Is It Luck Or Is It God? Bob Dylan’s trials and tribulations of human existence


by Larry Fyffe

Dogmatic true believers notwithstanding, Bob Dyan keeps to his individualistic
visions of the trials and tribulations of human existence in a very mysterious Universe.

He finds the inspiration to try to be good in the teachings of Jesus Christ:

Jesus said ‘Be ready
For you know not the hour in which I come
He said, “He who is not for me is against me”
Just so you know where He’s coming from”
(Bob Dylan : Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking)

The biblical allusion is to:

He that is not with me is against me
And he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad
Wherefore I say unto you
All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be
forgiven unto men
But blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be
forgiven unto men
(Matthew 12: 30-31)

That is to say that there are those who say they follow the altruistic-centered teachings of Jesus, but their selfish behaviour proves otherwise, and there are those of questionable behavior who actually follow the ‘spirit’ of his teachings since they do no harm to the harmless:

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He travelled with a gun in every hand
All along the countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man
(Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding)

Thus spake poet Vachel Lindsay:

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost
To speak of bloody power as right divine
And call on God to guard each vile chief’s house
And for such chiefs, turn men to wolves and swine
(Vachel Lindsay: The Unpardonable Sin)

But woe to those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit:

How I made it back home, nobody knows
I’ve been through hell, what good did it do?
You bastard: I suppose to respect you?
(Bob Dylan: Pay In Blood)

In typical Dylanesque style, there’s enough room for more than one way to interpret these lyrics. The words can been taken to mean the song condemns religious leaders that use religion to advance their own personal agendas, be they political or monetary.

And even that there’s bewilderment, on the part of the the singer, as to why God and Jesus choose to forsake him; organized religion has let him down though he was willing to give it a chance, with its very inspirational gospel songs.

The answer that is blowing in the wind, in the false ‘Holy Spirit’ of Modern Times, howls out, “God doesn’t care”. The ‘blood’ that flows through the heart of the sanguine man, according to the ‘four humours’ theory of earlier times, makes the singer of the song a man of action, determined to follow what he believes is good, and he is not going to spill his own blood, his own spirituality, for the sake of the material objectives of others. He’s won’t allow himself to be nailed to a cross by unworthy leaders with corrupted faith. He’s not going to pay in his own blood. The drifter escapes.

Dylan’s lyrics are indeed double edged; enough that true believers can find what they want to find as long as they do not examine his words in the context of all that he has written; as long as they consider he has suddenly ceased to think like a Romantic individualist with the creative imagination of an artist.

Bob Dylan, as such an artist, is not afraid to express quite a bit of religious skepticism. For instance, that biblical writers ignore the roll of the dice, the role played in life by luck, good or bad:

When the Reaper’s task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best
(Bob Dylan: Tempest)

Thus spake poet Edna St. Vincent Malley:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned
(Edna Malley: Dirge Without Music)

Referencing the Roman God of the Sea, symbolic of the forces of disinterested Nature, in lyrics that express a view not unlike that held by Existentialist writers, Bob Dylan sings:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, ‘Which side are you on?’
And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
(Bob Dylan: Desolation Row )

A true artist thinks in metaphorical terms and takes into consideration different points of view. All things are not either black or white when looked at under the light of “Noah’s great rain bow”:

There’s a kingdom called Heaven
A place where there is no pain or birth
Well the Lord created it, mister
About the same time He created Earth
(Bob Dylan: I’m Going To Change My Way Of Thinking)

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



  1. Why look for a complicated explanation when there’s a simpler one?

    In Pay in Blood, the blood that is not my own is that of the crucified Christ.

    I don’t agree at all with your interpretations of Modern Times and Tempest.

  2. <DeGaulle<, I do not expect you to agree. What I said is that Dylan leaves room for differing interpertations in many, if not most, of his lyrics.

    "Shake the dust of your feet, don't look back
    Nothing can hold you down, nothing that you lack
    Temptation's not an easy thing, Adam given the devil's reign
    Because he sinned I got no choice, it run in my vein"
    (Bob Dylan: Pressin' On)

    The lyrics are left ambiguous enough by the writer thereof
    that it could be said that God left mankind condemned to do the devil's work when he cast Adam and Eve out of Eden; he has forsaken them. Mankind is simply pressing on and following God's plan.

    Or you could say instead that following Jesus' teachings can save you right here and now from doing Satan's work.

    Whether Dylan believes in the Jewish concept of the Messiah or the Christian one is not all that clear in many lyrics. The word 'Lord' can refer to God, to Jesus, or to both. I take it that who Lucifer(not Satan) is, the theologians he leaves to grapple with.

    As an artist, Dylan does not like to be told by leaders of religious organizations, and critics for that matter, what he believes. And he'll switch points of view when he gets annoyed at them for doing so. He's spiritual, but the only thing we know for sure about Bob Dyan is that his name isn't Bob Dylan.

  3. Of course, there’s the French version of (Tom) Thumb where the little guy steals a pair of magic boots from a blood-drinking Ogre, and Thumb saves his brothers by tricking the Ogre into chopping up his own daughters instead.
    Tom, that little devil, pays in blood, but it’s not his own. Could call the song ‘Just Like Tomb Thumb’s Blues, The Sequel’.

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