With God on our side: The Patriot Game. The meanings and the music

By Tony Attwood

All music evokes an emotional response, which of course means it evokes a personal response, and I am always suspicious of people who try to remove their personal views from commentaries on music, writing as if their view was some sort of universal revelation about the music.

Nowhere is this more true for me than “With God on our Side” which has a melody and structure which appeared in the song The Patriot Game.  This song itself had two origins – one being the most famous phrases of Dr Johnson, and the other being the traditional song The Merry Month of May.  So by the time With God on our Side came along we had a borrowing of a borrowing of a borrowing of….

The problem we have here is that the linkage between Dylan’s song and the Patriot Game is not just the music, but also within the detail of the lyrics, for the second verse of the Patriot Game runs…

My name is O’Hanlon, and I’ve just turned sixteen.
My home is in Monaghan, where I was weaned.
I learned all my life cruel England to blame,
So now I am part of the patriot game.

Which was why Dominic Behan, who wrote Patriot Game, got so annoyed with Dylan’s God on our Side and called Dylan’s song a parody.  It wasn’t so much that Dylan took the song, because Dominic Behan did that too, it was the similarity of the lyrics transmuting the Irish struggle into… what?  Certainly not an American struggle because there is no struggle going on here – America just defeats everyone who gets in the way.

So let’s backtrack a bit to get some perspective.

Samuel Johnson was one of the great literary figures of 18th century England, who wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, the first modern styled English dictionary.  His sayings are spread throughout our language (at least in England) including perhaps most famously, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” (1775).  Dylan obviously knew this (but then everyone who is interested in English literature far and wide knows it I think) for he used it in Sweetheart like you:

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king

It is that verse, so close to the original that makes it difficult for me to see this as the serious commentary demanding wholesale analysis, that others see.

I heard a lot of the traditional Irish and English songs in my childhood, coming as I did from a working class musical background, and they always stayed with me.  Indeed in the late 1970s I wrote a series of adaptations of pop and folk songs for use in schools, which Oxford University Press published across three volumes.  It was my big breakthrough as a writer/musician – and interestingly (for me at least) it contained three Dylan songs (I negotiated the rights myself, and Dylan’s negotiators were incredibly reasonable in their fee request).

The Patriot Game and God on our Side, were of course far too political to be included in a book of songs that could be used in school, but I knew The Patriot Game and was saddened when I heard God on our Side for the first time.  I admired the lyrical dexterity of the song, but still kept thinking – surely someone as talented as Dylan doesn’t need an old song and adapted lyrics transposed into a simplistic commentary on patriotism.  Has he really run out of ideas?

Appreciating as I do that this site is read in Ireland and the USA as much as in my native England, there is no way I am going to try and explain the Border Campaign of the IRA in the 1950s, which is the heart of Patriot Game because if I try I am going to fail horribly.  But if I may I would say that the understanding of what happened then, and throughout “The Troubles” is utterly different in each country.  That does not mean that I suggest the standard English position is right – it’s just it would take me 20,000 words to cover the basic outline and I’d still get it all horribly wrong.

But if you have never heard The Patriot Game, I would urge you to listen, at least just once, to understand what Dylan heard and where he took the piece.

Here’s two very different versions on the internet at the time of writing

Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing,
For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame,
And it makes us all part of the patriot game.

And the core of the message that comes a little later…

It’s nearly two years since I wandered away,
With the local battalion of the bold IRA,
I’ve read of our heroes, and I wanted the same,
To play out my part in the patriot game.

I think the problem is that this was just about the most famous song from the Troubles (at least as far as I was concerned living in England).  Even Judy Collins recorded it, which surprised me when I heard it.

So how does one review a song when it is so tangled up with another song and a famous phrase that one has heard with other associations?

