No Man Righteous: Bob Dylan’s (almost) lost song.

By Tony Attwood

No Man Righteous was included in Heylin’s list of “The gems that Bob Dylan discarded” which in the UK was published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

It was recorded for Slow Train Coming, but the recordings have (for once) been kept out of the public awareness.  While the other two outtakes have become public (Trouble in Mind as a B side of a single, and Ye Shall be Changed in the first set of Bootleg albums (1-3) this one remains obscure.  Only one recording by a fan recording a concert, lets us know what it was all about.  I’ve put the link to it below.

And even that recording was by chance, given that Dylan just performed the song three times in 1979 and 1980.  He did comment to the audience one night that the band was trying it out, and having done so he decided it would be on the album. But then it wasn’t.

So it is interesting that the three out takes, all come from the early stage of the work of recording Slow Train Coming. Dylan was clearly working his way up to the songs that he felt were right for the piece, and with the three outtakes out of the way, he settled down to the real business.

The Book of Romans in the New Testament, lays down the ground rules that salvation comes through following Jesus Christ.   So guys like me, who basically try and live a decent and honourable life (and of course usually fail) can do all the good things possible, but without admitting the the Lord God holds sway over all mankind, and that Jesus Christ was his son, then, come the reckoning as described in the Book of Revelations, we’re done for.  All the business of helping people is for nothing without letting God and Jesus in.

Romans 3:10 tells us, “As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one” while Isaiah 4:6, proclaims “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags.”  And that’s where Dylan starts out.

It’s a fairly upbeat, dance (or at last hip swinging) song but underneath it is what seems to me the dark heart of Christianity.  For salvation I have to believe.  It is what is in my head that counts, not the good deeds that I might do of my own volition.   There is going to be no escape from what happens in the second coming unless I think the right thoughts as well as do the right deeds.

For as TS Eliot so clearly put it, “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”   But then Eliot also said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”   That is the creative artist talking – we can never find out how to get things right, unless we take huge, huge risks.  It is all a bit confusing.

So we come to the essence of this song.  “The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.”  (Psalm 14:3)

Dylan takes up the position from the start, so there can be no misunderstanding…

When a man he serves the Lord, it makes his life worthwhile
It don’t matter ’bout his position, it don’t matter ’bout his lifestyle
Talk about perfection, I ain’t never seen none
And there ain’t no man righteous, no not one

In short, I don’t stand a chance on my own, only by serving the Lord can I be saved because the Devil will “even work his ways through those whose intentions are good”.  Which I have always understood to mean that the Devil is so strong that no matter how much I try to be a decent sort of guy, he will corrupt me.  Only by declaring myself for God will I be able to fight the fallen angel.

Now of course some of the song contains concepts that I suspect very many Dylan fans will agree with straight off

Look around, ya see so many social hypocrites
Like to make rules for others while they do just the opposite

That’s the sort of thought that we were used to in the earlier songs – pointing out exactly why we shouldn’t follow leaders.

But at the heart of this song is the notion that we will all have to “account for all the deeds that you done” – which seems a sort of justice in itself, if not associated with the fact that we have to repent and follow the Lord.  Repenting and trying to be a better person on one’s own just isn’t enough in this vision because the Devil is always lurking, ready to take advantage.

So in the end it is all so simple for the follower of this creed.

When I’m gone don’t wonder where I be
Just say that I trusted in God and that Christ was in me
Say He defeated the devil, He was God’s chosen Son
And that there ain’t no man righteous, no not one

For the rest of us however, it is so very tough.  You can be as good as anyone, but without submission to the Lord, you, like me, are doomed.

Indeed as Dylan said at the very start…

When a man he serves the Lord, it makes his life worthwhile
It don’t matter ’bout his position, it don’t matter ’bout his lifestyle
Talk about perfection, I ain’t never seen none
And there ain’t no man righteous, no not one

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1 Response to No Man Righteous: Bob Dylan’s (almost) lost song.

  1. dylan fan says:

    We all sin. Jesus died to pay the penalty for that sin. His sacrifice and love for us covers all of our sins. Because of this our joy is in doing the good that he gives us the mind, body and heart to do. By the way, it is more joyful than just coming from me and much more effective.

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