Sunday with Prophet Bob

Last night, after helping get the kids to bed, I went to a Bob Dylan concert. I’ve never been to a rock concert on a Sunday before, but I made an exception for Dylan. I’ve had to pass up seeing him on several other prior occasions because of finals, work, or because the show was on a Sunday. But I just couldn’t bring myself to miss him again. I don’t regret it.

Dylan put on amazing show. The setlist (see it here) was well-balanced between new songs (“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum�; “Lonesome Day Blues�; “Trying to Get to Heaven�), mid-career greats (“Forever Young�, “If You See Her, Say Hello�) and the early classics that forever changed rock and roll (“Like a Rolling Stone�, “Desolation Row�, “Highway 61 Revisited�, “All Along the Watchtower�). Dylan was hunched over his keyboard most of the night, and didn’t say a word to the adoring packed house except to introduce his band. But Dylan has always let his compositions speak for him.

I’m no Dylan scholar (there are such things, you know) but it seems to me that Dylan is one of the great prophet-poets of our era, at least. Let me try to make a (very abbreviated) case.

First of all, Dylan was the forerunner, if not the (reluctant) de facto leader, of one of the most successful mass movements of the last century. 1962’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,â€? it has been argued, ushered in, or at least catalyzed, the peace movement in the early sixties. In addition to being one of the first songs to politicize rock and roll (and with it, youth culture), the text of that song helped facilitate the unification of the cresting black civil rights movement and the nascent white anti-war movement by equating militarism, authoritarianism, and racism. It’s not in the history books, but Dylan and his acolytes performed during the 1963 March on Washington, better known as the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

But even apart from its real world effects on culture and politics, Dylan’s work fares quite well as prophetic texts. In his classic book, The Prophets, Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel writes:

What manner of man is the prophet? A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum. They make much ado about paltry things, lavishing excessive language upon trifling subjects. What if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? So what if some old women found pleasure and edification in worshiping “the Queen of Heaven”? Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation?

I think this description fits Dylan’s work quite well. Songs like “Masters of War� condemn the powers that be in the harshest terms imaginable. Songs like “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall� and “The Times They Are A-Changin’� foresee coming upheaval and calamity, and tell us to change our ways. There are more hopeful songs (“When the Ship Comes In�), and songs that speak of visions (“Visions of Johanna�). And there are songs that simply witness and bemoan injustice (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll�; “Hurricane�).

Dylan, of course, would protest this kind of analysis. I think that’s what his “It Ain’t Me, Babeâ€? is all about. He’s always claimed to be nothing more than a “song and dance man.â€? And if you’ve seen D.A. Pennebaker’s ur-documentary Don’t Look Back, you know Dylan could be petulant and condescending and small-minded. So perhaps he shouldn’t be given the noble label of “prophet” — perhaps he’s just a clever enough writer to keep his songs enigmatic and challenging. Perhaps I’m just trying to justify the fact that I went to a rock concert on a Sunday. You tell me.

15 comments for “Sunday with Prophet Bob

  1. I should know more about Bob Dylan. He’s sort of like Dostoevsky for me. Every five years or so I’ll attempt a re-read of Brothers Karamazov and about every five years or so I give Bob Dylan a try. I’m always impressed but I can’t get into as much as I know I should. If my heart was truly right with the Lord, I’d own every Bob Dylan album and have memorized all of his lyrics (as I did with the Beatles many years ago).

    If I’m recalling correctly (this is always a question for me, if you haven’t noticed) Bob Dylan started out as Jewish fellow named Robert Zimmerman. He also had a born-again Christian phase I believe. And then he might have stopped being a born-again Christian. I can’t be sure.

    One of my favorite Bob Dylan phases is the turn he did with the Traveling Wilburys. Awesome stuff. Anytime you can get George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan in the same room, do it … especially if all three of them are still alive. I wish Bob wasn’t the only one of those three still around.

  2. Greg,
    Maybe Dylan “could be petulant and condescending and small-minded,” but my reading of holy writ suggests that some prophets had worse vices and personality quircks! I think your instinct is correct to not let his prickliness derail your argument about his being a prophet of sorts.

  3. Danithew: Get Right With God!! Beg, borrow, or steal the holy triumvirate of “Blonde on Blonde”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Bringing it All Back Home.”

    DeRucci: You are right, of course. As with scriptural prophets, his quirks only makes him more persuasive and engaging.

  4. Greg,

    I like the story songs the best. No one tells a story like Dylan. (Though sometimes Billy Joel gives him a good run for the money). Right now, my favorite Dylan song is alternating between “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm,” both of which have great lyrics. I mean, how can you _not_ like lyrics like these:

    Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
    But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts
    And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn.
    “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

  5. Amen- see him if you can; before its too late. I have seen him several times over the years, every show is a treat, especially trying to figure out what song he is starting to sing. I quoted him during a sacrament talk once, just crediting “a philosopher once said…”

  6. I recall seeing some ads on the internet for a movie starring a ton of well-known actors with Dylan playing the President of the US, or something like that. I never heard anything else about it, though. Anyone know what I’m talking about, and if so, have a take on if it was any good?

  7. Greg,

    I have finally begun my penance and am returning to the right and true way. Or maybe this will be the first time. I am now listening to my first ever purchased Bob Dylan album: “Blonde on Blonde.”

    I have a LOT of listening ahead of me. But right now I’m getting a kick out of the following lyric:

    Well, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
    Yes, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
    Well, you must tell me, baby
    How your head feels under somethin’ like that
    Under your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.

    And my wife just informed me that she has a ten-dollar barnes and noble gift card for me. So I think the next Bob Dylan album purchase will be “Highway 61 Revisited.”


  8. You done good. Real good. “Stuck Inside of Mobile…” is my personal favorite on “Blonde.”

  9. Greg, I think you’re right that “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues” is one of the best songs on a very solid album.

    The lyrical line that most gets my attention so far is at the beginning of “Visions of Johanna”:

    “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?”

    His intonation on that is really unusually good. In fact its Dylan’s unusual delivery of his words that keeps impressing me over and over again. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it before.

  10. Greg,

    I’ve been reading Bob Dylan lyrics and I’m wondering if there’s a lyrics book out there that also offers commentary on what the lyrics mean. I’m trying to decide whether some of these words I’m reading are merely whimsical or if they have some kind of intended meaning. Are you aware of anything like this out there?

    Here’s an example of some lines I’m wondering about (from the song “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”):

    Oh, the ragman draws circles
    Up and down the block.
    I’d ask him what the matter was
    But I know that he don’t talk.
    And the ladies treat me kindly
    And furnish me with tape,
    But deep inside my heart
    I know I can’t escape.
    Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
    To be stuck inside of Mobile
    With the Memphis blues again.

    It’s the “furnish me with tape” line that’s got me wondering what he’s talking about … but maybe the whole thing is a bit of a riddle.

  11. Hi Danithew,

    I hadn’t seen this comment. There are certainly books out there; Dylan interpretation is a thriving cottage industry. In the post above I linked to one of the more recent, and scholarly, analyses of Dylan’s work (by an Oxford Professor of Poetry). I have one Dylan book, called “Prophecy in the Christian Era.” It’s an analysis of Dylan’s early period songs, comparing him to Dante and Blake. It’s fun for what it is. Here’s a list of 108 books about Dylan:

    I think most of Dylan’s obscure lyrics are not intended to have deep meaning. That’s what Dylan says anyway. But sometimes I’m not so sure. His later stuff is more straightforward — it’s well accepted that Blood on the Tracks, for example, is a meditation on his divorce.

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