Of course one of the big problems from an English point of view is that Dylan tells history from an American point of view.  I know what the “Midwest” is, but I didn’t really grasp its full implication back then any more than the average American teenager probably understands the nuances behind the phrase “Home Counties” or “Black Country”.  Besides my knowledge of cavalries and Indians comes from black and white western films on TV.  Hardly a good source of instructive history.

Dylan did however do the true folk song thing of updating the song as he went along, later adding…

In the nineteen-sixties came the Vietnam War
Can somebody tell me what we’re fightin’ for?
So many young men died
So many mothers cried
Now I ask the question
Was God on our side?

However, as many have said, God on our Side confronts the US with its own past of violence and aggression and laughs at it being God’s Chosen nation.  And that is good, as would be any song that hit out at English pretentiousness in the same regard.   Once you believe in your absolute right, then your are doomed.

Indeed there is a relevance now in England as the government the year dictated that teachers have to teach “British Values”.  The problem is not just the notion that we should need to teach “British Values” but rather the notion that a government elected by a minority can define what these values are.  A few weeks ago I wrote an article outlining my concern with the government’s “British Values” and saying we should add to their list such things as adventurousness, creativity, exploration and a willingness to stand up to and question authority and pretension.  I got more emails supporting that point than I’ve ever had on any piece about schooling I’ve ever written.

The problem is that if you put a lot of people together who consider being law abiding as what all decent people should be, they start to get nationalistic, and the right of individuals to live their own idiosyncratic life drifts away.  The Drifter becomes not just a wandering outsider but a man to be arrested, put on trial, and convicted by a jury more concerned with its own world vision than anything the Drifter has ever done.

But this is not to say that I don’t admire the song.  Lines like Oh the country was young, with God on its side as an excuse for genocide is well founded, not least because of Psalm 25:7: “Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions”.

You see I absolutely 100% cannot go along with that.  There are many things you can excuse because of one’s youth, but many that you can’t.

But just as I can’t go along with the simplicity of the Psalms, nor can I with the simplicity of Dylan in the lines

Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side

There are uncles that I never knew because they were lost in the second world war, and my father served on the front line in France and was one of those men who would never ever speak of the war thereafter when I asked.  But still I would have fought Nazism had I been called.  And until recently the guy I sat next to at football matches in London is a German and we both stood side by side on Remembrance Sunday before a game to pay respect to the fallen.  These are too complex a set of issues to be reduced to simple lines.

In the sense that Dylan is saying that history is far too complex to be simplified into school one-liners I am with him, but somehow the way he is saying it seems still too simple for the complexity of the subject matter.

So when I read that “With God on Our Side is one of Bob Dylan’s most devastating songs of social protest I have to defer.  The song is copied, the starting point of the lyrics come from another song, and it deals in a simplistic way with horrifically complex issues.  The concept that a nation has God on its side is patently laughable and so even from the off the song fails.

The fact that the 1995 version Dylan got rid of the Russians verse also shows me something within the underlying meaning is wrong.   Maybe the whole issue of God’s pre-cognition is just too complex for folk song structures. Or maybe it is so utterly obvious to me that God is not on our side because there is no God, I just cant value this song.

I suppose it is far more likely that I just don’t get “God on our side” in the same way that I don’t get”God Bless America” or “God Save the Queen” given the context of what I perceive the USA as having done to the Indians, or the British having done to the native Australians or the horror we managed to create in South Africa, which we then abandoned in 1910 to its fate.

At least the Irish national anthem, as I understand it, doesn’t give us God on the side of the Irish.

We’ll sing a song, a soldier’s song,
With cheering rousing chorus,
As round our blazing fires we throng,
The starry heavens o’er us;
Impatient for the coming fight,
And as we wait the morning’s light,
Here in the silence of the night,
We’ll chant a soldier’s song.

At least that seems to reflect the founding of the modern nation.

On September 25th, 2001, Dylan did an interview for Rolling Stone Love And Theft, and said

You hear a lot about God these days: God the beneficent; God, the all-great; God the Almighty; God the most powerful; God the giver of life; God the creator of death. I mean, we’re hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary.

