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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