Though best known as a singer-songwriter of the 1960s, Bob Dylan’s (b. 1941) artistic achievements are much too diverse to encapsulate within such a restrictive category. He is also an author of poetry and prose as well as a filmmaker, actor, radio host, music producer, and artist, and while he was certainly prolific during the 1960s—with nine albums and a “greatest hits” package released between 1962 and 1969—this was only the very auspicious beginning of a long and varied career. More than 40 albums followed 1969’s Nashville Skyline, many of them critically and commercially successful, as were his early masterpieces The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and Highway 61 Revisited (1965).
The Bible figures prominently in Dylan’s lyrics, from his eponymous debut Bob Dylan (1962) to Tempest (2012). This is not in itself remarkable owing to the pervasiveness of the Jewish and Christian scriptures in Western culture, but what is striking is the seemingly endless creativity he brings to rewriting this material. To be sure, this scripture-soaked body of work owes much to the early blues, folk, and gospel traditions he knows so well, a deep knowledge of American musical traditions obvious from any episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour program (2006–2009). This series of radio broadcasts even includes an episode titled “The Bible,” which features a wide array of scripture-inspired recordings by an eclectic mix of performers. There are also literary influences that contribute to Dylan’s writing and inevitably mediate biblical content. In his autobiographical Chronicles, he commits about six pages to describing the contents of a friend’s bookshelves and is quite clear about the importance of reading for his own artistic development: “There was no noise in Ray’s place, just if I’d turn the radio on or listen to records. If not, there was only a graveyard silence and I’d always return to the books … dig through them like an archeologist” (2004a, pp. 39–40). That said, his knowledge of the Bible is not always so indirect. His Jewish upbringing and three months spent at a discipleship school in a California church in the late 1970s—“I went to Bible school,” as he puts it in the song notes for “Gotta Serve Somebody,” included with Biograph (1985)—illustrate something of the breadth and diversity of his exposure to biblical literature and makes clear that his knowledge of the Bible is not only secondhand.
For the purposes of a short introduction, I illustrate a few characteristics of Dylan’s biblically informed writing using two songs that approximately bookend the bulk of his lengthy career. The protest song “With God on Our Side” from 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ includes a startling line about Judas Iscariot, and through it Dylan offers a pointed critique of American foreign policy. “Red River Shore” from 2008’s The Bootleg Series, Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs is a very different song in which the singer only hints at a biblical storyline (a man who raises the dead) that lends gravitas to the lament of an introspective narrator.
The Bible and the Artist: Biographical Considerations.
Before turning to these songs, however, a few words about the relevance (or not) of a songwriter’s biography are in order. To say that audiences were surprised when the Jewish Bob Dylan released Slow Train Coming in 1979, explicitly revealing his fascination with Christianity—and more particularly, his fascination with popular Christian eschatological thought—is an understatement. There is wisdom, however, in avoiding an approach to his music that gives too much attention to speculations about his private life and beliefs. He does not give many interviews that might serve to clarify his views on religion and is reticent to disclose such details when he does. David Dalton’s suggestion that his embrace of Christianity was in part “a transcendent extension of his vision of the outsider as saint, with Christ as the champion of the downtrodden, the outcast, and the lost” (2012, p. 286) rings true and offers a way to think of the music of this period in relation to the rest. It is also useful to locate Dylan’s gospel albums (Slow Train Coming, 1979; Shot of Love, 1980; Saved, 1981) within a musical genre with deep roots in American culture. Just as Dylan explores other American styles such as folk, rock, country, and even Christmas music (Christmas in the Heart, 2009), the gospel albums demonstrate his ability to understand and make diverse musical forms his own. As Sean Wilentz (2010) puts it, he absorbs, transmutes, renews, and improves American art forms “long thought to be trapped in formal conventions.” He has taken “traditional folk music, the blues, rock and roll, country and western, black gospel, Tin Pan Alley, Tex-Mex borderlands music, Irish outlaw ballads, and more and bent them to his own poetic muse” (p. 334). This is helpful when considering how he uses the Bible. There is nothing slavishly straightforward about the way he weaves in its characters, themes, and concepts. Instead, he frequently surprises listeners who recognize biblical sources by taking the imagery in unexpected directions, offering playful or subversive twists on the familiar.
