Disease of Conceit: Dylan’s interface between what people think and what they do

By Tony Attwood

There are two issues that, for me, dominate any attempt to understand and evaluate this song.

The first is the notion of the concept of “conceit” and the second is the fact that Dylan suggests that the downfall of the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart was the source of his inspiration for this song.

In my first attempt to write this review I started with the Jimmy Swaggart bit, but then got really tangled up and found I couldn’t without looking at the notion of conceit.  So here comes the second edition (the first firmly consigned to the ever growing electronic trash box).  And I will try and show why I think this is indeed where we have to start.

Plus at the very end, come up with a completely different interpretation of the meaning of the song.  Just for the hell of it.

In one sense starting with “conceit” is obvious – it’s in the title.  And it is not a disease.  So from the off Dylan challenges us, which is always a good thing for any writer to do.

My Oxford English Dictionary tells me conceit is an excessively favourable opinion of oneself.  (The original meaning, still sometimes in use in English English is that of a central idea, and conceit in its modern meaning was originally referred to then as “self-conceit”.  The old use still crops up, especially in literary discussions).

So this seems to be Dylan’s central theme.  Conceit seen as a disease, even though in real life it is not a disease.  (Hold that idea, because I will come back to it at the end).

It is a habit of mind, or perhaps a personality trait.  It is much despised in England, where instead modesty in terms of talking about oneself is highly valued and praised, just as modesty in dress is a traditional Christian concept (I seem to recall Paul having a few words to say on the issue).

So conceit is akin to boasting, although “boasting” tends to be more of a one-off.  Conceit is a long term version.

Now this little aside, before we get to the song, is important I feel (having spent a couple of days playing with these ideas) because of what happens when we relate the song to Jimmy Swaggart.  If you are fully familiar with Swaggart forgive me for a moment while I do a quick resume.  (His antics had little impact in the UK, where the tradition of his type of preaching has very little impact).

From the story as I read it, Swaggart is an evangelist, which is to say, a person who steps out to convert people to Christianity generally through public preaching (which could be in public, or on TV or on the internet).

So where does the conceit come in?  After all, lots of people are evangelists, be it for Christianity or any other religion.  Few people, I suspect, really suggest that calling oneself an evangelist is conceited in the modern sense.

What resolved this issue for me (for as I have mentioned, being in Europe I have little insight into what the whole evangelical movement of parts of the US is like) came when I went to have a look at Jimmy Swaggart’s web site, where there is the banner heading

The anointed teaching, preaching and music of Jimmy Swaggart

Now that is interesting, because “anointing” in this context means (again according to my Oxford English Dictionary) “ceremonially conferring divine or holy office”.

I’m not going to try and push this too far – I don’t really know how and where Swaggart thinks he was anointed by the Almighty, but here is the link to conceit.  Jimmy Swaggart seems to suggest through the use of the word “anointed” that he has had divine or holy office thrust upon him; he has been selected.

This makes all the difference to the reading of the song because this is where some people would consider Swaggart full of conceit.

I’ve taken up a fair amount of space on this because I think some may have thought that Dylan, in mentioning Swaggart, was speaking of his fall from grace through cavorting with prostitutes while making public the similar behaviour of other ministers of religion.  But reprehensible though all that may well be, that isn’t conceit.  Nor, in many parts of the world is paying for sex.  No, the conceit comes from the belief that one is anointed or chosen from on high to be the representative of the Superior Being, our Lord or whatever word you wish to use, on Earth.

I mean, I do sometimes let slip that I think I’ve a fairly decent writer (but then can go through long periods of doubt when I think most of my output is fairly feeble), but that is nothing compared with saying that one has been chosen from on high to be one of the people who should tell the rest of the world how to behave.

OK, that was a long ramble, but it aims to suggest that if the connection with the song is Swaggart, then it is Swaggart’s assertion that he is anointed that got Dylan moved, not Swaggart’s sexual indiscretions or his subsequent lies.

Swaggart, before his downfall, ran his own ministry, and spent a lot of time on television running courses and the like, and was, as far as I know, one of the biggest of the on-air preachers.  And one day he revealed that Marvin Gorman, who was also a minister in the Assemblies of God, had had several affairs. Gorman was subsequently removed from the church.

Gorman retaliated and got his son to watch a Travel Inn which Swaggart was known to use, and took pictures of Swaggart meeting with a prostitute.

It is then said that Swaggart promised to get Gorman reinstated into the church (which presumably Swaggart thought he could do, as he was the anointed representative on God on earth) if Gorman remained silent about what he had found Swaggart doing.

But, so the story goes, Swaggart didn’t deliver and in February 1988, Gorman exposed Swaggart where pictures were presented.  Swaggart was suspended from the church and did a live “I have sinned” speech on TV, confessing his sins.  He was defrocked, at first for two years and then permanently.  He then moved on to become an independent preacher.

Now for most of us that would probably be that.  We’ve been caught out and it is time to hide, and maybe beg forgiveness from one’s family.

But no, for in October 1991 Swaggart was found with another prostitute.  When challenged by his church he is reported to have said, “The Lord told me it’s flat none of your business,” and he stepped down from the church.

Now that, for me, is something else.  A direct line from God.  Wow.

And so we get the issues of delusions of grandeur that merge with conceit, and which are central to the song, perhaps with a link back and forth to “The Man With The Black Coat,” “What good am I?” and “What was it you wanted?”   They are all looking at the interface between what people think and what they do.

