Precious Angel: an enigma inside a seemingly straightforward Bob Dylan song.

By Tony Attwood

This is, rather obviously, the song from Dylan to the woman who showed him the way into the Light when he was converted.  At one level it seems very straightforward, and yet with this song I have a very special problem, a problem that arose when I found out that the last time he performed “Precious Angel” was also the first and last time he performed “Caribbean Wind”.

This puzzlement all started because I was interested by the fact that Precious Angel was only performed live 73 times, which puts it at the level of a minor album track.  And yet the conversion to a religion is surely one of the major events in one’s life, the giant leap, not a slight change.  For Dylan at the time it was the most monumental thing that had happened to him, and it is a very fine song.  So why ditch it?  And why ditch it on the day that Caribbean Wind got its one and only dusting down?

What also fascinates me (and this I think particularly comes from looking at Dylan’s songs in Chronological Order, rather than just reviewing them album by album), “Precious Angel” and “Caribbean Wind” were only written one year apart, and they are both about a woman who was close to Dylan, but, we take it in each case, not his lover.  The Precious Angel showed him the path to the true light, and the Caribbean Wind woman showed him something quite, quite different:

Was she a child or a woman, did we go too far?
Were we sniper bait, did we follow a star?
Through a hole in the wall to where the long arm of the law cannot reach
Could I have been used and played as a pawn?
It certainly was possible as the gay night wore on
Where men bathed in perfume and practiced the hoax of free speech

(There are several versions of the Caribbean lyrics – this comes from the Biograph version).

What is so curious is that the Precious Angel who came first “was the one”, but a year on we are drawn into an utterly different world of writing – to me it is one of the most extraordinary paradoxes in Dylan’s whole religious period – and that’s before I even get into contemplating the “hoax of free speech*”.  For there, is Dylan really saying then that we can never be free because God set the whole system up for us to choose to be for Him or against Him?   Seemingly yes with the lines…

Now there’s spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down
You’ve either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground
The enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived
When the truth’s in our hearts and we still don’t believe?

So how could Dylan move in one year from

Shine your light, shine your light on me
You know I just couldn’t make it by myself
I’m a little too blind to see


Street band playing “Nearer My God To Thee”
We met in secret where we drank from a spring
She said, “I know what you’re thinking, but there ain’t a thing
We can do about it, so we might as well let it be”

and actually say farewell to both songs in the same concert?  (The whole point of Christianity is that there is everything you can do about your thoughts – you can convert to the religion and make yourself pure in the eyes of the Lord).

Of course artists change and go through different phases of their artistic lives – Dylan has done it many times outside of his conversion to Christianity, but this isn’t just an artistic move – this is a move reflecting his whole life and utter belief.  I honestly don’t know, but I just feel in looking at Precious Angel that I have to try and answer the question of what happened to end the performances of Precious Angel and bring on Caribbean Wind.

The Precious Angel herself is almost a saint, a direct messenger from God (if such a thing is allowed in modern times), seemingly perfect in every regard.

Precious angel, under the sun
How was I to know you’d be the one
To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone
How weak was the foundation I was standing upon?

But now consider the “spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down”

and the subsequent war that is ranging in the Biograph version of Caribbean Wind

I see the screws breakin’ loose, see the devil pounding on tin
I see a house in the country being torn apart from within
I can hear my ancestors calling from the land far beyond

which is slightly disconcerting given that Bob’s ancestors were Jewish not Christian.

So could it be that on 12 November 1980, performing this song for the very last time, and then performing Caribbean Wind for the first and last time, Dylan was involved in some kind of internal battle, with both songs saying farewell to the same woman?  Or saying farewell to the fundamentalist part of his belief system?

Obviously I don’t know, but that abandonment of Caribbean Wind and this sudden farewell to the song that thanked a woman for the most monumental moment in his entire life, is one of the odder aspects in Dylan’s performing life.

Precious Angel is one of those songs that people like to go through and cite the origin and meaning of individual lines and phrases, but I am not at all sure this does us much good in terms of appreciating the music as a work of art.  Sometimes I do agree that picking out the sources of Dylan’s inspirations is helpful, but here, the references about being blind and now being able to see are fairly straightforward.  The lady has shown him the true way, he’s accepted it, and he’s converted.  I am not sure we need to know much more.

