I did a substantial interview about vocation and imagination with Faith and Leadership, The Journal of the Duke Divinity School, which you can read here. Their site also contains links to hear the interview and download it on i-tunes U.
An Article Based on my Woolf Memorial lecture on Dylan was published in The Tablet, the link is here. I have also given the fuller text of the lecture as I delivered it further down this page.
My Article on Christ and Music for the Interfaith Journal Faith Initiative is available here.
Here is the text of my lecture on Dylan and Memory I delivered for the 10th Anniversary of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge
“In the time of my confession”, Memory, prayer and religious roots in the music of Bob Dylan, with Dr Malcolm Guite
Oh the streets of Rome, are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You could almost think that you’re seeing double
On a cold dark night on the Spanish stair
This beautiful vignette from When I paint my masterpiece, written in 1971 shows us how aware bob Dylan is of the layering of time, of the latent memories in place and in language, the ways in which poetry can enhance awareness, and deepen vision, especially if we become alert, as he is, to the power of memory. In that verse Dylan awakens memory not only of Rome’s ancient past but also of the other young poet, who lay dying on a cold dark night on the Spanish stair and had written the words that would echo through Dylan’s later work, “forever young”.
But it is not just Keats and the other poets whom Dylan remembers in his work but on every album, he recalls, and redeploys the scriptures, the poetry of the bible, As the Woolf Institute celebrates its 10th anniversary with a series of lectures on memory I want to look a little at the way Dylan’s music remembers the Torah and the Bible, the essential treasure house of memory, the root of that long fruitful act of remembering which is the Judeo-Christian tradition.
“Trainwheels running through the back of my memory,”
sang Dylan in Rome in 1971 Those train wheels, the sound of Dylan’s muse will take us on a journey not just to the streets of Rome, but as he would say later, “All the way from new Orleans, to Jerusalem.”
Lets start with the memories freighted into one of the earliest and most memorable songs of all. Blowing in the wind.
How many times must we look before we see, how many ears must we have before we hear?
The lyric of this song is an example of what Michael Gray nicely calls “Dylan’s Quiet incorporation of biblical rhetoric into his own (BDE p. 64) and he cites Ezekiel 12 1-2
“Thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house which have eyes to see and see not, ears to hear and hear not” says Ezekiel, and Jesus turns those words to the command “he who hath ears to hear let him hear”. Dylan turns them again to a question to his own generation and ours,
“how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry
how many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
If we hav ears to hear, we can hear the biblical echo in this as in many other songs, but the deepest echo here is not simply in the ears that hear but is both literally and spiritually “blowing in the wind”. The biblical moment which Dylan’s song baffling conversational song remembers is the baffled conversation between Christ and Nicodemus in John 3:8:
“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth, so is everyone that is born of the Spirit”
Here the allusion which is in the defining line of the song is completely consonant with its original scriptural context. Nicodemus the rich young man comes to Jesus with a whole string of questions which Jesus answers with another question: Art thou a teacher of Israel? How shalt thou believe? “
And further everything turns on the way in which earthly images may or may not reveal heavenly truths. Jesus asks Nicodemus another significant “how” question:
“If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not how shall ye believe when I tell you of heavenly things?”
Now Dylan’s song consists entirely of a series of “how” questions: How many roads? How many seas? How many times? All answered by the cryptic and questioning “answer” that “the answer is blowing in the wind.” Here the open-nes, the sense both of possible transfiguration and of an opportunity that might be missed, are equally present in both the Biblical text and the questioning and answering song, so they re-enforce one another. Dylan is a master of fruitful ambiguity, of withholding information precisely to increase the number of possibilities available in an open song, so Blowing in the wind never names either the questioner or the “friend” who answers in the chorus but allows us to explore the possibilities of who here is Christ and who is the rich young man. For this reason the song is multi-valent and a lot of its meaning arises from the context in which it is heard or performed. Stevie Wonder gave an interesting rap on this song when he sang it at the 90’s Dylan tribute in New York and went through its many applications decade by decade.
In the context of Jewish Christian relations we might want to ask. How does this song work as the young “pre-Christian” Dylan sings it to Martin Luther King in the sixties? Or when a “post-Christian” Dylan performed it for the Pope in the nineties?
One might have thought that as Dylan moved so swiftly from his absorption of the folk and blues traditions, replete as they were with biblical echoes, to his self-distancing from the protest movement and the beginning of his explorations of inner psychic and imaginative space, on through the amazing trilogy of mid-sixties electric albums might have diminished the frequency or intensity with which he borrowed from, echoed or re-imagined the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth, the tone changes but the intensity of engagement if anything, deepens. Consider the album, Highway 61 revisited, the whole album turns on the word re-visited, uncovering Dylan’s poetic technique and vision, which is precisely to re-visit and re-imagine the apparently familiar so that it becomes once more, something rich and strange.
