Slow Train: this Dylan song isn’t at all what it is sometimes taken to be

By Tony Attwood

The curious thing about Slow Train is that it is eternally associated with Dylan’s religious period of writing, and yet by and large the song isn’t actually religious at all.  It’s patriotic, inward looking, isolationist, “things ain’t what they seem” “times they are a changing” and anti-Arab, but there is nothing much here that is propagating Christian values.

Indeed Slow Train – the song not the album – makes a lot more sense when you consider the order in which the songs were written and see it as the bridge between the earlier songs in the year and the writing of the new album.

The New Pony has the name Lucifer – who gets shot while of the woman in the song Dylan says, “They say you’re usin’ voodoo, your feet walk by themselves”.  Dark and mysterious stuff.

Then we have

Baby, please stop crying
You know, I know, the sun will always shine
So baby, please stop crying ’cause it’s tearing up my mind

Two songs linked to bluesmen – the first to Charlie Patton then second to Robert Johnson.

After that comes Stop Now and a series of songs about difficulties in relationships, followed by Legionnaires Disease which if it can be classified has to be a song asking “what’s it all about”.  An appropriate topic for this given that at the time we had no idea what Legionnaires Disease was all about.  The discovery of its cause came later.

Following this line, Slow Train is by and large another “what’s it all about?” song (with extras) – especially when one considers the lines such as

But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency

And there is a real hit on manipulation by… big business? the state? politicians? foreign powers? lack of clarity in one’s thought?   If one didn’t know what came next one might even postulate that the Christian church is one of the issues.  Certainly the eradication of the likes of Jimmy Swaggart which was chronicled later in Disease of Conceit would fit into the list Dylan is singing about here.

And there is something else epitomised by the line

But it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets

Puppets of whom is not at once clear, but the notion of being manipulated, being out of control, and the world not being what it seems, is still very much there.

Of course I have some difficulties here because this is also a sort of “state of the union” message and we don’t have that sort of thing in the UK – if anyone delivered a “state of the kingdom” message they would be laughed at, jeered and sneered at.  We don’t do patriotism very easily in the UK, and our boldest attempt at it (voting to leave the European Union in 2016) resulted in those who voted remain seeing those who voted leave as a bunch of nutters and the biggest social split we have seen in decades.

So the patriotism that is part of the song is difficult to analyse for a non-American.  Mine is a small country, used to sharing its fortunes and ills with the rest of Europe, our days of Empire, as with our days of complaining that the price of petrol (gas) is manipulated on foreign exchanges are long since gone.

What I can understand is the image of the “slow train coming up around the bend” as something profoundly American. It’s a sign of power and moving on, an affirmation of “progress” and a liberation of the people who are on the train but really not getting that much out of it.

Thus this isn’t Desolation Row, it is not the country in utter ruins.  These people aren’t selling postcards of the hanging, they are lost, and need to refind themselves.  It is not the world, but the way you see the world, that defines what’s what.

In short, we have become disenfranchised because we choose to see ourselves as disenfranchised.  As a result

it sure does bother me
To see my loved ones turning into puppets.

Thus all the disconnect, all the weirdness that Dylan has been expressing through the year now turns into not personal disconnect but the disconnect of the nation.  He’s still very upset with everything – in fact he is more upset than he ever was before because he doesn’t quite know what is happening to everyone.

The opening of the song expresses this perfectly

Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted
Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Thus the huge difference here is that he is not just confused – but there is change on the way.  Times, this time, they really are a changing.

If you have read my commentaries on the songs on Times, you may recall that I made the point several times that the only song about changing times was the title song.  All the other songs are about the way the world is now, and with nothing ever changing. The world is what it is, is the message.  A very curious contradiction of the album title song.  (If you are not sure of the validity of my point just listen to Hollis Brown, a song of desperation and no hope of change.  That desperation is what makes up the whole album – apart from the title track).

But now, all these years later this isn’t what it is – or at least this isn’t for ever more, because that slow train is coming and everything is going to be overthrown.

Indeed in this piece, even Dylan’s song characters, instead of being observed as odd balls from a distance, are now telling him, it is all going to change.

I had a woman down in Alabama
She was a backwoods girl, but she sure was realistic
She said, “Boy, without a doubt
Have to quit your mess and straighten out
You could die down here, be just another accident statistic”
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

So America has been betrayed; outrun by Arab countries with oil, and outdone by its own people.  Who knows, there might even be a grand conspiracy

Man’s ego is inflated, his laws are outdated, they don’t apply no more
You can’t rely no more to be standin’ around waitin’
In the home of the brave
Jefferson turnin’ over in his grave
Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Indeed, now, instead of bemoaning his own fate, Dylan is lashing out wholesale; it is hard to see who he is not hitting at…

Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency
All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Certainly capitalism is coming under the cosh here

People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting
Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it

It is the world gone completely wrong.

In the end the song was placed on the album to end side one of the LP, which means if you are playing the album through you are pretty clear about the religious context by the time you get to it.  But taken alone – as it should be given that it was written before the rest of the album – it is a song of total disaffection.  It is in fact a total, absolute protest song, far, far more powerful than the more famous “Times”.

The desperation of the song demands that it is written in a minor key and that’s what we get – a rotating A minor / D minor throughout.  In fact there is only one major chord in the whole piece, the F major which comes over the words “slow, slow” but then we are quickly back to D minor and A minor.

And with that line, Bob opened the door to a new episode in his writing.

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5 Responses to Slow Train: this Dylan song isn’t at all what it is sometimes taken to be

  1. Richard Keys says:

    ‘Times’ seems to me to be full of change, but it is not necessarily good. ‘North Country Blues’, for example, is about a way of life that is gone, and a community that is fading. Changing relationships (e.g. ‘One to many Mornings’), and the need for change made clear in songs such as ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’ and ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’. ‘Times’ and ‘When the Ship comes In’ suggest that change is coming, ‘Restless Farewell’ suggests the need for individual integrity in the face of the world’s inconstancy. I agree that

  2. bill minkel says:

    I think the movie ‘Renaldo and Clara’ has a train theme running through it. ‘People Get Ready’ is beautifully done by Bob. I think he is expressing his belief that the great spirit that Native Americans were connected with will rise again. Organized religion can certainly be criticized and yet there is truth to the binding force of spirit. Rock concerts attendees and performers know this. Bob draws wisdom from scripture- Hebrew and Christian. Above all he seems to be a person of prayer. I think he’s been on the train for years and speaks with the engineer often!

  3. Mokey Joe says:

    Not Christian? Vengeance is mine saith the lord

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Mokey Joe: I am aware

  5. Luis Q says:

    I always saw the slow train as an apocalyptic sign. The world has gone wrong, you need to wake up before that train arrives, because it will fatally arrive, and splits bad from good. Try to be on the right side before it’s too late. That was always my reading of the song, but your take is also interesting.

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