Every Grain of Sand: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

Every Grain of Sand” is one of the few songs that Dylan has described in terms of writing – he reports that it came to him in one go and that was it.  No editing, no tortured weeks of trying to make it work – it just was.

Almost every artist in every art form has events like this, as well as the the opposite – the works or parts of a work that simply will not come out right.  The artist knows in a holistic way how it should work, but the details just won’t come through.  We tend to know artists not by the fact that they exclusively create work without preliminaries (or vice versa) but whether they  tend towards one approach or the other.

If we think of Dylan we might think of Blind Willy McTell as a song that Dylan felt wasn’t ready, or indeed Caribbean Wind which might seem almost there, but not quite.

For this song, Dylan had an immediate influence and inspiration with William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour

I’m not sure where else Dylan is influenced by Blake directly, and of course I have no idea how direct the influence was… did he just remember the first line, or know the whole poem?

Indeed I’m a bit lost here, for I can’t recall any other overt reference to the work of Blake.  We have nothing in relation to “No bird soars too high” or “The road of excess” – and other famous Blake lines, although Dylan and Blake always seem to me a natural fit.   That last line (from Heaven and Hell) runs

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom

One might forward the case that a lot of Dylan’s life fits with that.

All we have from Dylan is a comment in an interview about being influenced by Keats which is thought by many commentators to be a deliberately off-putting line for a journalist.   Maybe… maybe…  I certainly can’t find much Keats in Dylan.  Tell me in the comments if you can.

Apart from the fact that the song came to Dylan quickly, we don’t how Dylan wrote this song; words first, music first, at the piano, on guitar…? But what I notice is that it is in E flat – which is a very unusual key for him.  And this I suspect is a major point – a point perhaps missed in other commentaries.  

Every songwriter gets into habits – just as we all have habits within our speech.  We tend to use certain words and certain phrases far more often that other phrases, and we’re each different in this regard.   In songwriting each writer has his/her own favourite turns of phrase, melodic moments, chord changes etc.  But there are two extra influences – the instrument the songwriter was using as the song was composed, and the key.

The key you write in affects two things – how the melody line that you can sing fits within the song (in that you might be able to sing one melody in C but not in G, because of the range), and how the guitar or keyboard feels playing the chords that you write.

But this second point works backwards too.  Most songwriters admit that songs come out differently for them, according to the key.

If I play in G major I’m immediately tempted into the G, Em, C, D routine.  In E flat major I start to rotate between E flat A flat and B flat, often holding the E flat note in the bass as an underlying point of reference.  And that is exactly what Dylan does here.  There are only three chords in the whole song – everything musically comes out of the melody, and that happened, I believe, because Dylan uses E flat so rarely and because he was writing at the piano.

It is, in short, a beautiful and unique melody set over the simplest of chord sequences, and I suspect this was achieved by playing in a key that Dylan rarely uses.  

But there is more, for the fact that it closes the Shot of Love album seems utterly appropriate; it is a statement of where one is.  That simple set of chords closes off the whole album but that change to a new key announces a new start.

So where is it spiritually?  Of course it can be read as a Christian text.  It has a confession, and Cain, knowing exactly what he has to do next…

But hang on… what Cain did was kill his brother.  So what is Dylan going to do?  Cain as a reference point to the future doesn’t seem too hopeful or too Christian to me.

To understand this we perhaps need to know what the “dying voice within me reaching out somewhere” is actually reaching out to.  OK, he is in despair and in despair some people turn to an all encompassing religion.  But looking back we might recall that Dylan became a Christian in 1978 or thereabouts, and Shot of Love was 1981.  After that we get Infidels, generally agreed to be a return to his pre-Christian vision of life.  It all seems to suggest, like the key of E flat, an ending of one era, but an opening of a door on the next.

Equally though we might start arguing that Every Grain of Sand is not a religious song at all, but a song of despair about religion.

But, the contrary argument could be made, what about

“In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand”

and my reply is that yes this could be The Master as God, except that God gave mankind free will to choose to worship Him or not, to choose one road or the other, and look what Cain did with that freedom.

If it is Christian imagery it is convoluted and obscure, in my view, and not what Blake was talking about at all.  But there is another way through this, to step aside from Christian imagery and see this as more a Taoist vision.  Here the Master is not God or Jesus, but a master in the sense of a teacher.  One who has mastered the arts of meditation.  A swami.  A Lao Tsu character – depending how you want to see him.

I would argue that in the second verse (and I take this song as having three verses not the six four liners as sometimes printed) there is little specifically Christian but there is everything to do with inward reflection and consideration.   Yes, temptation is a Christian concept, but it appears in all philosophies.  Where there is the notion of the free mind there is the choice of what to do – and temptation can always be there.  But that notion in itself does not have to lead on to saying that this is temptation placed by the Devil.  In the way Dylan writes, it could just be circumstance.

If I may, let me invite you to read that second verse…

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

Blake wrote “We are led to believe a lie” and I think this beautiful reflective song has this notion at its heart.  Just consider the lines.

Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man

To me these are not Christian questions, but questions from a man who is interested in a much deeper philosophy that asks questions relating to the very nature of man without having the God-given certainty of the answers.

Of course you may say, “Does it matter?” because it is an utterly beautiful song whichever way you read it, and that’s fair enough.  But if one does want to explore the meanings, I think there are many alternatives here.  Dylan is gazing into the doorway, not just of temptation, but of his own future.

Index to all the songs reviewed on this site.


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