The language of that album full as it is of Blake and Eliot, and the borrowed language of Ginsberg’s angel-headed hipsters is also constantly calling and recalling the bible in strange new guises. Take the opening of the title track for that album with its street-wise retelling of the story of Isaac and Abraham which turns out, on reflection to be more midrash than mockery:
God Said to Abraham kill me a son
Abe said Man you must be puttin’ me on
God said no
Abe said what?
God said you can do what you want Abe but
Next time you see me comin’ you’d better run
Abe said where you want this killin’ done?
God said out on highway sixty one.
Any reading of this song will be nuanced by the knowledge that Highway Sixty-One was both the highway traveled by the children of the pre-war country blues players, men like Muddy Waters and B.B King, who found work in the northern factories, plugged in their electric guitars, and created the urban Chicago blues sound that fills the album, and the highway that Dylan himself went down when he left his own father Abraham, known to all as Abe Zimmerman behind and in the midst of his adolescent disguises became for a while, dead to his family. All the contexts come into play in the making of the final meaning of an album that deals with dislocation, displacement and uprootedness: What seems at first merely playful or perhaps only iconoclastic turns out to be deeply and seriously engaged.
Finding Jacob’s ladder:
Dylan’s retreat to Woodstock in 66 after the “Motorcycle Accident” and his subsequent exploration of bucolic, contemplative and ultimately mystical forms of expression again anticipate and partially cause the shift away from the outward extremism of the sixties counter-culture to a more inward and reflective series of concerns which the rest of ‘rock’ music began to reflect in the seventies. Dylan’s refusal to tour for five yeas,. his absolute devotion to family life, the giving of traditional Jewish names to his children, his daily Bible readings, have been seen , especially by Jewish commentators on his works as signs of a re-integration into his life of his Jewish roots and identity. As his mother said of him at this time:
“In his house in Woodstock today there’s a huge bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, that Bible gets the most attention.” (Quoted in Heylin p. 184)
A crucial event in this period which seemed to deepen Dylan’s sense of his Jewish Heritage was death of his father in 1968 (for a rabbinical response to this period in his life and music see Trouble in Mind; A Rabbinic perspective on Bob Dylan’s ‘Religious Period’ by Laurence A Schlesinger, published in On the Tracks issue 4 1994)
The Masterpiece of this period, JohnWesley Harding which Dylan himself referred to as the first biblical rock album would require a whole book, let alone a lecture to itself. Since my concern here is memory and prayer, I want to look beyond it to a song which is also a prayer and which Dylan gave great emphasis by recording twice on the same album, and that is forever young from 1974’s Planet Waves.
“I found Jacob’s Ladder leaning against an Adobe wall”, wrote Dylan on the sleeve notes, a statement with both biblical and personal resonance as it was written after the birth of his son Jacob for whom the prayers in forever young are being made. Jacob’s dream is about the connection between heaven and earth, the moments when the earthly is transfigured and we find that a particular place, a particular person is “the very gate of heaven”, a theme that is echoed elsewhere on the album. (my dreams are made of iron and steel with a big bouquet of roses hanging down from the heavens to the ground, I was in a whirlwind, now I’m in some better place,) but the immediate biblical context for this song is a place in the book of Numbers:
22And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 23Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, 24The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: 25The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: 26The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. 27And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them (numbers 6:24-27)
Dylan’s response to these verses begins with the invocation of God, the father of us all:
may God bless and keep you always
and then addresses the child directly: May may you build, may you stay,
But as with earlier examples it is reverent but also playful and free
May you always do for others and let others do for you
May you always know the truth and see the light surrounding you.
The other text of course which is being remembered, as we hinted earlier, is Keats’ Ode on a Grecian urn, with its constant refrains of forever, and its climax in the words “forever young”. Christopher Ricks is particularly acute in high-lighting Dylan’s many echoes and reminiscences of Keats throughout his work among the echoes Ricks high-lights here are the lines
“forever wilt thou love and she be fair
Forever piping songs forever new
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed
Forever panting and forever young.