I do think however we have to give thanks to Mark Knopfler who seemed to get what was required of him perfectly – not bad for a man who reputedly left the first session saying in a disbelieving voice, “These songs – they’re all about God!”

But I am left absolutely puzzled.   On its own Precious Angel is a song saying thank you to the woman who showed him the way to the one true faith.  But just one year later it seems to me he was saying goodbye to her.  How much more was he saying goodbye to at that point?

*There is some discussion about the “hoax of free speech” line, which some suggest is actually “hope of free speech” and which changes from “practiced the hoax of free speech” to “celebrated free speech” in the published version of the lyrics.

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  1. Hello again Tony,

    I do see a correlation between Precious Angel, and the latter Covenant Woman.
    I feel he is simply giving a shout out again… if you will, to the special friend who lead him to the Lord. I have done similar in my life since 1985 in writing, and verbally. But you don’t over due.. Bob certainly did not, no name, etc. One can’t come to Him without the Spirit’s call. It’s a most important matter in a new believers life. Even if apart for many years without a word. That one person never leaves you.

    I choose not to delve into the Caribbean Wind thing… I will certainly remind you that the newly converted, or long time believer, wrestles with spiritual matters, sin, light / darkness, and the rest as all do. We have the freedom to live in His light or not to. He is most merciful to His, but gives us free-will to do what we will. We know she was a girl in Alabama, and that’s good enough for me… I am very grateful to her, and that it was Bob’s appointed time.

    In closing, I just want to say that this whole thing about Bob taking his son to Israel for his Bar Mitzvah a few years later has nothing to do at all with his belief in Christ.
    Maybe you and your readers will get that or not.. You see, there is now nothing that Bob could do to ever remove him from the sanctifying covenant that God has placed him in.

    There is indeed an appointed time… but again there’s the free will thing. God will not always strive with man, There is a time when man will pray God and he will not hear them. These are still the times of absolute Grace… Take it or lose it friends.

  2. With ‘Precious Angel’ , Dylan struggles with TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and Charles Baudelaire’s
    Flowers of Evil as he seeks to escape from society’s pliars; he wants not the fairest damsel that walks in chains, but a precious angel to show him the way.
    Alas, Eliot found it not with the ‘hyacinth girl” carrying flowers dripping with the purple blood of the youth that god Apollo loved:

    “Yet when we came back from the hyacinth garden/
    Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not/
    Speak and my eyes failed, I was/
    Neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing/
    Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”
    (TS Eliot: The Wasteland)

    The poet, looking into the heart of light, rather
    than into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness still feels nothing.

    Eliot refers, as has Dylan, to Baudelaire:

    “Just like an angel with an evil eye/
    I shall return to thee silently/
    Upon the bower I’ll alight/
    With falling shadows of the night”
    (Baudelaire: Flowers Of Evil, The Ghost)

    Dylan reaches up to a precious angel as he escapes
    like a dead leaf from the wind as though a ghost from an enchanter fleeing:

    “Shine the light, shine your light on me/
    You know I just can’t make it by myself/
    I’m a little to blind to see”.
    (Dylan: Precious Angel)

    The Strawbs too find the alienation produced by
    nihilistic industrial society difficult to avoid:

    “I stepped back in the shadows/
    For I could not stand the strain/
    I tried to speak but could not find/
    The words to say”
    (The Strawbs: Blue Angel)

    Desolation Row has more to offer than
    Christianity in modern times it would appear.

  3. The corrected verse goes:
    “I stepped back in the shadows/
    For I could not stand the strain/
    I tried to look, my eyes were blind/
    I tried to speak, but could not find the words to say”
    Clearly showing the influence of TS Eliot on The Strawbs as it shows on a number of Dylan’s song lyrics.

    Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil imagery appears also in:

    “And every one of those words rang true/
    And glowed like burning coal.”
    (Dylan: Tangled up In Blue)

    “Ah, and we said imperishable things/
    Those eaves illumed by burning coal”.
    (Baudelaire: Flowers Of Evil, The Balcony)

    Poetry the words of which are double-edged in meaning; not set in the dogmatic cement of Christian fundamentalism.

    Nietzsche calls Christianity a ‘slave morality’ for
    putting off happiness until the afterlife; the Hebrew religion he respected for its quest for heaven on earth after escaping slavery.

