In the summertime. Is Dylan slowly revealing his movement away from the faith?

by Tony Attwood

Shot of Love has always seemed to me the album that opens the door to a return to secular compositions, after two very solidly Christian LPs.  But as I will try and show in this review, it is not so easy to see where Dylan stopped writing utterly committed fundamental Christian songs and moved back to his secular ways.  The moments intertwine; there is no strong dividing line.

“In the Summertime” was described by Dylan as a song in which he tried to “conjure up the feeling” of the piano ballads he heard in his childhood in his home town.  It is most certainly the most relaxed song we’d had from Dylan in a while.

As the Rolling Stone review of the album upon its release said (and it was a very negative review overall) “In the Summertime” (like Heart of Mine) dealt with the issues of a man loving a woman, rather than Dylan’s devotion to his God.   The reviewer says, ‘he goes on and on about a precious “gift you gave” but can’t seem to grasp the details. “I got the heart and you got the blood /We cut through iron and we cut through mud,” he remembers, yet the little things escape him: “I was in your presence for an hour or so/Or was it a day, I truly don’t know.”  Those stadiums of the damned can really take it out of you.’

But the reviewer was basically critical, claiming that the song was “merely more pleasant than most”.

The problem is twofold however.  First there is the fact that the song is just one stop away from the masterpiece of the album “Every Grain of Sand”.  Second when we look at when Summertime  was written we find it came in the midst of a tumultuous period of creativity:

and indeed we can see reflections back to “You changed my life” in “Summertime”.  Not for the first time I think that seeing the songs in the order they were composed gives us more insight into the meaning than any reference back to the album (much as I want to go off and play “Every grain of sand” one more time.

But let’s come back to Summertime.   This song has always puzzled me – it puzzled me when I first bought the album and tried to work out the meaning (in the days long before the internet when you couldn’t go out and buy a book on every aspect of Dylan or look it up on the internet), and it still puzzles me each time I came back to it.

In the Summertime starts like a love song – she is so overwhelming that he doesn’t know how time is passing.  All the images of love are there, the sea is soft and shining, and wrapped up in the beguiling rhyme pattern (A A A B, C C C B).  But then I remember that Dylan tried this on Angelina which he wrote shortly before Summertime, and it really didn’t work largely because of the difficulty Dylan had in rhyming Angelina with much else.

Here however a slight variation on the Angelina rhyming approach really does pay off.  And there is something else going on, for in Angelina Dylan says

“Tell me, tall men, where would you like to be overthrown, In Jerusalem or Argentina?”

I find that a strange, and forced line, but leaving that aside it asks, a very odd question that can’t really be answered.   And Dylan does the same in this song when he asks

Did I lose my mind when I tried to get rid
Of everything you see?

and once again I want to know what that means.  Is he now actually really saying (given that this is the first album after the really remorseless Christian albums, which gives us the occasional break from hard on “me and God we know the Way” stuff), “I lost my mind in all that conversion to Christianity stuff?”

And then in the lines

Did you respect me for what I did
Or for what I didn’t do, or for keeping it hid?

there’s a very strong implication that he is not talking about his conversion, because whatever else Dylan’s conversion to fundamental fire and brimstone, you are either for Him or against Him, you are going to burn in hell if you don’t believe, Christianity was, it most certainly was not hidden. Not once.  Never.  If anything was ever full in your face it was Dylan’s following of the Almighty.

For as I have said many times before, while Dylan wouldn’t once explain what some of his more obscure songs were about, with each and every religious song, the meaning of which was obvious, he was liable to stand on stage and tell us exactly what it was all about.

On the other hand

But you were closer to me than my next of kin
When they didn’t want to know or see

sounds very much as if we are talking about his conversion.   Or maybe they are talking about Dylan’s movement away from the church he had been attending.  Now that would be a twist…

But there again we have

Then came the warnin’ that was before the flood
That set everybody free

which sounds pretty much to me like a re-run of Genesis 6.5, Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

That is one of many bits of the Bible story that has always bemused me, given that Noah was only the 10th generation of the human race – that is to say, our kind had been around for just 300 or so years, and yet despite having been made good we were now pretty rotten.  To me as an atheist that sounds like the plan wasn’t working out too well, but still, I’m sure I’ve got that wrong somewhere.

Certainly the next section sounds very much like the Dylan of the last two albums

Fools they made a mock of sin
Our loyalty they tried to win
But you were closer to me than my next of kin
When they didn’t want to know or see

And then we have the last section which sounds very much like the herald of the second coming, noting that this woman has kept him on the path and he is, as he has been throughout this religious period, utterly convinced that he is saved, because he believes and is committed to God.

But all that sufferin’ was not to be compared
With the glory that is to be
And I’m still carrying the gift you gave
It’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved
It’ll be with me unto the grave
And then unto eternity

So the majority of the phrases come down on the side of Dylan the Christian, but there are one or two bits that don’t.

However I have long held onto the view that Dylan’s lyrics should not be taken literally at all points.  He is, more often than not, an impressionist, and when we see what appear to be literal portraits they may be that or they may just be part of the collage.

In the end the issue is unresolvable, unless Dylan tells us, which he won’t.

Musically there is also a link with Angelina, as both songs are based around three simple major chords.  It is as if Angelina (which is, of course, about Angelina and to a degree Christianity) was the dry run for this song.  If you have access to both songs I would certainly suggest you might try one after the other.

For some reason my review of Angelina doesn’t have a link to the performance of the song, so here is one

Then if you have a mind to you might care to read my ramblings on this song, before listening either to Dylan’s album version of In the Summertime, or if you fancy a live version, try this one

I know it sounds as if I am being really critical of this song, and I don’t mean to be.  I actually prefer the music from Angelina, and some of the lyrics, but the lyrics of In the Summertime do work beautifully.

Let’s forget the meaning and the religious issues, and just see what Dylan can do with words.

I was in your presence for an hour or so
Or was it a day? I truly don’t know
Where the sun never set, where the trees hung low
By that soft and shining sea
Did you respect me for what I did
Or for what I didn’t do, or for keeping it hid?
Did I lose my mind when I tried to get rid
Of everything you see?

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last in this project I am sure, I am overwhelmed with what pictures Dylan can paint.

Dylan performed the song live 26 times over the 19 year period from 1981 to 2002.  It clearly meant something to him, although he notably played it faster on stage than on the album.

Anyway, if you want to do something a bit different, and something that maybe not too many people have done (apart perhaps from the 400,000 or so reading this site) play Angelina and then play In the Summertime.   It really is rather interesting.

I don’t know what it all means, but as an exploration of how Dylan explores and writes, writes and explores, there probably isn’t a better lesson going.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there.



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