Ricks shows the beautiful parallels but it seems to me the deliberate contrasts here are even more important. “a cold dark night on the Spanish stair” connected keats and Dylan as artists, implying that salvation, redemptuioin from time was somehow to be found in art itself,
Somedau everything is going to be different, when I paint my masterpiece”
But things have changed, the Dylan of forever young, still haunted by Keats is looking for salvation from the hands of god, not the portrait of the artist. Keats’ lovers are kept forever young by art, immortalised on the vase and in the poem, but also frozen and beyond the possibility of growth. By contrast Dylan wants the immortality glimpsed in the phrase “forever young” but he wants it with growth and change and maturity,:
may you grow up to be righteous may you grow up to be true.
The song is saved from the sentimentality into which Dylan feared it might fall by the favct that it is both about the eternal youth and about the dynamic and difficult process of growth and change, the deliberate paradox that we must both grow up and be forever young, which is certainly one of the vital paradoxes at the heart of Christian theology (unless ye receive the kingdom as children, and “grow up into the full stature of Christ.)
This song makes sense and resonates for both Jews and Christians in their respective readings of scripture, for lovers of poetry who catch its echoes and of course for all parents, especially in turbulent times where the need for the foundation which is our collective memory of God, is strongest. The same latter-day Jewish prophet who told us the times they are a changing also gives us that priestly blessing,
May you have a strong foundation
when the winds of changes shift.
Dylan, an archetypal shape-shifter, was to go through many shifts and changes after writing this song and perhaps the most surprising to the wider public was his so-called “born again “period” from the end of the seventies to the beginning of the eighties, though to those of his fans who had been aware of how deeply soaked in biblical narrative and how spiritually charged his poetry has always been it did not seem so entirely unlikely.
The Biblical rock (as Dylan called it) of John Wesley Harding, and the concern with renewed vision that had culminated in planet waves was followed by a brilliant but domestically disruptive return to the road with the significantly named “before the flood” tour and then came “Blood on the Tracks which many read as an account of the breakdown in relationship with Sara, and which contains “Idiot Wind” a despairing re-visit of Blowing in the wind with its Blakean/Apocalyptic vision of twisted religion: “The Priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while a building burned… there’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pouring out of a box-car door…”
This combination of disruption and renewal in Dylan’s life led to the brief whirlwind genius of the Rolling Thunder Review and its accompanying album Desire (1976). But as the tour closed Dylan came very close to personal breakdown, a breakdown in which much of the imagery he had drawn from Old and New Testaments, especially its apocalyptic elements seemed to be bearing down on him (As witnessed throughout Street Legal (1978) but especially in the song “No time to Think”)
At the end of this period Dylan had an epiphany which he believed to be the almost tangible presence of Christ and so began the well documented and still controversial “born-again” period. The first published account of this is Paul Williams’ Dylan: What Happened? (and books 1979)written very soon after the events. Williams copes with the shock of Dylans conversion by psychologising it and suggesting that he was so susceptible to what he (Williams) calls “witchy women” that he needed to embrace the religion of a patriarchal (Male) God in order to be protected from them! Whilst I admire Williams writing on Dylan as a live performer, I think this account of his conversion is wide of the mark. For a start Dylan was brought to his Christian faith by a woman with whom he was in love, and ofcrucial importance for the study of Dylan in a Christian-Jewish context is that the “Precious Angel” and “Covenant Woman” who brought him to faith in Christ was one of his Afro-American backing singers. The point of cross-over, in scriptural terms between Dylan’s recovered Judaic and his Messianic Christian phases, is the identity of both Jews and Afro-Americans with the story of liberation in Exodus, as Dylan says in Precious angel, the song which directly recounts his conversion:
Precious angel, you believe me when I say
What God has given to us no man can take away.
We are covered in blood, girl, you know our forefathers were slaves.
Let us hope they’ve found mercy in their bone-filled graves.
You’re the queen of my flesh, girl, you’re my woman, you’re my delight,
You’re the lamp of my soul, girl, and you torch up the night.
But there’s violence in the eyes, girl, so let us not be enticed
On the way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia, to the judgment hall of Christ.
