I can’t quite accept this as the final story. But I do imagine that the one in whose footsteps I hope to walk - another Jew, albeit from Nazareth not Hibbing, Minnesota -- felt something like this hopelessness in his (the Nazarene’s) own desolation row, namely his walk to the cross. He wasn’t crossing his fingers in the terror of the moment, pretending it wasn’t there. He was instead being honest to the sadness, with eyes open.
This is part of the wisdom of Dylan. His eyes are open and he won’t let us hide. Especially from our tendencies toward self-deception, toward lies we might want to tell ourselves. He’d much rather us look at the lies and call them “lies.”
Back to shadow. Facing the darkness is not his only word or, who knows, his final word. There may be light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s his word for us today. Today’s Dylan is like Jeremiah in the Bible. He offers a word of desolation, a holy No. In the fullness of life we need sages of hope and despair, love and lust, robbery and reverence – sages who are wise because they help us see things we might not otherwise see. In Process and Reality Whitehead says philosophy must see all sides of things: “The fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.” There’s aren’t a whole lot of dancing fairies in Dylan’s music, but there are crosses. Sometimes, ever so strangely, you can laugh and reminisce even as they unfold, as if you’re hearing a pop song on a jukebox. That’s one reason, among so many, his most recent album, Murder Most Foul, is worth hearing, too.