Is that at last a clue?  If God is arbitrary then life is chance.  Now that I can cope with.

And suddenly I can recast the whole song.  It is not With God on our Side but rather When the dice rolls in our favour.

Here, finally, it all makes sense.  Life as chance.  Yep, I can go with that.  Dylan was making fun of Dominic Behan by re-using the song he had used and some of his lines, and he’s also pointing out that God’s pre-cognition makes no sense at all in a world that has had such madness as the 3rd Reich, South African apartheid…

And with that thought I offer three versions….

Famous Tonight version (from a classic BBC TV early evening news and review programme of the 1960s – although it is only a partial version).

Vimeo version – with ever changing guitar rhythms

Live version – much later interesting re-working with much of the melody gone.

All the reviews on Untold Dylan


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10 Responses to With God on our side: The Patriot Game. The meanings and the music

  1. Sam Chianello says:

    Tony’s review again proves insightful to say the least. It was on Aug 28 1963
    during the Lincoln Memorial-March on Washington (Washington Rights March), I heard it sung. (Its was featured on one of the alphabet television networks news broadcasts). As I recall, my parents watching , were offended by such iconoclastic sentiment presented over the airwaves. At the time it was considered rude. Of course God is on our side- it goes without saying…so they believed. Anyone who believed America was anything less than righteous, must be atheist, communist or similar low-life. But later that year we experienced a horrific assassination of our President, and then all of the sudden, we began to question “Whose side is God really on”?

  2. Francois says:

    Dylan sang this song for the last time on Sept.23, 1995, and before that in December 1988, he knows it’s a bit simplistic…
    Thanks for your well-informed review.

  3. Michael Schaefer says:

    Listing the atrocities done in the name of God, even to man selecting whose side God is on for Him (viz., post-war Germany good-buddies), could only point to the opposite truth that man excuses himself his inhuman behavior towards other “kinds” by bolstering his bad conscience (if he ever has one) on his un-Godly/un-Christian baseness by appropriating Divine permission. The worst has been done in the name of God by reprobates.
    You acknowledge that point in your review. But then you spend more time it seems to me arguing that he meant it non-ironically or literally (viz, your comments on Germany and on your take on the faults of youth). The song is simplistic in that it templates events in three lines: but the fact that Sam commented that righteous Americans at the time considered the song “rude” indicates that not enough people saw through the hoax. The song merely rubs it in their face. And maybe at the time, pointedly made the victims aware that their oppressors were emperors with no clothes (viz.,the civil rights movement portrayed as un-American.) Or at least merely wearing the Flag.
    And maybe The Trouble fit that template as well. God/Allah is still being appropriated today. And we still do not get it.

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Thanks for your kind comments Sam. Much appreciated.

  5. dss says:

    “Lines like Oh the country was young, with God on its side as an excuse for genocide is well founded…”

    Are you saying that Dylan meant those words to be taken at face value? Because he clearly does not believe that was a good excuse for genocide (if one could possibly exist). But that is that excuse that he would have read in high school history books. Ditto for the Germans. He is not saying we should all still hate the Germans. He is saying that, wars over and now they are our friends so God must love them too, is a absurd attitude. This attitude is still pervasive today. Every time we support some despot dictator because he supports us. Every time someone uses the phrase “American Exceptionalism” they are basically saying everything we do is right. Or God is on our Side. An attitude that this is a protest against.

    You are reading more simplistically than the song itself.

  6. Shabtai Shacham says:

    Hi Tony
    Few points:
    1. Although Dylan lyrics may be originated from the Irish poem, the songs meaning is completely different.
    2. The expression “God is on our side” , should not be taken on its face value. It is used to ridicule the stupid state of mind of America going to each and every war , seriously believing if not in representing God will , then in being absolutely the right side .
    3. Dylan theme is confronting America ( and many other countries) with the wars endless stupidity, absurdity and futility combined with righteousness and very often racism and extreme nationalism. This song drives this message extremely well, and it did not lose it relevancy with time. The fact that America continues to go to stupid wars – Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, with the same notion that “God is on our side”, demonstrates the song classic value.
    4. Don’t forget that Dylan was 23 years old when he wrote it.

