Saving Grace: the origins and meanings within Bob Dylan’s song.

By Tony Attwood

Saving Grace is one of those songs that Dylan has retained and re-worked in all sorts of styles, but always with the essential meaning of salvation and the duplicitous nature of the Devil.  Thus we have “Well, the devil’s shining light, it can be most blinding” – itself a variant on 2 Corinthians 11 (Satan disguise himself as an angel of light) –  a very Dylanesque approach to this type of song.

And he’s kept on performing it across the years – from 1 November 79 to 29 August 2012 according to the official site, which finds 103 live performances, quite a few of which are on line if you want to go a searching.

For me, however, most of the live variants fall over themselves in an effort to differentiate what they are from the LP original, which works perfectly well in servicing what the song is – a devotional piece sung to the mostly heathen audiences.

Very curiously the song has its musical origins in a totally different piece – “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, and Bob might well have wondered quite where he had heard certain nuances in the piece before.   Marie is a totally secular piece, a faster piece, a song with a slightly different chord structure – but taken with the same rhythms underlying it – plus the odd turn of the melody and chords that links the two together.

Not to mention lines like “But to search for love that ain’t no more than vanity” – which if you placed it inside “Marie” instead of waiting inside the frozen traffic, would still be perfect.

Sweet Marie really is Dylan without the Lord (although he doesn’t realise it) sitting alone beating on his trumpet, but now there’s no more of that – he’s been saved, as the album title tells us.   Marie’s promises turned out to be worthless – the Lord’s promises are eternal and will never be broken.  But (for me at least) that line “Guess I owe You some kind of apology” just calls out to me the line, “Sometimes it gets so hard, you see”.

Of course Dylan has devised so many different ways of singing Saving Grace that much of the time these musical links get lost but even then, through the endlessly changing versions, moments sneak back.  I think maybe he does it just to tantalise.

But this is not to put down the lyrics of Saving Grace

By this time I’d-a thought I would be sleeping
In a pine box for all eternity

is a highly arresting couplet – quite a shocking pair of lines to find in a song, but my problem with the piece is that this level of drama is then dissipated.  Maybe it is too much to ask to keep up such a level of intensity all the way through, but still… this is Dylan, and he has done it before.

Well, the devil’s shining light, it can be most blinding
But to search for love, that ain’t no more than vanity

really do remind me that

Well, your railroad gate you know I just can’t jump it

Sometimes it gets so hard, you see

and again gives us a sense that we are going to get deeper insights, but which somehow just don’t happen, and instead in the final verse we get the line that sounds like Sweet Marie confessing her sins.

The wicked know no peace and you just can’t fake it
There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary
It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it

and still I want to sing it to exactly the same tune as

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it
Sometimes it gets so hard, you see
I’m just sitting here beating on my trumpet

Or maybe its just me listening to too many Dylan songs, and seeing too many connections.

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  1. yes you are listening to too many Dylan songs. it really is funny to listen to people who try to explain his saved songs who have no deeper understanding of what he is saying except for Sweet Marie..hyahaha

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