“Pressing on.” Who told Dylan that gospel had to sound like gospel?

By Tony Attwood

Putting Pressing On as the opening of side two of Saved shows how important the song was for Dylan at the time, but on the 1979/80 tour it lasted only seven months and 65 plays and then stopped being performed without ever being brought back.

If one plays the original version from Saved and then a concert version one can see what had happened – the song on stage had got totally out of control, and hearing that concert recording one can quickly see why Dylan had had enough.   The song had moved on, but moved on too far.

The problem is that the chorus

Well I’m pressing on
Yes, I’m pressing on
Well I’m pressing on
To the higher calling of my Lord

is repeated three times each time it pops up.   On the record Dylan has a chance to build up to the verses – there were originally three, but these were cut down to two in an early effort to keep the song more balanced.

On the album recording the song works because it starts at a much lower level.  In the concert version the backing gospel choir have already built up through the concert itself and they had all also got high on it the night before and the night before that.  Thus everyone gets a bit carried away and doesn’t know how to take the music down again, as per the record.  Besides it is pretty hard to do a fade out on stage.

Thus the problem is simple: a song with one line repeated nine times needs very careful management indeed, and very careful management is what we get on the album but not on stage.

What made the situation even harder was the fact that on the tours Pressing On was the show closer and of course that helped a lot because by that time the audience (or at least those in the audience who didn’t mind having a whole concert of new religious songs rather than any secular oldies) felt that they had had the great climax to the show.

I am told (but can’t verify) that when Dylan did drop the song he replaced it with exactly the opposite, suddenly dropping the excitement level and playing as a finale one of the older songs with just him and guitar.  If that is so, it suggests I am on the right track – he knew that the ending of the show and the progression of this particular song, was not right.

But I am still left bemused by the notion of Bob Dylan so lost for words he uses one line nine times, another line three times and then adds just eight other lines.  Quite a thought.

In the first verse we get the singer as Jesus dealing with the perfidious Pharisees, as per the story taken from the Gospel of John.  In the second it is the gospel according to Mark that gives us the text, and the Christian message is there, for those who wish to hear.

And Dylan has heard for as he tells us

Well I’m pressing on
Yes, I’m pressing on
Well I’m pressing on
To the higher calling of my Lord

Of course even for non-believers like me parts of the message can still be highly attractive as in

Shake the dust off of your feet, don’t look back
Nothing now can hold you down, nothing that you lack

It is just that some of us who are not religious think we can do it with what we’ve already got inside us.  We don’t need to have faith in the Lord to achieve these things any more than Dylan needed faith in the Lord to write “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Visions of Johanna”.

So it isn’t what can be achieved that is the issue, rather whether the source of the inspiration is from within us or from worshipping the Almighty.

As I said there was a third verse, this one based on Romans, but that got cut and we were left pressing on and on and on and on (as the choir sings).

Musically the excitement turns up in the verse with its quick chord changes between B flat, Dm, E flat, F, Bflat while Dylan having fun at the piano playing on the black notes.  But then with each short verse we know we will soon be back to pressing on and on.

So is it great music?

The problem is that old one of the inter-relationship between the music itself, the words, and the meaning of the words.  And where the meaning of the words doesn’t accord with one’s own perceptions of the world, it gets to be hard going.

Of course I can appreciate the verses and the music evolved around them, but I could do with less of the gospel choir, probably because of what it symbolises and its sheer repetitiveness.   But that’s just me.

Thus I am rather relieved that Dylan has never chosen to bring it back since 1 March 1980.  Unless of course he fancied just singing the verses to a honky-tonk piano.

And why not?  Who was it who decreed that gospel had to sound like, well, gospel?


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  1. The idea of pressing on to a prize comes from Philippians 3:12.

    The chorus lyric will have undoubtedly been through many stages, but a notable coupling of “pressing on” and “higher” can be seen in Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Enchiridion (Dagger) of 1501, which has (Latin to English) that to maintain perfect piety you must do only one thing: “you try always to press on from visible things, which are for the most part either imperfect or intermediate, to things invisible, in accordance with the higher part of man.”

    (This in the context that Christians should look “toward Christ alone, your sole and highest good, so that you may love nothing, be in awe of nothing, seek after nothing, other than Christ himself, or for Christ’s sake.”)

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