What is happening in this song? As a Jewish man who had once forgotten, but has begun to recover his Jewish root,s falls in love with a black Christian woman, issues of ancestry, roots and slavery begin to coalesce in the most extraordinary way. Complete immersion in the civil rights movement, and meeting with the key black Christian leaders especially Martin Luther King was a vital element in his formation as a song-writer. Dylan was present and on the podium when King made his “I have a dream…” speech, and King’s powerful use of the Exodus story as a key to understanding the struggle for civil rights of former slaves, must have chimed profoundly with Dylan’s own self-understanding as a Jew. Now it was to acquire new layers of meaning. These many layers of meaning are brought together by the subtle ways the song remembers and re-interprets key moments in the Bible. There is of course the story of the Exodus itself as Dylan knew it from his upbringing, as Martin Luther King used it to address the civil rights movement, there is the literal and emblematic truth “both our forefathers were slaves”. Then there is the typological Christian reading of the story in which the leaving of Egypt is the moment of turning from sin, crossing the red sea is baptism and the beginning in grace, the wilderness journey is our Christian life and the crossing of Jordan is our final passage through death to our home land. Dylan fuses these and adds details and nuances of his own. We are covered in blood has, as Michael Gray has pointed out, a threefold meaning in this song: “blood as in ones family and racial history, blood as in carrying the stain of people’s inherent violence and sin, and blood as in the blood of Jesus Christ which covers us and cleanses us from all sin.”
The strange reference to Ethiopia not only connects with the precious angel, Mary Aice Artes being an African American, but may also allude to numbers 12:1 where we are told that Moses had married an Ethiopian woman to the consternation of Aaron and Miriam.
For many people the album Infidels (1983) marks the end of the “Born again” period and the beginning of a more integrated and obliquely stated expression of Dylan’s faith and certainly a more open and imaginative, more nuanced use of scripture, as witnessed by songs like Jokerman and I and I.
The eighties were not a great period for Dylan but consensus is that Oh Mercy (1989) was a great return to form and this song contains many beautiful takes on scripture especially in the resigned “Shooting star”.
Dylan has continued on every album since then to quote and allude to the scriptures in a wide variety of ways, but many critics have noticed that his most recent album Modern Times (2006) has the greatest number of scriptural allusions of any album since the born again period. Genesis and Exodus seem to predominate, though I believe the final song, “Aint Talking,” an allegorical summary of Dylan’s life, contains allusions to the account of Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ in the Garden of resurrection.
However I would like to conclude with a look at Every grain of Sand the song from which the title of this talk is taken, which seems to me to be both one of Dylan’s greatest achievements and also the song in which the twin themes of memory and prayer are most deeply interfused.
In every grain of sand Dylan shows his great powers of re-invention, the way in which he can take the “old time melody” and in the very act of re-echoing it he can make it new. What he redeems, melodically, and indeed lyrically is the fatuously sentimentlal song” I believe” which has the same arpegiated background a song which simply lists “nice things” and says isn’t the world sweet? I must believe in God. Dylan calls up the echo, but only in order to put the vital question what about the dark things, the things we ourselves have spoiled and broken, what about the sorrow, the violence the chill, the bitter dance of loneliness the broken mirror of innocence? Can we believe can there be a providence or a God in the midst of temptation’s angry flame and all our memories of decay?.
Micheal Gray has written beautifully and extensively about this song, both about its biblical echoes and the ways it makes use of William Blake’s metres and imagery. I will draw on his work but also take it a bit further, especially focussing on the themes of memory and prayer. Gray locates the song and its “confession” in the book of Daniel and sees Dylan as a latter day Daniel captive in a modern Babylon, confessing not just personal sin but the sin of the nation, and making a confession in the sense of a “confession of faith.. “ This is true as far as it goes but I think Dylan is also availing himself of the way biblical echoes can intensify purely personal feeling as well as making it more universal. I also think that what makes this song so unique is that Dylan is not slavishly reciting scripture, not remembering it verbatim, but calling it up in order to turn it around question it, engage with it so that when at last it yields consolation that consolation is real and deeply drawn. Take for example the second line of this song
“when the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every new born seed.
