A Comforting Old Wooden Chair (Foreword to a Bob Dylan book)

(Sometime over the last few years I was approached to write a “blurb” for the cover of a book of thoughts about Bob Dylan by an Australian author, Phil Mason. I’ve never met Phil but I’ve been privileged to help him with his research. By the time the book was approaching readiness, the idea had expanded and I wrote a foreword for the book which eventually appeared under the title of “A Voice From on High”. As well as reproducing that foreword here, I take the opportunity to recommend Mr Mason’s book which can be obtained through Amazon in softcover and for your kindle.)

 

“Well I’m sitting in church
In an old wooden chair
I knew nobody
Would look for me there”

Bob Dylan – Marchin’ to the City (Disc 3 of Tell Tale Signs 1989-2006)

In 1707, Isaac Watts, the Christian hymnwriter, wrote a lyric called “Marching to Zion” in which he referred to Zion as the beautiful city of God. Now, this was long before Zion had become a short-hand for some Western European political scheme to establish a physical homeland for disenfranchised Jewish people in the middle East (a scheme commonly referred to as Zionism). It is Watts looking forward to the end of an earthly journey where all the faithful people of God, Jew and Gentile, would be gathered in to an eternal home.

The hymn includes a fascinating line which touches on Bob Dylan’s experiences, particularly over the last forty years:

“Let those refuse to sing

Who never knew our God”

(Watts, 1707)

Bob Dylan in 1979 deliberately attracted attention to his faith in God. A few years thereafter, he became tired of that attention. In one interview, when asked about faith and religion, he asked his interviewer why people didn’t ask Billy Joel such questions.

The answer to that is simple. Billy Joel never made huge statements about the Christian faith or played a tour where he declined to sing songs that weren’t about his faith in God.

Dylan did.

But Mr Dylan is adept at playing with smoke and mirrors and also good at sleight of hand. In fact, he does this so well that he could say with confidence by the 1990s that nobody would be looking for him in a church.

But in “Marchin’ to the City”, we are left with little doubt that the city he is intent on marching to is still the city of God.

“Snowflakes are falling around my head
Lord have mercy, it feels heavy like lead
I been hit too hard, seen too much
Nothing can heal me now but your touch”

(Bob Dylan, Marchin’ to the City)

In the late 1970s, Bob Dylan found the Christian faith partially because of his involvement in the Vineyard fellowship. A few years later he quietly disassociated himself with that church. In the late 1970s, Bob Dylan was encouraged to become something of a spokesman for the Christian faith. A few years later he stepped back noticeably from that position. But his attitude to the Scriptures as a whole did not seem to have changed:

You’re a literal believer of the Bible?
Yeah. Sure, yeah. I am.

Are the Old and New Testaments equally valid?
To me.

Do you belong to any church or synagogue?
Not really. Uh, the Church of the Poison Mind [laughs].

(Bob Dylan to Kurt Loder, 1984)

In fact, he wasn’t evidently, around that time, distancing himself from anything of the last few years:

“If they don’t do something kinda gospel, I don’t trust that artist. I don’t care who he is”

Bob Dylan, Press conference, 1986

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to suggest that Dylan’s core theological values changed at all during the period between 1982 & 1986.

There may, perhaps, be some evidence that there was some kind of careful consideration and state of flux going on during those years. Indeed, some of this reassessment may have changed some of his attitudes. Clinton Heylin in his “Trouble in Mind” argues that Dylan’s view of the end times and the apocalypse was profoundly shaped by the writing of Hal Lindsay at that time. That may well explain why when Bob’s “Trouble No More” box set was released in 2017, his onstage sermons and “raps” were excised and in the accompanying DVD replaced by the more carefully measured words composed by Luc Sante. Also, those who said that the Dylan of the time of the “Slow Train Coming” period was overly judgemental of others have had to note his subsequent statements that whatever our beliefs we are all sinners and his counting of himself amongst the unfaithful in the album of songs called “Infidels” (note “I & I”).

The greater weight, however,  must be given to the way he has shown his core values of the earlier period to have come through intact. He no longer talks between songs but since that time he has sung of the crucifixion (“In the Garden” for example, performed 182 times after 1981), the resurrection (“I am the Man, Thomas”, 59 times), the existence of God (“Somebody Touched Me”, 30 times), the judgement of the book of Revelation (“Tempest” perhaps, his own song but never performed live), the need for a commitment to the God of space and time (“Gotta Serve Somebody”, 281 times after 1981), the need for humility (“Saving Grace”, 30 times since 1981, and “Every Grain of Sand”, 185 times since 1981) and the need for devotion and God’s presence (“Stay with Me”, 68 times[1]).

Now there will be those who will point out that Mr Dylan did not write some of these songs, but we cannot have it both ways. There are many who point to Dylan pointing out that the old songs are his lexicon and prayer book. Indeed, they are, and they are profoundly theological.

And so, we come to Phil Mason’s book – “A Voice from On High”. Bob Dylan and Phil Mason are clearly agreed on one thing. They both want to argue that God has spoken in the Scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament. What Mr Mason must prove is that the man who was born Robert Zimmerman sees himself as speaking in prophetic oracle that he is to some degree self-consciously speaking to those who would listen to something of what God would say to us (a subject on which, like many other things, he is notoriously silent and difficult to interpret). This is harder to assess and is for our author to prove and if this brief introduction could do that then I would be making the remainder of this volume less valuable. It is over to our author to prove his case…

Darren Hirst

[1] All live performance statistics are my own calculation and approximate. The serve only to show that Mr Dylan has not abandoned the sentiments he expressed in these songs. For example, he has rewritten “Tangled Up in Blue” many times but the lyrics to “Saving Grace” remain unchanged

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