    Dylan as a spiritual wanderer, a drifting artist in search of a masterpiece(as we have seen)is not going to find satisfaction very long in the dogmatic answers given by organized religion let alone in social norms: “I offered her my hand, she took me by the arm.”

  4. Caribbean Wind contains the same warning:
    She said ‘we got a mutual friend by the door/
    And you know he’s got our best interest in mind’
    (Dylan: Caribbean Wind)

    And in the following:

    “Well, I once knew a man/
    He can hypnotize/
    Over near the door/
    Bound to the floor/
    Tried to take me for a ride”
    (I Once Knew A Man)

  5. Baudelaire, having translated Poe, brings it back home to Swedenborg:

    “Leave my lonliness unbroken/
    Quit the bust above my door/
    Take thy beak out of my heart…./
    And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor”
    (Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven)

    With the light comes darkness:

    “The wind howls like a hammer/
    The night wind blows cold ‘n’ rainy/
    My love she’s like some raven/
    At my window with a broken wing”:
    (Dylan: Love Minus Zero)

    One gets the feeling that in the distance, two riders may be approaching.

  6. As a born again Christian since the ’70s, and a Dylan fan, what strikes me about
    “Precious Angel”, is the way Bob powerfully expresses concern for the human
    condition, and the unsettling implications for those who seem unconcerned, or
    oblivious, to the need for self-examination, repentance, and trusting in God’s
    grace and mercy, through Christ:

    My so called friends have fallen under a spell
    They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “Well all is well'”
    Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
    When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die.

  7. For Dylan there’s the probem of the unknowable One Force, One God, governing the Universe according to Judaism, while latter Christianity split Him in two, made the human Jesus a demi-god.

    A fragmented view that Dylan expresses through his imagination by his art which for the songwriter becomes the ‘higher power’ to which
    he is drawn.

    Every thing is broken.

  8. The song is koan-like: puzzling enough to suggest that the judgement hall of Christ might not be the answer – at least not yet???

  9. In stead of ‘don’t shine your light on me’ in ‘ Don’t think twice’ he changed his mind, ‘shine your light on me’.

  10. This is one of my favorite Dylan songs ever, so take this with a grain of salt:

    To me this is Dylan at his most humble. He’s basically saying “I thought I knew it all. I knew nothing.” Dylan doesn’t say that very often, but in this case he means it.

    How this aligns with future or past Dylan is irrelevant. This is what Dylan meant when he wrote and sang the song- its what St John called “The dark night of the soul” or Alcoholics Anonymous call “hitting bottom”. He is saying- I was completely ignorant and this angel/woman (I think when he wrote this, the distinction to him would have been moot) came along and saved/enlightened/existentially shone a light on me. It’s a song to me of pure gratitude, and for that, all Christian themes aside, its exquisitely beautiful and heart wrenching (I told you I loved this song).

    It also has a pair of my all time favorite lines which are, to me, some of the most profound he’s penned: “We are covered in blood girl, you know both our forefathers were slaves, let us hope they’ve found mercy in their bone filled graves” and “But there’s violence in the eyes girl, so let us not be enticed, on the way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia, to the judgement hall of Christ”.

    Why do I like those lines so much: I grew up listening to this album and thus had no idea about half the things he’s talking about. I just knew it sounded really cool. Probably at some point in my early twenties it dawned on me:

    He’s saying he’s Jewish and the titular angel is African (I’m assuming African American). That they share a bond of suffering and redemption that perhaps not everyone gets. That they both have multi-generational histories, or as some may say “ethnic identities” (though I hate to even use that term nowadays) with a history of enslavement, oppression, and spirituality, and that maybe God sent him this particular angel at this particular time, at least partially, for that reason. You might say I’m reading too much into it, and you’re probably right, but I think its indisputable that Dylan is making some sort of cryptic poetic connection between his Jewish heritage and the angel’s African background.

    All in 1979- before Black Lives Matter, before Obama- before “Woke” was a thing. That’s, to me (one of the many reasons) why Dylan will always be the coolest human being on the planet.

  11. Princes shall come out of Egypt
    Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God
    (Psalm 68:31)

    ie, King Solomon of Israel, and black Queen of Sheba from Ethiopia –

    Rastafarian biblical interpretation

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