Bob Dylan’s “Do right to me baby”: Christianity but not as we know it

by Tony Attwood

The first anyone ever knew of what some now call Dylan’s first Christian song was on the last night of a 115 date world tour – something which in itself to mere mortals seems incomprehensible – on 16 December 1978.

Except that on closer inspection, and considering the progress of 1978 in its chronological order, it wasn’t really that religious.

For example, the line “if you do right to me baby, I’ll do right to you” is more 1956 rock and roll than 1st century Bible.   For surely the whole point of Christianity’s moral code (at least as I see it, and of course I might be wrong) is that you most certainly do not wait for someone to do the right thing to you, before you do the right thing to them.  You always do the right thing.

And indeed if they then treat you badly, you just turn the other cheek and walk on.

Indeed one doesn’t have to be a Christian to have this sort of moral code.  It is what many of us would simply see as being a decent, honourable, good human being.   You don’t exploit, you don’t take advantage, you do the right thing, the honourable thing, no matter what the other person does to you.

And for me this is the problem with the whole song – it actually, when you get down to it, isn’t very Christian.  The very first line “don’t wanna be judged” is not what it is all about as far as I was taught.  Christianity is about being judged when the final reckoning comes.  That’s why it is called “Judgement Day”.  The Christians who have been true to the faith and the teaching of the Lord pass into heaven and the rest of us… well, best not think about what happens to the rest of us.

OK, so maybe that first line which in full reads “Don’t wanna judge nobody, don’t wanna be judged,” is not meant in terms of the Second Coming but in terms of everyday – but then again surely the Christian every day is judged according to how well he/she fulfils what the New Testament requires people to be.

Basically even I as a non-Christian know that Matthew 7:12 says “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you,for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  I remember learning that as a child in north London.  You do good first, irrespective.

Of course this misuse of the Bible could be seen as artistic licence – after all the chorus does get it right with

Ya got to do unto others
Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you

Thereafter much of the list of things Dylan doesn’t want hasn’t got too much to do with the specifics of the Bible.  OK he doesn’t want to shoot anyone, which I think most of us would feel is a fairly good idea, he doesn’t want a slave or to be a slave, he doesn’t want to bury anyone or indeed marry a woman already married which would certainly be against UK law anyway, although maybe not in all other places.

By this time I get the feeling Dylan was just finding lines to fit, so I am not so sure that the not wanting to burn anyone actually has any real Book of Revelations and hell-fire connotations.  Revelations is where hell-fire and damnation comes from, and where people like me end up, but Dylan not wanting personally to burn anyone seems like nothing other than (once again) a line that fits.   As for the not cheating, not defeating, that could have been written into any 1960s folk song.

Don’t wanna burn nobody, don’t wanna be burned
Don’t wanna learn from nobody what I gotta unlearn
Don’t wanna cheat nobody, don’t wanna be cheated
Don’t wanna defeat nobody if they already been defeated

After which I find it gets a bit silly.  Some of the points above are rather important – like the notion of treating people as you would wish to be treated yourself; a fundamental in basic human decency.  But where exactly does

Don’t wanna wink at nobody, don’t wanna be winked at
Don’t wanna be used by nobody for a doormat

fit into all this?  Interestingly the next lines are

Don’t wanna confuse nobody, don’t wanna be confused
Don’t wanna amuse nobody, don’t wanna be amused

and this is where I really do think we just having a load of lines put out, some of which are about what Dylan personally wants and doesn’t want, others of which just happen to fit to make the rhyme and rhythm work, without any reference to religious text.

After all, what is so wrong with amusing people – surely we are all better off when we laugh.  What is so bad about being amused?  OK it might be trivial, nothingness, gentle pap on TV, but we all of us need a break from the serious things in life sometimes, don’t we?

Yes it is a good idea not to betray people, but instead to be honest, but really, what sort of world are you in if you “dont wanna miss nobody”.  We might not like the pain of separation, but that is part of life, and really, do we not want to be missed?  I like to think that I am not too selfish and too self-centred a man, but hell, I really would be distressed to think my children and friends wouldn’t miss me when I’m gone.

At least for a while.

By this stage the emotions of the song seem to me to be deteriorating rapidly – don’t want to put your faith in no one… I have a certain faith in my doctor, and in my friends to stand by me when I need them.  And in my daughters.  That is kind of important.

In the end I find myself listening to just a set of jingle jangle ideas that happen to fit into the rhythm and layout of verse one.  Musically the leaving of the chord change until the end of each line, instead of playing it either a beat earlier, or not at all, makes the whole piece much more interesting from a musical perspective, but other than that it is a rocking two chord song (E7 A7) with the extra chord (G) thrown into the chorus.  It’s easy on the ear but not a brilliant piece – not a piece that would have been remembered had anyone other than Dylan written it.

Releasing it to the world on that last night of the tour, it was then a major part of the next tour, and continued to be played until 18 November 1980, at which time, after 73 renditions, it was gently put really where it needed to be put; to rest.

Here’s a live version…


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  1. Thanks Tony. I very much enjoyed your analysis of this song and Slow Train. I wonder if these two songs were originally conceived without religious content and then later Dylan decided to add some spiritual content making them end up somewhat confused as expressions of Christian faith.

  2. “Indeed one doesn’t have to be a Christian to have this sort of moral code. It is what many of us would simply see as being a decent, honourable, good human being. You don’t exploit, you don’t take advantage, you do the right thing, the honourable thing, no matter what the other person does to you…”

    This is the result of living in the west, even post-Christianity west, and embracing ideology.

    Although the author offers it as common sense, it is not the ideology of billions of people in cultures today.
    Islam teaches the opposite, for example.

    To “turn the other cheek”, to the Islamic culture, is to show weakness, which is, to them, “contemptible” behavior. What we see as strength, they see as weakness.

    This is why criminal psychologists educate American (and Europe, if they will listen) law enforcement because we project ourselves into a culture that believes itself supreme and why we pass around teddy bears and sing, “Imagine” at memorials, while they are reloading their weapons.

    It is important to understand the origins of belief.

    It is interesting that the author points out that Dylan basically reversed the Biblical mandate and made it conditional.

    Although I enjoy the period, that particular song is not among my favorites.

    Interesting article.

  3. Mr. Attwood has a tendency to say Dylan just throws in lines to rhyme when perhaps Tony’s not sure what Dylan means (who can be sure!), but usually a rhyme is easy to find that fits in with whatever meaning is there.

    Dare I say there might be an anology with the structuring of music? But that I’ll leave up to Mr.
    Attwood who’s certainly a lot more competent in that arena than I.

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