23 April 2018

Mr. Dylan Gets Religion

by Kirk Woodward

[This will be Kirk’s fourth post on Bob Dylan, of whom, ROTters will know, he’s a big fan (see “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011; “Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album,” 14 November 2012; and “Bob and Ringo,” 1 December 2017).  That makes Dylan Kirk’s second-most frequent subject on Rick On Theater after the Beatles (six posts, including again “Bob and Ringo,” which does double duty).  (I count posts on Shaw as three, though one of those is a five-part series.)  “Mr. Dylan Gets Religion,” however, covers a different aspect of the folk-rocker’s work from his musicality.

[Another part of Kirk’s background and focus, equal in strength and influence—perhaps even greater—to his interest in theater and music, is his faith.  Kirk, as he affirms below, is an active Christian.  Dylan was born into a Jewish family, but in the late 1970s, after a profound spiritual experience, he became a “born-again” Christian, a conversion that’s reflected in his songs.  It is at this phenomenon at which Kirk looks in “Mr. Dylan Gets Religion.”  (According to various biographical notes, the artist returned to Judaism, even flirting with orthodoxy, after three years.)  It’s certainly a part of Dylan’s musical life about which I was unfamiliar, and I imagine many ROT-readers will find it at least a little surprising, even in the complex career of Bob Dylan.]

Years ago, while I was a college student, I did the most daring thing I’d ever done up to that point: I went to a record store in town and asked for a copy of an album known as The White Wonder, by Bob Dylan. What was daring about this transaction was that the album was a bootleg – an unauthorized recorded compilation of a number of songs written and sung by Dylan.

Bootlegs are so common now that it’s hard to believe anyone was ever as skittish about buying one as I was then. I imagined the Record Industry Police descending on me, I suppose, and in fact the record industry has pursued a number of cases of bootlegging, using batteries of lawyers. However, no one pursued me for my illicit purchase.

A few recording artists endorse bootlegging, notably the Grateful Dead, who encouraged their fans to record their concerts and circulate the recordings. Bob Dylan very definitely has not encouraged bootlegging. He has been remarkably protective of his copyrights. All the same, a great deal of unauthorized Dylan material is available.

Columbia Records (now Columbia/Legacy), Dylan’s record company, took an audacious step to control the amount of unauthorized Dylan material that’s circulating. Starting in 1991, it began what it calls the “Bootleg Series” of outtakes, concert records, and miscellaneous items Dylan has created, but not officially released, in the course of his career.

Thirteen volumes of this series have been released to date, comprising into the hundreds of CDs, with more presumably on the way. Each volume covers a different period or aspect of Dylan’s career, and much of the material is invaluable. The fecundity of Dylan’s writing is simply staggering.

The latest bootleg series volume, Trouble No More 1979-1981, released on November 3, 2017, is of particular interest, because it represents what’s often referred to as Dylan’s “Christian” period. Dylan, born (in 1941) to a Jewish family and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, had a sort of “born again” or “conversion” experience in late 1979-early 1980.

He released three albums during this period: Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). The single release “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won a Grammy Award for Best Vocal, came from this time. The songs on the first two albums all specifically relate to Dylan’s current religious beliefs; those on Shot of Love have a somewhat wider focus.

This period of Dylan’s career was, needless to say, controversial. He did some “preaching” to audiences during his concerts. He made no secret of his strong beliefs. He gained some audience and lost some. By the end of 1981 he was playing more not specifically religious songs, a trend that soon dominated.

My own experience with Dylan’s “Christian period” amounted to this: I heard about it; my sister loaned me the first album of the period, Slow Train; I listened to it, found it harsh and unappealing, returned it to my sister, and didn’t listen to any new Dylan albums again until the early 1990s.

What a difference almost four decades make! The Trouble No More collection is – pardon a probably inevitable Biblical reference – a revelation. In order to describe why I think so, let me present some comments I’ve either heard or made myself about the music of this period, and give my new opinions on them.

I’ve already mentioned my own initial opinion that the albums sounded harsh. There’s something to this opinion. There’s a great deal more in the songs about God’s judgment than about God’s mercy – an approach that one often sees in new converts to a faith, who can be highly critical of what they themselves had only recently believed.

However, in the recordings on Trouble No More this harshness, if real, is leavened – there’s that Biblical vocabulary again – by Dylan’s exuberance and his humor, not to mention by his art. Sometimes he is charming, as in the children’s song “Man Gave Names to All the Animals.” Sometimes he is droll, as in the rollicking, previously released “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell (For Anybody).” Often it’s the flow of the lyrics, with their mix of the highfalutin’ and the conversational, that provides relief:

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…

Some reacted to Dylan’s “Christian” songs in surprise that he was suddenly so involved in religion, but that in itself shouldn’t have been surprising – his songs have always had strong religious tendencies, sometimes explicit, as in much of the album John Wesley Harding (1967). The song “All Along the Watchtower” on that album, the one Dylan has played most in concerts (2257 times to date), conjures up Old Testament imagery:

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants too

But the album also contains a splendid summary of Christian theology in the song “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”:

The moral of this story,
The moral of this song,
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong.
So if you see your neighbor carrying something,
Help him with his load,
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road.

