“What can I do for you?” Bob Dylan’s journey into pre-ordained certainty

By Tony Attwood

“What can I do for you?” is a Dylan song that to me always seems to me to derive from the parts of the Bible that emphasise obedience and subservience, on the subject of which Ephesians 6 is particularly clear:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honour your father and mother”   …

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ….

“And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.”

And yet, within this I (as a heathen non-believer) have always found a contradiction, as when the text says,

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

“In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

It is a differentiation that has always fascinated me.  The acceptance of being what you are born as (slave, free man, member of the aristocracy) and accepting that fate, as well as the entire structure of society as we find it, is not one I have ever been willing to accept.  Indeed for me, coming back to Dylan’s songs of this era, it is a shock to hear him as part of the movement for accepting the social structure rather than struggling to remove it.

But then as I have oft said on this site, the “Times they are a changing” album is most certainly ill-named (other than using the title of the most famous song on the album as a hook to get sales), since the songs are primarily about the fact that nothing is changing at all.  Hollis Brown is stuck in an uncaring, unchanging world, the traveller in “One too many mornings” just keeps on moving on, we’re only a pawn in their game, Hattie Carroll dies…

But then as Dylan said at that time

And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side

That sarcasm explained the essence of the album, but now … the world has changed and true to his earlier comment, Dylan doesn’t ask questions – he asks only one, “What can I do for You?”

Obviously because I am sceptical about the Afterlife (although my mother, father and aunt all believed in it most fervently, and were most decent and honourable people, so I hope beyond hope that they were right and now live on, even though if that’s the case I am condemned to eternal damnation), I find the message of accepting one’s lot, while worshipping the Lord, something I can’t take.

And so I am (and this is just personal, I am not trying to convince you) deeply concerned with

Pulled me out of bondage and You made me renewed inside
Filled up a hunger that had always been denied
Opened up a door no man can shut and You opened it up so wide
And You’ve chosen me to be among the few
What can I do for You?

The notion that the Almighty chooses people (like Bob) to be among the few, rather than the followers making a clear choice to follow (or in my case not) is not how I was taught Christianity.  It was up to me to choose the way of the Lord; He didn’t choose for me, I rejected the notion of organised religion all by myself.

So for a truer rendition of Christianity as I understand it (and of course I can be and usually am very wrong on such matters) Dylan’s line should be “I found the way, now what can I do for You”.

So I am very much turned off by the acceptance of the world as it is, rather than the struggle to make the world (or at least the tiny part of the world I touch) a better place.  A few times in my life I have been in a position where by chance I have been able to make a real difference to a person’s life.  Not for any gain, but because I can and because it seems the right thing to do.  And I have done it.  And that makes me feel quite good.  I did it for those individuals, and because I could, not because of an instruction from the Lord, and not because it was all pre-ordained.

Which puts me very much in the position of  verse two…

Soon as a man is born, you know the sparks begin to fly
He gets wise in his own eyes and he’s made to believe a lie

Or as TS Eliot so clearly and profoundly put it

The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason

So we move on to the long wailing harmonica solo that made up the epilogue to the song on stage.   “Dylan’s most glorious moment as a harpist,” wrote Eyolf Østrem, and yes, on that I can agree.

Musically the song is fairly straightforward.  The first part of the verse takes us through C, A minor, F and G, while the second (“Pulled me out of bondage”) uses the same chords in a different order, and throws in a D minor at the end of the second line (“been denied”) to keep us hanging on.

But there was one particularly interesting twist in the song – according to Heylin.  In the early days on stage Dylan sang

Well, I don’t deserve it but I’m sure to make it through

but then later changed it to

Well, I don’t deserve it but I sure did make it through
What can I do for You?

Bob first played the song live on 1 November 1979, and performed it 93 times before letting it slip out of his hands on  23 July 1981, and ultimately moved away from being saved, to not quite so saved.

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