City of Gold: Bob Dylan goes gospel and is found by the Dixie Hummingbirds

by Tony Attwood

Although City of Gold hardly gets a mention anywhere in Dylan commentaries, and doesn’t even have its lyrics on the official Dylan site, Dylan still played it 19 times in concert in 1980/81, (it was an encore song at Birmingham in the UK in 1981), and of course it is part of the movie “Masked and Anonymous” by the Dixie Hummingbirds.   It wasn’t in the first edition of Lyrics, but turned up in a later edition.   I have no idea why.

Here are the original lyrics taken from the ever dependable Eyolf Østrem. (I’ve made the tiniest of changes from his original, but they are so tiny you won’t notice).

There is a city of gold
far from this rat-race with the bars that hold
far from the confusion, eats at your soul
There is a city of gold.

There is a country of light
Raised up in glory, angels wearing white
Never know sickness, never know night
There is a country of light.

There is a city of love
Way from this world, stuff dreams are made of
Fear of no darkness, stars high above
There is a city of love.

There is a city of hope
There ain't no doctor, don't need no dope
I'm ready and willing, throw down a rope
There is a city of hope.

There is a city of gold
Far from this rat race and these bars that hold
Rest for your spirit, peace for your soul
There is a city of gold

The movie version gives us some extra lines such as

There is a city of grace
You drink holy water in a sanctified's place
one's afraid to show their face
There is a city, a city of grace

The Dixie Hummingbirds chose to record it on their 2003 album Diamond Jubilation which is here and it is this recording that turns up on the album of the “Masked and Anonymous” soundtrack, replacing the actual final song from the movie itself.

Gospel music is, I must admit, outside of my circle of knowledge so for information on the Dixie Hummingbirds I am going to quote direct from Wikipedia…

“The Dixie Hummingbirds are an influential American gospel music group, spanning more than 80 years from the jubilee quartet style of the 1920s, through the “hard gospel” quartet style of gospel’s golden age in the 1940s and 1950s, to the eclectic pop-tinged songs of today. The Hummingbirds inspired a number of imitators, such as Jackie Wilson and James Brown, who adapted the shouting style and enthusiastic showmanship of hard gospel to secular themes to help create soul music in the 1960s.”

As for the song itself, it is very much in the gospel tradition, and the lyrics take from one of Dylan’s favourite books of the Bible (Revelations) the notion of the city of gold.  Here is the relevant section from Revelation 21:18-21 (New International Version).

The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.   The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.”

Then in verse 23 we have

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.

I won’t take you all the way through Revelations, but it is as clear as clear can be that Dylan had this final book of the Bible in his hand as he wrote this song.

It’s a fine piece of music but I am not too sure that the lyrics really are throughout worthy of Dylan – certainly not Dylan even on a poor day.  If we take for example

There is a city of hope
There ain't no doctor, don't need no dope
I'm ready and willing, throw down a rope
There is a city of hope.

I don’t really think this does justice to the music.  But of course that’s just me being difficult.

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3 Responses to City of Gold: Bob Dylan goes gospel and is found by the Dixie Hummingbirds

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Imagery that also appears in I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine:
    “And a coat of solid gold”…I put my finger against the glass”, contrasting the ideal in one’s head with that which one yearns with the pain of reality.
    Judaism’s earth-bound and Christianity’s heavenly view different somewhat, but the biblical imagery
    serves Dylan’s Romanic inclinations well.
    The resulting mixed-up confusion comes accordingly.
    .

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Examining the background of Dylan’s works removes some of the fog, does it not?
    It’s difficult to accept that he is “merely” a ‘song and dance man’.
    Anyway, the Nobel Committee doesn’t seem to think he is.

  3. Hello Tony, Yes another track from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/119/City-of-Gold Join us inside and listen to every version of every song.

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