Dylan’s songs have always had a sense of right and wrong, of sin and righteousness, of darkness and light. In other words, they often exhibit a religious sensibility, the surprise in the 1979-1981 period being that that sensibility is made explicit. The same may be said for the theme in many Dylan songs of an approaching judgment. This sense is strong in early songs, like “When the Ship Comes In” (1964):

Oh, the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin'
Like the stillness in the wind
Before the hurricane begins
The hour that the ship comes in

That vision is apocalyptic, and not at all out of keeping in tone with Dylan’s “Christian” period.

I remember reading a review around 1980 suggesting that Dylan embraced Christianity as a way of reinvigorating his creative processes. I doubt that, both because his “conversion” is clearly genuine – I defy anyone to listen to these recordings and doubt it – but also because he leaps into the new subject matter with such energy and skill that it’s hard to imagine he was having any problems to start with.

I’m talking here primarily about the numerous concert recordings included in the release. In concert he betters the three studio albums in every case that I’m aware of. In the concerts he sings as well as he ever has. A friend of mine said once that he thought Dylan was the greatest rock and roll singer, and these concert recordings justify that remark. He sings with abandon.

He also sings with a double dose both of determination and of discipline. Notoriously, as a live performer Dylan is capable of giving his supporting musicians fits, as he changes set lists, song words, and arrangements with abandon.

These recordings, however, are musically focused, crisp, and tight. Dylan still experiments with musical styles, tempos, and textures, not to mention words, as he has throughout his career. But there is no feeling here that his changes are arbitrary. He explores restlessly. That’s a theme of his entire body of work. But the work in Trouble No More has focus.

I’d always heard that people were furious at Dylan’s new direction, but on the concert recordings we hear crowds whistling and applauding. There are other surprises, too. Dylan notoriously almost always says little or nothing to his audiences. In these recordings he is practically friendly, introducing the band several times, thanking people for coming and hoping they’ll come again the next night, and at one point saying something like "I heard a request from somebody in the crowd. Was that for 'Solid Rock'?" – a question that would be unthinkable through most of his career.

Speaking of Dylan’s band, it is crackerjack. Dylan has said that "nobody listens to my music for the solos," but many of the solos from these recordings are outstanding, particularly those of the lead guitarist, Fred Tackett (b. 1945). There is also impeccable work from the drummer, Jim Keltner (b. 1942), once the intermediary who got me Ringo Starr's autograph!

Dylan is also accompanied on these recordings by a group of gospel singers (first three, then increasing in number). I have heard people refer to this feature as a sign of laziness on Dylan’s part. Not on these recordings – the backup singers work hard but they don't work any harder than Dylan does. The effect is blistering.

The songs on the new release – many not available on recordings before – are outstanding, unless one rejects them simply because their subject is religion. In a sense, that’s not their subject, because Dylan’s interests are always wider than one category. He looks, with a skeptical eye, at human behavior (particularly his own) in every sphere of life, a vision that gives his lyrics wide scope.

One of the fascinating features of Trouble No More is liner notes by Penn Jillette (b. 1955), the magician and, in his own words, a “lifelong atheist.” Jillette describes his early feelings about the albums from Dylan’s “Christian” period – pretty much the same as mine, although he’s an atheist and I’m a Christian – and his different response to these recordings – also pretty much the same as mine. His notes are well worth reading for an insight into what art can offer beyond its immediate subject matter.

So what happened to Dylan’s Christian fervor? Maybe nothing – who knows? I have no idea what goes on in Dylan’s mind, and that’s fine. His published comments are ambiguous. He has never wanted to be a “thought leader” – he has always wanted people to think for themselves. As noted above, he eventually returned to playing songs in concert that he’s written over the last fifty-five years or so.

However, he still plays songs from the “Christian” period now and then. He participated in the album Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan (2008), singing his “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” with Mavis Staples (b. 1939). [Mavis Staples is a rhythm and blues and gospel singer, actress, and civil rights activist and a member of her family’s singing group The Staple Singers.  She was nominated for a 2003 Grammy Award for her duet with Dylan on “Gonna Change.”]  He has performed “Gotta Serve Somebody” in concert as recently as 2011.

Besides, which Dylan songs are “religious” and which aren’t? Like his contemporary Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), Dylan fills his songs with religious imagery – and with imagery of many other kinds. Perhaps we need a wider definition of “religious.” Listening to Trouble No More can help.

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