If this song had been on Highway 61 Revisited it would be known world-wide as a Dylan masterpiece. As it is, coming so much later in his career it is seen by some as just another Dylan blues. There’s also been a lot of comment on the Biblical references throughout – but I would argue that neither the “another Dylan blues” nor the Biblical approach give us a full understanding of this song.
A blues yes, but not just another blues. After all how many blues do you know that are 15 bars long? You have to go back to the early days of the blues and to people like Robert Johnson to find such things. Today it is 16 or 12, but not 15. No way. And as for the Bible – there may Biblical references, but if we take them as pointing us in a certain direction, what does it all mean?
However as we get going on “Narrow Way” we must note that not everyone is convinced. The endless conundrums posed in the words are too much for some. The LA Times for example is reported as having said, it “rolls like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ with a flat tire.”
The music is the fast blue which sets the scene for a song about life and the difficulties of life – and indeed the inequalities of life. And it starts out just as a blues should. (The lyrics here are taken from various web sites and my own listening – BobDylan.com curiously has refused to put the lyrics up so their page on the song remains profoundly empty).
I’m gonna walk across the desert ’til I’m in my right mind.
I won’t even think about what I left behind
Nothing back there anyway that I can call my own
Go back home, leave me alone
It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way
If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday
So are we into Matthew 7:14 with “Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” The origin presumably of straight and narrow as a common phrase. But then Dylan likes phrases like this, such as “Everybody’s moving if they ain’t already there” (Mississippi). They don’t have, and don’t all have to have, Biblical connotations.
Verse two however takes us somewhere else…
Ever since the British burned the White House down
There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town
I saw you drinking from an empty cup
I saw you buried and I saw you dug up
This certainly isn’t the Bible but relates I presume to the War of Independence. And this is where we have to start thinking, “this may use religious imagery but that does not make it a religious song. Take verse one and two together and you have a man saying, “I am not straight with the world, but that is because since the War of Independence the country where I was brought up has not been right with itself – or the world. Old ideas are set aside (for example in the 1960s) and now they have been resurrected. (Either that or Dylan is suddenly talking about vampires, which seems extremely unlikely).
Yes the empty cup could be from the last supper, but that starts to stretch the connection with the British burning the White House down to breaking point.
Look down angel from the skies
Help my weary soul to rise
I kissed your cheek, I dragged your plough
You broke my heart, I was your friend ’til now.
And this is where the pattern begins – Dylan could be talking throughout about his country or about his girlfriend. But given later lines about men and women, the country theme fits best.
I won’t continue with reference to the Bible – other writers have done it far more comprehensively than I could – but I would continue my argument that the theme of Biblical references as a theme of Dylan stating that the Bible is not right; the Second Coming is going to destroy most of you, really has to stretch a point with many of the lyrics. To me it makes much more sense to say that Dylan knows his Bible as many people of his up bringing and well publicised conversion do, but that does not mean he is using the references to talk about either the Second Coming or elements of the Old Testament in general.
What we have to remember is that Dylan has chosen a bouncy lively 15 bar blues that pays tribute to the music of the black musicians of the first half of the 20th century to deliver this song. Thus although the lines
You went and lost your lovely head
For a drink of wine and a crust of bread
could have Last Supper connotations but they could also be a metaphor for the way in which the USA has utterly lost its way in both home policies and foreign policies (and we are talking here of a songwriter who has been given a medal by his President).
Thus when we bounce further along with
We looted and we plundered on distant shores
Why is my share not equal to yours?
it is hard to know what this is about other than American imperialism (and I write this as a UK citizen whose country has done more than its fair share of plundering on distant shores).
Your father left you, your mother too
Even death has washed it’s hands of you
then suggests that the founding fathers of the USA have been left far behind – so far behind that you now have nothing to hang on to. In which case
This is a hard country to stay alive in
Blades are everywhere, and they’re breaking my skin
I’m armed to the hilt and I’m struggling hard
You won’t get out of here unscarred.
speaks for itself.
If we are following the theme of America past and present however we then have to see the Cake Walk as the old slave dance – symbolising the fact that even the slave era had occasional lighter moments which continued into black culture. Dylan is thus looking at the fact that America is now a union of black and white, with its first black president now in office.
Cake walking baby, you could do no wrong
Put your arms around me where they belong
I wanna take you on a roller coaster ride
I don’t mind admitting that as the song draws to a conclusion so the meanings increase in obscurity. Maybe many of the lines mean nothing – they are there because they sound good – just as the 15 bar approach sounds good. Without Bob Dylan telling us we don’t know, but that is no reason for not trying to find out.