The Wicked Messenger: Dylan, the Bible, confusion and bounce. The meaning of the lyrics and the music.

By Tony Attwood

In considering the Wicked Messenger Heylin cites a critic who once had the nerve to ask Dylan if he only wrote Dear Landlord so he could get to sing the final lines.

And if you don’t underestimate me
I won’t underestimate you

Heylin then makes the rather good point that the critic could have used the same tactic with Wicked Messenger which ends

And he was told but these few words
Which opened up his heart
“If ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any”

As noted in other reviews, Dylan wrote all his lyrics out first on this album and then found simple tunes to fit them.  It is also a salient point that he wrote the lyrics very quickly, saying in several interviews that he didn’t really want to make an album at this time.  And it is not too big a leap to think that these interesting end lines could well have come first.  Certainly many songwriters do find lines of lyrics that interest them and then work a song up to include them, often using the whole song to lead up to the key phrase.

And here, we may also note, we have a song that, although it goes beyond the one line of music used in Drifter’s Escape, is limited effectively to one and a half lines of music, with the first two lines of lyric having almost the same melody and chords as the final concluding line with just a variation at the end.

I think every reviewer has noted Proverbs 13:17: “A wicked messenger falleth into mischief: but a faithful ambassador is health,” as a source. Eli was, according to the Book of Samuel, a High Priest of Shiloh.  Shiloh is the ancient Biblical city where Khirbet Seilun stands today – although I am not too sure what that knowledge tells us.

But this takes us into a religious explanation for the song.  And yet, and yet…

Religion is always, in part, about good and evil and our response to it.  So do we have good and bad in this song?  And indeed in all the supposed religious songs of the album

I am not at all sure.  The Drifter’s Escape, so often my reference point on the album, gives us a little story in which the jury who turns out to be the guilty party – a lovely twist and one of the reasons I adore the song.   And from what I know of American history, John Wesley Hardin was an American criminal who was given 25 years in prison for murder at which time he claimed he had killed 42 men.  Newspapers were apparently sceptical and cut the number to 27.  Yet Dylan writes favourably of the man and names the album (almost) after him.

So to take this album as one in which there is a solid religious theme is difficult, and I find a much more convincing and consistent theme in the notion of confusion and the world turned upside down.  Indeed in “All Along the Watchtower” we have no idea who is on whose side, who is fighting whom, who are the good guys, who not.

The “Every Dylan song” website, which examines Dylan songs from a Christian perspective runs into trouble with this song, and really can’t find a way of analysing it.  The site notes Dylan’s “preoccupation with the Bible” which “helped reshape how he approached writing lyrics,” but the writer only goes so far as to say that at the time of JWH Dylan “may have become more interested in the afterlife and in spirituality, but not to the extent of becoming the devout believer he would become later. But you cannot deny that his reading of the Good Book had a profound impact on his songwriting…”

Yet even so he admits this is as a “songwriter completely in tune with the way the Gospels were written, yet not entirely in tune with taking those Gospels to heart.”

He argues that Dylan “made as much out of the Bible as he did with the old folk songs and tall tales that helped shape his Basement Tapes songs, appropriating pieces of history and moulding them into something that is now recognizably Bob Dylan music.”

To this I add the issue of confusion.  Through many of these songs we are confused and remain confused, not knowing who is who, who represents what, who is good and who is bad.  So when, Andy Gill suggests the messenger is “of course” Dylan, I can’t agree.  The whole point is we don’t know, Dylan doesn’t know, and no one in the stories knows.  “There’s too much confusion…”

Dylan may well have been reading the Old Testament of the Bible and besides Proverbs came across 2 Samuel 4:10 which in the King James Bible reads

When one told me, saying, Behold, Saul is dead, thinking to have brought good tidings, I took hold of him, and slew him in Ziklag, who thought that I would have given him a reward for his tidings.

Now it is true that the Old Testament questions and deliberates on values, seeking to find eternal values.   What I think Dylan is doing is doubting the possibility that there are such values that last all time, and indeed doubts the possibility of always understanding what on earth is going on.

The “wicked messenger” seems to me (and as always this is just my view) to be wicked in the sense of mischievous as well as being a sycophant.   But it is the mischievousness that dominates because of the music – and this, if I may be so bold, is what many commentators seem to miss as they look only at the words.

This is a very bouncy jolly piece of music.  While The Drifter really does have you on the edge with that eternally repeated line of music starting, straining indeed, on high and then falling down over and over and over, as if there is no escape, here the melody is more restrained and the accompaniment makes one want to dance as much as listen.  While the repetition of The Drifter itself adds to the concern about what is going on, here the repetition, particularly of the bass line adds to a feeling of well being and familiarity.

And I find real humour in this song.  The note in his hand which read, “The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning,” is so disconnected with what has gone before, and so irrelevant to anything that it shouts out that this is not a song to be taken seriously.

And then the great moment of Exodus with the crossing of the Red Sea, the absolute salvation of the Jewish people, all is reduced to

…he was told but these few words
Which opened up his heart
“If ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any”

That is mischievous indeed, to speak of the salvation of an entire race through a miracle as “just tell us the good news.”  Especially in a scenario, as it develops here, where we can’t be quite clear what is good news and what isn’t.