“With God on Our Side” (1964).
A pithy and piercing line from a song recorded by a 22-year-old Bob Dylan reminds us that even our most deeply rooted assumptions potentially rest on questionable foundations. Many are familiar with the story about Judas betraying Jesus Christ with a kiss, thus precipitating events culminating in Jesus’s crucifixion (Matt 26:47–50; Mark 14:43–46; Luke 22:47–48), and it is reasonable to assume that most see this betrayal as an evil act. For this reason, the question Dylan asks is all the more provocative. Did Judas have God on his side? It likely strikes some as an odd question, if not a monstrous one, because the New Testament presents Judas as an enemy of the good, a thief (John 12:6) urged on by the devil (Luke 22:3; John 13:2), whose wickedness resulted in an appropriately gruesome death (Matt 27:5; Acts 1:18). True, it possible to understand Judas as fulfilling a God-ordained role (cf. John 13:18; 17:12), and Jesus, knowing in advance what was about to happen, instructs Judas to proceed with his plan (John 13:27). What choice did Judas have? Add to this that Judas repented and ultimately refused the material reward given to him for his betrayal (Matt 27:3–5) and the fact that great good came out of his collaboration with Jesus’s enemies (i.e., Christ’s death and resurrection and the resulting atonement that is at the heart of Christian belief), and we suddenly have a very different story. At least some writers, ancient (e.g., Gospel of Judas) and modern, consider Judas in a much more positive light. Still, most presumably consider him a classic villain, so even raising the question whether Judas had God on his side is shocking for listeners.
So why does Dylan mention Judas’s kiss and betrayal in the antiwar song “With God on Our Side” from the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’ ? At the very least, it jars the listener into recognizing that things are often muddier than they appear and that our commonplace assumptions about who and what is right and wrong need frequent reevaluation. The song’s narrator recalls being taught to keep the laws of the land confident in the knowledge God was on their side (for the text, see Dylan, 2004b, pp. 85–86). He then recounts the violent history of the country, which includes wars against the land’s original inhabitants, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II, and the Cold War, with its haunting specter of worldwide nuclear conflagration alluded to in words about pushing the button and a shot heard worldwide. When Dylan wrote the song, the Vietnam War was raging and contemporary audiences would not fail to question the wisdom and morality of that conflict alongside these others. Just as seeing merit in Judas’s betrayal is a horrifying thought for many, so too is the suggestion that the nation claiming “in God we trust” might act contrary to that same God’s wishes.
The question about Judas’s betrayal in the penultimate verse complicates the interpretation of the country’s history taught to the narrator since childhood. Is God really on our side? Is the country blameless? Is the nation like Judas (traditionally understood), who is responsible for the death of an innocent man? Or is the nation an instrument in the hands of God, bringing about great good even when use of that instrument results in bloodshed? Dylan tells the audience they need to decide for themselves if God sided with Judas Iscariot and whether the nation’s militarism is just. For his part it appears that a nation with God truly on its side is a nation at peace. If God is with us, he concludes, there would be no more war.
We find in this song a few characteristics of Bob Dylan’s inclusion of biblical references. For one thing, the song only works to the degree that listeners know who Judas and Jesus are and the significance of the one kissing the other. Dylan assumes a general awareness of this story and then reworks it for his rhetorical purposes. The song also illustrates his more subtle uses of the Bible. The title and recurring phrase “With God on Our Side” echoes Paul’s language at Romans 8:31, where readers are to rest assured that God is with them. Things are not so obvious, however, when that theological assertion pertains to a so-called Christian nation, no doubt part of the national mythology instilled in the song’s narrator when taught to be a good citizen. Finally, we do well to remember that though his use of the Judas question is penetrating and devastating in its application, the point of introducing it is not that story in itself. It is a call for peace that calls into question the presumption that political and military might is evidence of divine favor. This is an important caveat when discussing Bob Dylan’s use of the Bible because so much of the literature on this topic assumes that lyrical content is an unambiguous window into the songwriter’s religious views. This is a song about politics, not matters of faith.