  7. Pamela says:

    Hi Tony,
    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I listened to “Patriot Game.” What a beautiful song of the fervor of brave, young, idealistic soldiers, commemorating history that sounds like it’s still important to the Irish and the English alike. I can see how people’s toes might feel stepped on by a brash, young Bob Dylan’s borrowing this very song to strip the honor away from the enterprise of war, sneering at any sense of its rightness as so much bunk and a disgrace, in “With God on our Side.”
    So why did he do it? Well, maybe if you’re going to write an anti-war song, you would just get to the point by digging right into a song expressing the reverence for the justness of the fight so poignantly. Would it not be the perfect backdrop to express a different point of view on it all? It seems as if on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, in the early sixties, the strength of anti-war sentiment might have outweighed other considerations.
    But at any rate, I myself don’t see that he took anything away from “Patriot Game.” It’s a great song and he’s always seemed to respect other people’s songs. And regardless, a person really ought to attend to “With God on our Side” for its own merits. It raises a lot of big social and theological questions. They’ve been sitting in the background for me but now you’ve gotten me intrigued.
    May I share some thoughts? Please allow me to assume for the sake of argument that God exists and is involved in human affairs. First, individual soldiers engaged in a conflict do need to believe in their cause (but how tragic to fight, kill, risk your own life, perhaps lose a limb, all for a cause that is widely regarded as unjust). And some also need very much to believe God is with them because they are only a breath away from death all the time. We have heard of the foxhole convert. It sure is easier to believe in God when you’re in desperate need. This, of course, applies to soldiers on both sides of any conflict. So if God has his eye on the sparrow and intimately knows every human being who cries out to him for help, then we could say he is in a sense on everybody’s side—at least he cares for every individual soldier, and for every family member hoping and praying for the safe return of their loved one.
    But what about when we back up and look at the big picture of any armed conflict? Of course when atrocities are being committed by one side, we could assume a just God would naturally be on the other side; e.g. on the side of the Allies in WWII. But often it’s a lot less clear which side may be just or unjust. It seems more about the exercise of power than about a struggle between right and wrong, if we’re honest. So why would God be on either side? Wouldn’t that be one implication of Dylan’s song? And as you point out, sometimes the issues are hopelessly complicated. I myself can’t work up a desire to sort it all out. “The confusion I’m feelin’ ain’t no tongue can tell.” Other people are deeply invested in one point of view or another. Pragmatically though, probably there is some wrong and some right on both sides of most conflicts. So which wrongs and which rights are the significant ones? (Does it even matter much? Would God care?)
    I don’t know how Bob Dylan felt about God at age 22—I think maybe he was just keying in on the assumption of cultures that claim to be God-fearing that God is naturally going to validate their position in a conflict, which seems baseless looking at history. God doesn’t have much of a record of getting dragged into conflicts on one side or another. Yet in Scripture there are many accounts of God helping a particular side for his own purposes, which transcend the immediate human affairs and concerns.
    It helps me to think in terms of actual people. God deeply loves individual souls and abhors injustice. He can reconcile these two feelings (as humans have difficulty doing). He can support those suffering injustice and oppose wrongdoers, and still be for individuals on both sides as far as their ultimate good is concerned. He can also say to both, in the still, small voice in the heart, if people quiet down enough to hear it, “Stop fighting—it’s not worth the cost.” This is easier to see in conflicts between individuals, but I imagine it’s true of national conflicts as well.
    Two interesting passages in Scripture come to mind. In Joshua 5:13-14, Joshua unexpectedly encounters a strange man on the eve of a big military showdown. He asks, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” The man replies, “No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the Lord.” Joshua immediately realizes it IS the Lord. The host of the Lord is the force that is going to carry the day, yet the Lord seems to indicate he is above the respective sides even though it’s a historically important conflict (the conquest of Jericho, which is strategically essential for the establishment of Israel, and is also, after 400 years of impending judgment of the wicked Canaanite nations, the falling of the axe at long last).