Disease of conceit is written in C major, a key that is often used for grand musical statements, and Dylan is certainly very clear in this song, expressing his condemnation of the disease very clearly.  There’s no a hint of the blues chords here at all, no reference to the world of rock n roll, of problems with women; this is a grand statement of right and wrong on a global scale, and the way some people really think they are above everyone else and able to tell the rest of us what to do.

Which in turns gives an interesting interaction with “What good am I, if I’m like all the rest?”   What Dylan is saying, it seems to me, is that telling others how to behave is not what it is about at all.  Being a good person is about being there for people who matter to you.  When you are asked to do a favour for a person who needs your help, you do it.  That is what matters, not all this TV preaching stuff.

But it goes further, I think.  Remember…

Yes, just a little time is all you need, you might say, but I don’t know ’bout that any more, because later on you might want to enter it, but, of course, the door might be closed. But I just would like to tell you one time, if I don’t see you again, that the thing is, that the sign on the cross is the thing you might need the most. 

That is part of “Sign on the cross” which I’ve reviewed earlier at length.  In thinking of Dylan’s relationship with evangelical preachers it is worth taking a trip back to that song as well.

Overall I began, in considering this song, to reach the conclusion that Dylan really dislikes conceit in people – not just in terms of Swaggart or fallen evangelists, not just in terms of individuals, but in terms particularly of people in power who have a vision that they can put things right.

Politicians have often been portrayed in this way in Dylan, and having seen Dylan perform this song where he changed the way he was emphasising each line of this song, I got the impression he was not saying, “you are all conceited” to the audience, but rather “watch out – it is everywhere.”  Back to the days of “don’t follow leaders”.   That certainly makes sense of

There’s a whole lot of people suffering tonight
From the disease of conceit

But then I began to wonder what is going on.  “Dying?”  Consider what happens next

Comes right out of nowhere
And you’re down for the count

No it doesn’t.  Not at all.  People who are conceited are conceited all the time.  They become that way either because their personality tips them in that direction or because they have learned conceited behaviour from parents or teachers, or all of that.  You don’t get an ordinary regular person who is gentle and kind suddenly becoming conceited.

Then in the middle 8 Dylan tells us

Conceit is a disease
That the doctors got no cure
They’ve done a lot of research on it
But what it is, they’re still not sure

Now poetically the songwriter can always get away with a lot but this looks like a horrible throw-away four-liner, the sort of thing a very very very minor songwriter like me wouldn’t even bother to write in the notebook for changing later.

The point is that the notion of the disease is one that grabs our attention, yes.  That’s fine.  But then taking the notion of disease literally without giving any more insight or thought is just, well, nothing.   One might say, “our entire country is being brought down by the disease of conceit” and then go on to say it is central to the workings of the political class, but this gets us nowhere.


Unless Dylan is saying that religion – the belief in a Superior Being who wants us to behave in a certain way – is conceited, because it takes mankind up to a level of importance which is nonsensical.  We are just evolved life forms with a propensity for hurting each other and mucking up the planet.  And yet we believe we are somehow special and being watched by God.

Yes that is conceit.

I wonder.  Was that what was on Dylan’s mind?  Hold that thought and try this

Whole lot of people seeing double tonight
From the disease of conceit
Give ya delusions of grandeur
And a evil eye
Give you the idea that
You’re too good to die
Then they bury you from your head to your feet
From the disease of conceit

It took me a long time to get there, but well, it fits.  We think we’re special but we’re not.  We’re just the generation that screwed up the whole planet with two world wars, climate change, and economic ruin.  And we still think we’re clever.  That’s the disease of conceit.  It is inside all of us.

If you’ve have been, thanks for reading.

An index of all the songs reviewed on this site.

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3 Responses to Disease of Conceit: Dylan’s interface between what people think and what they do

  1. hudson says:

    a conceit is also an extended metaphor

    if you extend a metaphor too far, i guess you turn it into something different completely. a lie?

    but one man’s poison can be another man’s medicine, so…

  2. Pamela Balch says:

    Tony, I enjoy your blog, especially when you sleuth out historical references. The Swaggart fiasco. I reread in Chronicles where Bob described how he came to write this song. You made a lot of points that I would come down differently on, but bottom line to me is this: I think what Bob was suggesting is there is a type of conceit that says I am immune to failure or downfall—too good, too smart, too successful. But the takeaway from the song for at least the spiritual person if not everybody is watch out, be wary. Swaggart seems not to have seen catastrophic temptation (procuring the services of prostitutes) coming. It came “right out of nowhere.” It “ripped into his senses, through his body and his mind,” “stepped into his room, ate his soul, over his senses he had no control.” It was ugly, indiscreet. Then the horrible consequences: “the pressure will mount, turn you into a piece of meat.” He seemed to get the idea “he was too good to die, then they buried him from his head to his feet.” Public relations death. Untold damage to his audience members. His credibility decimated. But such things can happen to anyone, not just a televangelist. One other different perspective: I don’t think there is any conceit in thinking you are important to someone who loves you. The Bible tells us God loves us, not because there’s anything special about us, but because it’s his nature to love unconditionally. No one is going to get the height, depth, and width of his love in this lifetime but it’s better to lean into it and let it give you hope than to disbelieve it. But you’re right, the disease of conceit is inside all of us. Humility is the road back to health. Thanks for your thoughts and for the opportunity to comment.

  3. Mike Crowley says:

    Beautiful and passionate. This song was in my dream last night and I looked up the lyrics and found your commentary.

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