“Red River Shore” (2008).
The lesser-known but remarkable “Red River Shore” from The Bootleg Series, Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008) illustrates this characteristic ambiguity. A wistful narrator is cloaked in misery, brooding over memories of a lost love. He conjures her up in each of the song’s eight stanzas with a refrain mentioning this girl from the Red River shore. She spurned his proposal of marriage, but he adores her yet. Tormented by lost opportunity and regret, the smile on his face seems a weak attempt to disguise the hurt, as though he were actually able to take her advice and live out his life without her. Clearly this is not as easy as it sounds.
There is a curious twist in the second-to-last stanza when the lovelorn narrator attempts to find this girl, hoping it is not too late to sort out their differences. Sadly the search proves futile because no one he talks to knows anything about her. Where did she go? Or maybe the question is, did she ever exist? There is a dreamlike quality to the song, suggesting the girl from the Red River shore is in fact a fantasy, another vision-of-Johanna conjuring (see especially the opening stanza, which refers to moonlit encounters with angels and pretty maids).
There is a further twist in the song’s final stanza, one illustrating how Dylan fosters mystery and atmosphere by evoking subtle shades of biblical storylines. The narrator briefly shifts from lament about the long-lost girl and mentions a man in the distant past full of sorrow and strife (cf. Isa 53:3–5) who was able to raise the dead (cf., e.g., Matt 9:24–25; Mark 5:39–42; Luke 7:11–17; 8:52–55; John 11:1–44) before returning to his principal subject. The song ends with the narrator lost in his own dream, his own identity in question every bit as much as the girl’s existence as he wonders if anyone “ever saw me here at all” except that girl from the Red River shore.
As noted, Dylan presupposes a certain amount of cultural capital in his listeners. This song does not explicitly refer to Christ, and even though others in the Bible raise the dead (e.g., 1 Kgs 17:17–22; 2 Kgs 4:32–35; Acts 9:36–41; 20:9–10), it is reasonable to suspect that images of Jesus come to mind for audiences more readily than others, especially since it is a theme elsewhere in Dylan’s catalog (e.g., in different ways, “Dead Man, Dead Man,” Shot of Love, 1975; “Dark Eyes,” Empire Burlesque, 1985). But what do these lines mean? How do they function in the song? This is not the place for an extended commentary, but these intriguing lyrics invite all kinds of possibilities. Is the girl from the Red River shore Christ? Is the Christological imagery only introduced to tell us something about this mysterious girl? Does the illusory nature of this unrequited love reveal something about the narrator’s spirituality, perhaps that love for Christ is equally empty, leaving one feeling jilted, as though “living in the shadow of a fading past”?
The point is that this song and a hundred others like it in the Dylan corpus quote and misquote, allude to and rewrite biblical stories but often cryptically or with an indeterminate sense. This constitutes one of the great pleasures of his songs since listeners are, in effect, invited to explore the possibilities of meaning made possible by his lyrical storytelling.
- Dalton, David. Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan. New York: Hyperion, 2012.
- Dylan, Bob. Chronicles: Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004a.
- Dylan, Bob. Lyrics: 1962–2001. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004b.
- Wilentz, Sean. Bob Dylan in America. New York: Doubleday, 2010.
- Cartwright, Bert. The Bible in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan. Revised and updated. Wanted Man Study Series, no. 4. Bury, U.K.: Wanted Man, 1992.
- Gilmour, Michael J. “Bob Dylan’s Bible.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible, edited by Michael Lieb et al., pp. 355–368. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
- Spargo, R. Clifton, and Anne K. Ream. “Bob Dylan and Religion.” In The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar, pp. 87–99. Cambridge Companions to American Studies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- Webb, Stephen H. Dylan Redeemed: From “Highway 61” to “Saved.” New York: Continuum, 2006.
Michael J. Gilmour