    The other passage is Habbakuk 1-2, where the prophet sees the injustice of his own nation and asks why God does nothing about it. God assures him he is indeed bringing a powerful enemy, Babylon, to destroy this unjust nation. Whereupon the prophet expresses confusion and dismay that God would use a nation far worse than his own to right the wrong! God’s response is that Babylon in turn will also receive the justice due it. From this we can discern that the nations serve God’s purposes, rather than God serving theirs. This idea is found in many other Scripture passages too.
    Nations are not in the same position as individuals relative to God. They come and go. They are not in themselves the objects of God’s love and care. People are. People have an eternal existence after this life. Nations are large and powerful, but they are not eternal, except for the one small nation God chose to be his own people, Israel. (God has a covenant relationship with Israel, and it has a special place in his whole plan for human history.) God loves those who at some point come to a place of trusting in him personally, both Jews and Gentiles, and even if they have not fully understood it, they are redeemed through Jesus. Consequently, because of this eternal love relationship, God is in a sense always on their side—but like a good parent, does not support their every aim, because some are misguided or short-sighted or actually flat-out wrong.
    The prophet Daniel had a vision of nations as savage beasts (Daniel 7). As impressive as they may be, they are not altogether to be trusted. Perhaps it’s because those in the seats of power are easily corrupted. (Of course this is not to take away from the genuine worthiness of good public servants.)
    Finally, the prophet Isaiah sees the nations as lighter than dust (Isaiah 40:15)—barely significant at all in the great scope of God’s righteous and transcendent story. What claim can they have that God is on their side, then? Perhaps this is a corollary to the thoughts in “With God on our Side.” In amazing contrast, every individual person who trusts in God and humbles himself before God is loved as God’s own child. Love tips the scale. An individual is worth more than a nation.
    “For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely his.” (2 Chronicles 16:9.)
    The ways of God are hard for humans to understand. You mentioned Dylan’s calling God arbitrary in the 2001 RS interview. (Thanks—that was a good read.) Arbitrary is a good word if there isn’t a clue what God is doing. But suppose that at least on an individual level, God is both seeing deeper into people’s hearts than they can see themselves, and that he is taking the long, long view on everything (would we really expect less of God?). We are looking at the short view that we can see, and the superficial view that conveniently excuses our misdeeds and fixates on someone else’s misdeeds. The actions of God seem inexplicable because they don’t address the immediate situation in ways that satisfy us.
    Thanks for allowing me to share this. And keep up the great work! I’m a faithful reader of your blog.

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    No Pamela I should thank you. I shall highlight your comment on the home page, as I feel it should be shared with the widest audience. It really is good of you to choose this forum to write in such detail.

  9. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/761/With-God-on-Our-Side (Additional Information)

  10. Jordan says:

    I don’t know who you could take the line “with God on our side” seriously. This is sarcastic song through and through.

    “Or maybe it is so utterly obvious to me that God is not on our side because there is no God, I just cant value this song.”

    That’s the line that set me off that you’ve missed the utterly obvious in this song. I mean, “you never ask questions when God’s on your side”, “you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.” This not a song that’s talking favourably about having “God on your side.”

    I love reading people’s takes on Bob Dylan songs but as often happens people take his lyrics as a type of scripture and squeeze them till the “truth” drips out. This truth is made up by the interpreter. If you’ve ever written a song you know that you’re not thinking about the things that someone writing an essay on your song is going to pull up.

    I appreciate your passion for Dylan but we disagree on some points. Thanks for writing either way.

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