The question then is, how far do we probe this?  At one extreme we have Dylan sitting on a train rapidly writing these short poems as the basis for his new album.  At the other there is the interpretation of the words as being finely crafted and well thought through with hidden deep meanings, as Gill suggests when he says, “To have been sent by Eli implies a reliance on intellect,” and that “perhaps Dylan felt he had valued rationality too highly over spirituality.”

Or maybe as Mike Marqusee suggested Dylan’s anguished, self-obsessed, prickly artistic evolution, was a deeply creative response to a deeply disturbing situation.

Or maybe we should just accept that this is simply about the world that one can’t quite understand where everything is turned on its head and nothing quite makes sense.

If we look at the chronology of the time we can see this.  Below is the list of compositions of the latter part of 1967.

Quinn is indeed funny, oddball, quirky, but then suddenly Dylan is into the sequence of songs that make up John Wesley Harding.  Then after the Messenger we have one more (Dear Landlord) from that sequence, and woooooosh, he’s off again into two songs at the end of the year that are utterly different once more.

As I have spent time considering all these songs it has slowly occurred to me that the humour of the Mighty Quinn, and the relaxation of “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight” and “Down along the cove” are not utterly separate.  They are all, to a greater or lesser degree, about being different, being outside society but having to be part of it.

And slowly I am starting to think that if we want a clue as to what is going on here, we have to go back even further in the year to the line

We’ll climb that bridge after it’s gone, after we’re way past it.

from You Ain’t Going Nowhere.  These are songs of the search, the journey, the way through, the whole issue of coping with being the odd one out in a social setting in a confusing world.  Of course not every line of every song fits that vision, but enough do to bring me to the notion that this is what occupied Dylan through the year.

And I am not sure this view is too different from others who have gone before.  The “Allmusic” review for example says,

Instead of this song simply becoming a boast, Dylan uses images from the Old Testament to create a wonderful, dense, and occasionally funny song, and one of the minor gems of his canon.

This is different from the Marqusee vision which says, “He can no longer tell the story straight, because any story told straight is a false one.”

So whereas I see Dylan exploring in many different ways the issue of being the outsider, the oddball, the joker, the kid left alone, Marqusee is somewhere utterly different in suggesting Dylan did not give up on the politics of his earlier work; he merely rearranged the definition of what politics is.  Thus it is argued, politics is everyday life.  You and me, and how we react.

And maybe, as I think of it now, we are both saying the same sort of thing, except I don’t think we should call it politics.  I call it sociology and psychology.   The individual stuck inside a crazy social world trying to make sense of it all.

And in such circumstances we are all often tempted to say something along the lines of “If ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any.”

It’s a good line, but ultimately not much of a solution to anything.

All the songs reviewed on Untold Dylan

Dylan songs in Chronological order


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2 Responses to The Wicked Messenger: Dylan, the Bible, confusion and bounce. The meaning of the lyrics and the music.

  1. Tom Powell says:

    Bob Dylan himself is the wicked messenger.
    The kid who modeled his fantasy on John Wesley Hardin(g), went on as a young singer to turn his back on Liberty in the chains of Tom Paine, to the point where he could understand the futility of martyrdom, and the utter despair of being an mere (and temporary) immigrant in this veil of tears, but with the self-assertiveness necessary to bargain with the Landlord (god) on an equal level.
    He now turns and addresses his audience more directly.
    He tells us that his “voice multiplied the smallest matter” (Hattie Carroll and Emmett Till and Hollis and John Brown? Oh well if you had listened to Restless Farewell or My Back Pages this shouldnt be such a surprise )
    He tells us that his voice could not speak but only flatter, ( and refrains from using it, therefore obviously no wanting to flatter anyone anymore) and responds with what is probably an obscene gesture (certainly where I come from, Australia, in the 1960’s this gesture meant get f***ed)
    In the end he is told “if you cannot bring good news then dont bring any”

    OK, what does he therefore do?
    What he does is he introduces a pedal steel guitar for the next song and launches into the most lightweight love ditty he ever wrote in his life.
    A song where there is absolutely NO bad news
    And follows with the sly triple-entendred I’ll Be Your Baby tonight

    Then Nashville Skyline.
    Then New Morning.
    Then Self Portrait.

    So if JWH is a loose autobiography, the final 2 chapters are what he is GOING to happen in the future. Which could only been known years after the event. No wonder no-one understood it at the time.

    Anyone who still doesnt understand why Dylan committed to country music only needs to listen to this. Wicked Messenger tells us why, there is very little mystery here, he is hiding in plain sight.

  2. tom appleton says:

    this is great stuff. do you think that “john wesley harding” or JWH might just be a random translation of “jahweh” or “god”?

    the various songs on the record are then just slightly psychotic or schizzo=id tales of encounters with god or the divine. the stories of the songs are set between the walls of reality and dream or fantasy, and they follow a logic predicated by the rhymes of the lines.

    there are also a few songs that have a different colouring, less LSD influenced, maybe more benzedrine-driven.

    the whole thing’s musically trivial, or downright folksy, but lyrically psychedelic. not as exciting as “blonde on blonde”, but it would have been a poor career move, to try another BOB, and fail.

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