Bob Dylan’s Three angels: its a slog to find it, but there is curious message here

By Tony Attwood

The one thing I know about Three Angels is that they are mentioned in Revelation 14.  And I’m going to deal with this for a moment because in this article I think Dylan might be talking about Revelation, but in a way that really is a bit of a surprise.

So, Revelation 14.

Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people.   

He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath.  They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.

And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

So in short (and I mean no offence by offering a simplified version of the Bible at this point, it is just how I read it), three angels announce the end of the world, and anyone who has not followed God will be tormented for ever.

Seeing this as a central moment in the Bible, the 7th Day Adventist church suggested that the first angel’s message occurred sometime between 1824 and 1844.

Then the second angel’s message was preached in 1844, and by this view should have led to the Second Coming.   The Seventh-day Adventist movement then took it upon themselves to continue preaching the three angels messages, having a God-given mission to preach this particular message to the whole world to join their movement ahead of the Second Coming.

What makes this interesting for me, as an outsider in all this, is the fact that the Adventists state that Sunday is not the Lord’s Day and that those who do worship on a Sunday will receive the mark of the beast once everyone on Earth knows of their message.

So what is Dylan up to here?  One view is that he needed something else to throw into the album, and had nothing so scribbled out this and said to the band, “Just play F, C, Dm G over and over, with a little kitsch hop in between each sequence by throwing an F sharp major chord in – just like they do on those really cheesy songs about a lover being mown down in a car crash on her wedding night.  While you’re doing that I’m going to read these lines I’ve just made up.”

Maybe.  Maybe he was fed up with people interpreting each song as a work of genius, and wondered just how far he could push us before we gave up and admitted he wasn’t doing anything good here.

So he starts off by giving us the Revelations setting…

Three angels up above the street
Each one playing a horn
Dressed in green robes with wings that stick out
They’ve been there since Christmas morn

Then the mundane street scene…

The wildest cat from Montana passes by in a flash
Then a lady in a bright orange dress
One U-Haul trailer, a truck with no wheels
The Tenth Avenue bus going west

Yes it is just everyday stuff, and those three angels are still watching us…

The dogs and pigeons fly up and they flutter around
A man with a badge skips by
Three fellas crawlin’ on their way back to work
Nobody stops to ask why

Now “why?” is one hell of a question.  Why are we here?  Ask that too deeply, and either you end up worshipping God, or you start thinking nothing has any point – unless of course you can find a morality that you believe in, so you seek to change the world to make it better.  If not you have a view that says, “Nothing I do is going to make any difference.  I can’t do any good.  I am going to die in the end, what is the point?”

If you believe in God there is a reason why, although you might not be able to comprehend it.  If you don’t believe there might not be a reason at all, or if there is one, it is as beyond our comprehension at the moment as the workings of a nuclear power station are to a shoal of fish swimming in the warm waters near its outflow.

The bakery truck stops outside of that fence
Where the angels stand high on their poles
The driver peeks out, trying to find one face
In this concrete world full of souls

Now I am confused.  Why are the angels on their poles?  Does it say that in Revelation?  I thought it was one of the few books of the Bible that I knew quite well, but I don’t recall the poles – help me out here please.

But now we come to the last verse, and maybe there is something spookier than I ever imagined…

The angels play on their horns all day
The whole earth in progression seems to pass by
But does anyone hear the music they play
Does anyone even try?

Supposing the whole world turns away from God and no one takes any notice of the Angels.  What then?  Does the world end in Revelation with no one being saved?  Have we all lost the plot?

That is quite a thought, and it is one that crops up in a number of science fiction stories in which the Deity is dependent on the worship of the lesser beings, and withers away when the worship stops.

If that is Dylan’s message here I really do wish he’d managed to find us a tune, and wish he had worked a little harder on the imagery.  It is a fascinating concept and one I am not sure I have heard debated full elsewhere.

But what am I saying?  This is Dylan.  How dare I tell him what to do?  I shall admonish myself at once.

All the songs reviewed on this site.


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11 Responses to Bob Dylan’s Three angels: its a slog to find it, but there is curious message here

  1. Jim Mello says:

    Interesting connection to Seventh Day Adventist theology. That is my tribe. Is it yours?


  2. inthealley says:

    I’ve always felt Bob was describing a real view. He was living in NY at the time, and someone who knows the area being described will have to take further the significance of the wealth of topographical detail, but my take was Bob looked out his window, seeking inspiration, say three angels (perhaps displayed as Christmas decoration) thought of the Biblical connection and extrapolated (!) The angels, I suspect, are plastic, joined together, and playing musical instruments, which will have got Bob interested. To me the basic message coming across is that there is a relationship between the tawdry reality our senses experience and the real world of the spirit, that the former is but a weak indication of the powerful truth contained in the latter, and that as a result most people wander about oblivious to this important (Christian) message. As such I, being a non-believer, see it as a pretty limited song and about as likely to affect your life as “If Dogs Ran Free”.

  3. carl mosk says:

    Your interpretation is interesting. That said, I think you are over-reaching here. The “New Morning” album is all about contrast: country/city; freedom/obligation; day/night; two/three. The last two songs on the album play with this theme. “Father of Night” comes in twos; “Three Angels” comes in threes. “Father of Night” is country, nature, cold/heat; Fall/Spring; night and day. “Three Angels” is all city/concrete, busy. Tellingly the title of the album plays with this: morning is the transition from night to day.

  4. gus triandos says:

    the angels are on poles because they are christmas decorations. and from the first verse you can tell they are up on a house or a building. he’s seeing something real not visions of angels. he’s describing a scene not preaching the end times

  5. Steve Lane says:

    I’ve always seen this song as nothing more than an early morning observation of a city street and the day to day mundane activities after the hype of Christmas – the whole thing unfolding beneath the light pole angel Christmas decorations.

  6. Richard Wells says:

    Maybe he just saw three angles like these, only up on a lamp post in NYC.

  7. Richard Wells says:

    angels, that is.

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    Thanks for the comments about the Xmas decorations and New York.

    It seems this time I’ve really suffered from writing from England and never having been in New York at Christmas.

  9. steve potter says:

    I thought three angels was written for the Archibald mcleish play. Bob backed out of writing the music when the writer/backers etc balked at the three angels songs. Then it was included on new morning

  10. TonyAttwood says:

    Steve, thanks for that. Another fact I didn’t know about this piece.

  11. Alan Graham says:

    This song is about Dylan driving a bakery truck, one of his first jobs when he arrived in New York’s Greenwich Village. He was simply telling us what he saw on his route which included some sort of Christmas Angels display hanging from a building or church..nothing more.

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