Gray rightly points out that the seed image here recalls Jesus’ parable of the sower, one of the stories that governs and directs the whole song, but he misses I think the allusion linking tears and seed-sowing which Dylan is remembering here ;Psalm 126 verses 5 and 6
5They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
6He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
Tears of remorse ought to be fruitful, to “bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” but the danger is that they become barren debilitating, self-pitying. The line between compunction and despair is so easily crossed, the decay from despair to cynicism and moral paralysis too easy. That is why Dylan is “toiling in the dangers and in the morals of despair,” that is why the Cain image, noted but not developed by Gray, is so important in the second verse. Confession is precisely a looking back on mistakes, remembering them before God, but we have to remember them for freedom and not remember them in such a way that we become despairing and deterministic about ourselves, as Dylan was to say in a much later song: These memories I’ve got, they could strangle a man”
Eliot’s reflections on memory are helpful here:
“this is the use of memory, for freedom…”
“history may be freedom, history may be servitude.. “
Confession must remember but not capitulate to the patterns of the past:
Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain I now behold this chain of events that I must break
That is beautifully written poetry the easy linking of the cain/chain rhyme and in the delivery, the pause after chain but the refusal to end on chain, and the instsistant carrying of the line till it breaks on the word break, where breaking the chain is th entire point of confession and the purpose of memory, as Dylan was to say in a later song
Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed
‘Til there’s nothing left to see, ’til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed
Cain also had the chance to break the chain and didn’t take it, there was nothing inevitable in his murder of Able, he is in fact warned and given new vision by God, “sin is couching at your door its desire is for you…”.The Master offers Cain a mastery over his own fury which he refuses and all this is latent in Dylan’s next line:
In the fury of the moment I can see the masters hand
In every leaf that trembles and in in every grain of sand
And here we come to one of the other key images in the song, every grain of sand. Certainly Dylan is seeing with Blake’s eyes here, his vision doubled by the vision of another poet as it was by keats on that cold dark night on the Spanish stair. Blake’s Auguries of Innocence echo through Dylan’s song,
To see the world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold ionfinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour,
However, this is not just a single grain of sand, but repeatedly, every grain of sand and the question at stake is not do I have private mystical vision but, is there a God? Does he care for me? Does it matter what happens? Can I break the chains of the past? Every Grain of Sand is as Biblical as it is Blakean, for Dylan is remembering that other seed (seed is another key word for this song) the seed of Abraham.
This is Highway 61 Revisited revisited. God said to Abraham kill me a son, but that was not the end of the story, for God himself provided the sacrifice, and made this promise:
“By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: 17That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore;” (Gen. 22:16-17)
Dylan himself is part of the seed of that promise and comes to understand himself as one infinitely precious grain of sand. Then, as the image is repeated later in the song there comes another of the beautiful turns and returns of scripture which is the hallmark of his technique. In Genesis the grains of sand represent something innumerable, something literally numberless, but there is a transition in this song from the numberless and unknown to the numbered and known, mediated through psalm 139 and through the words of Jesus.
O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me
Psalm 139, like Dylan’s song about knowing, about whether and in what way we are known bu God and about whether and in what way we know ourselves. The psalmist has the same sometimes comforting, sometimes haunting, sense of being accompanied through the dark on his journey (sometimes I turn theres someone there, other times its only me,) but as the psalm grows in confidence there comes this image
17How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!
18If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.
Every grain of sand is now not only an image of the seed of Abraham of whom Dylan is one but of Gods constant looking to and thoughts of us, and the beautiful turn is the way in a single line Dylan fuses the Old Testament passage about the impossibility of our numbering the sand with a New Testament image of Gods infinite and particular knowledge of each one of us::
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. 30But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. (Mathew 10:29-31)
And onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand
Why is this question of whether and how in what way we are known by God so important to Dylan? Precisely because the despairs and the temptations with which this song deals are precisely those of being at once known and unknown.
He is one of the most well-known people on the planet: his name is known to all, and yet ithe name by which he is known is not his name and what he is known and remembered for is not himself, but his many artistic masks and personae. The temptations, particularly the sexual temptations of the Famous musician on the road are both frankly and delicately dealt with. The lust and rage that afflicted Yeats here become “temptations angry flame”, but in Gods eyes the singer knows that the forgotten women who came and went on the road are also grains of sand, as precious as the named and famous, in the eyes of God, all that is remembered and confessed in the line
The broken mirror of innocence in each forgotten face.
The irony, to which this song is fully alive, is that the very sexual encounter in which we hope to be most known, (for Adam knew Eve his wife), has become the encounter in which we are most masked and anonymous. Instead of a deepening union of mutual love and knowledge all we are left with is
The bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
The broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face
All this turns then in the gathering together in the extraordinary image of the door in the flame
I gaze into the doorway of temptations angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
This is both the unredeemed memory of the hotel door from which his name is called behind which he is offered what Eliot called “the bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit” but also it represents a new awareness that he is known to God, that the very hairs on his head are numbered,
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
as George Herbert says, in a poem on the same theme:
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe :
And I reply’d, My Lord. (George Herbert The Collar)
We began with the ancient footprints that Dylan sensed in Rome, in that moment of double vision;
Ancient footprints are every where…
But foot prints are only footprints, they are as it were a testament of absence, there is no possibility of their return. In Every Grain of Sand Dylan confesses and gives full poetic expression to the possibility of presence , the ancient footprints have become ancient footsteps and even though he honestly confesses the experience of absence too, we know that the God who spared Abrahams son on Highway Sixty-one is walking with him on his journey now, and we are reminded, by the gift of Dylan’s music, that he is walking with us too
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand